Testing the Power of Free Inquiry

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A few weeks ago, Law & Liberty was gracious enough to publish an article of mine on the need for new, conservative universities. In that article, I explained why the two most common conservative strategies—the counterattack, which would install conservative enclaves at elite universities, and the business strategy, which would look to new technologies to disrupt the “credential monopoly”—are not working. I insisted that conservatives had to fund and found new universities that aligned with the liberal arts and humanities that once served as the backbone for elite education.

Recently, Pano Kanelos, Arthur Brooks, Bari Weiss, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others have decided to start a liberal arts university—the University of Austin. Their announcement came with great fanfare online. I knew a little about this venture ahead of time, but only after my article had been published. I had no details, however, and have examined the University of Austin’s website with great interest. Kanelos announced that the university was above all committed to “open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of [students] a brave, sometimes discomfiting, search for enduring truths.” What should one think?

To form an answer to this question, we must first establish what is really required for success in such a venture: skin in the game, faculty excellence, and prestige. These three criteria are not exhaustive, but they suffice for an initial examination of the University of Austin.

Skin in the Game

Have the leaders of this venture committed their own fates to it? Are they sending their children there? Otherwise, the same problem I previously identified with the business strategy returns—that these alternatives are for “everyone but us,” meaning elites are recommending an institution they do not wish to work for or have their children attend. Without elite buy-in, no institution can garner prestige through its alumni. It will instead appear to be a kind of swindle.

Kanelos left his position as president of St. John’s College Annapolis to lead this effort. That represents real skin in the game.

Early critics, though, have noted that the other Advisors listed on the front page remain at their current positions, suggesting that they are not truly invested. This critique misunderstands what Advisors are for. Advisors operate at the institutional level, managing affairs like hiring new presidents, preserving the university mission, and approving major initiatives. Most Advisors do not work directly for the institution.

We might nevertheless ask whether and to what extent these Advisors are taking on risk? I suspect that this is the real critique some are trying to make. Are they personally donating their own funds? As of now, they have appeared in a promotional video and done some social media for the venture. If the time comes and the university does not have the elite faculty they may want, will the Advisors then leave their current positions and fill in the gaps? It makes sense now that they have not, since the university has no plans for an undergraduate program until 2024, but two years is not much time to recruit a large faculty for the kind of elite university they have promised.

The ultimate test is whether their own children attend. The kind of elites on the Board will most likely have an inside track on having their children placed at Ivies, Stanford, Chicago, or Oxbridge. Will they forego those schools in favor of UATX? Moreover, will the university recruit other elite students away from these schools? If so, they will need to conduct a tremendous amount of fundraising to cover the full rides such students would command. That fundraising must operate off the elite status the university has not yet secured, and the fact that these Advisors will invest not only their own reputations but the education of their children will go a long way to show the long-term commitment to the institution.

Commitment to Faculty Excellence

Universities rely on excellent faculty to build an institution and form students. A dominant trend in higher education is the protection of unproductive administration from budget cuts by depending increasingly on low-cost, contingent faculty such as visiting professors, adjunct professors, and graduate students. None of these faculty members can contribute to institutional development because they have no control over the university’s direction or curriculum. They cannot form students because they often leave before the students graduate. Even if they stay long enough, they cannot help their students with graduate opportunities because their recommendations as visiting professors or adjuncts are next to worthless. They are worthless is because people in these positions are often disqualified from grants and struggle to publish, spending their time on job applications rather than research.

UATX very explicitly states that one way they will keep costs and tuition low is by reducing the amount of administration on campus. In the abstract, this commitment is both good and essential. Not only do administrators demand high salaries, they also have a curious way of multiplying their numbers. Recently, it was found that Yale has as many administrators as they do undergraduates, a truly astounding figure. Even so, some administration is also necessary. Faculty need a provost to manage them. Students need Student Affairs and a Registrar to handle discipline, retention, and amenities. Prospective students depend on the strong recruitment efforts of an admissions department. Given the urban campus, UATX will need campus security or police. A brick-and-mortar campus requires a Facilities team to conduct repair and maintenance, as well as an IT staff to fix computers, operate online course materials and internet access, and protect the network from attack. Because UATX plans on having science and engineering, they will need lab staff to assist with procuring the necessary materials and keeping these spaces clean and safe. These are not areas where faculty can serve (imagine the average professor trying to trim trees!). Hiring in these areas will be mandatory. Will the commitment to minimizing administration hold once the hiring process actually begins?

It is unclear whether UATX will be committed to full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty. Despite my looking carefully, I could not find any discussion of tenure. Conservatives are often very bearish on tenure—especially those of a libertarian, corporate bent. Yet, the truth remains that recruiting faculty will be very hard without promising them tenure, especially if they already have tenure where they currently teach. If the aim is to snatch excellent faculty away from elite institutions, tenure will be mandatory. The surest way to tank UATX will be to rely on contingent faculty or visiting professors. On this matter, the announcement is also silent, which is not reassuring. To ensure UATX’s commitment to open, honest debate requires a guarantee that faculty will not be subject to instant termination for positions they express, especially if those positions run contrary to the prevailing view of the Board. As Joshua Dunn and Jon Shields have shown, conservatives at more typical universities desperately conceal themselves on campus until they have secured tenure. Therefore, elite conservative faculty are going to be especially insistent on tenure protections. They have already seen what happens without them. This is almost certainly true of any more mainstream professors UATX might hire as well.

The first three “Founding Faculty Fellows” are Peter Boghossian, Kathleen Stock, and the aforementioned Hirsi Ali. Boghossian and Stock are philosophers, which is a good start for any faculty. There can be no university without philosophers, and a good measure of a traditional liberal arts university is the quality of that faculty. Because the University of Austin will emphasize a strong “tech” component, the commitment to philosophy at the outset is especially praiseworthy. Hirsi Ali is not a philosopher, but a political scientist and stateswoman of unique and varied experience.

The three of them share a similar frustration with the “social justice” turn of most mainstream American and British universities. Boghossian is famous for his “hoax” paper in which he submitted a jargon-riddled nonsense manuscript to an open-access journal, Cogent Social Sciences, which accepted it. Soon after, Portland State University, where Boghossian was then on faculty, opened up an investigation against him for falsifying data, a move widely understood as punishment for embarrassing scholars in the field he sought to expose. Even so, Boghossian was found guilty of misconduct and was denied the ability to conduct research that required working with human subjects.

Stock is an accomplished British academic and an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. A “gender-critical” feminist, Stock denies that persons can change their biological sex, a view which brought tremendous pressure on the University of Sussex to fire her, and Stock only just recently resigned from her position there. Hirsi Ali is a former Dutch politician who took a position at the American Enterprise Institute and later became affiliated with the Kennedy School at Harvard. Hirsi Ali has taken numerous unpopular positions on matters from state-funding for religious schools in the Netherlands to criticizing the Trump “Travel Ban” for being too narrow in the Islamic nations it targeted. Boghossian and Hirsi Ali are also known for their public atheism (which seems to run counter to some of the views present on the Board of Advisors).

One concern, then, is that these faculty seem to be significant not merely because of their backgrounds but also because of their sensational stories. These might attract interest, but there is no guarantee that it will attract serious liberal arts scholars who are willing to gamble their careers on an uncertain future or competitive students who would forego the well-traveled path through standard elite universities. It might be better for the remaining fellows to be more grounded in the day-to-day affairs of operating a university rather than simply filling out seats in a “parliament of the cancelled.”

Prestige

Universities cost money but depend on prestige. Without prestige, universities struggle to gain competitive applications and must cut down on tuition to appeal to more budget-minded students. After a certain amount of donations to build an endowment, however, universities can begin to treat students less as sources of tuition revenue and more as future sources for donations. Hence, these universities can select for decades of future earnings rather than eight semesters of federally subsidized checks. Long-term university sustainability depends on this transition from tuition to endowment. Moreover, the greater sum means investing more in opportunities for these students and drawing in more competitive faculty to teach them.

Universities exist to form students whose excellence garners their alma mater the kind of prestige that comes not only from money but from status. A good way to signal to potential faculty and students that the institution is prestigious is normally by pointing to alumni success and renown in their fields. These alumni do not always need to be rich. They can be war heroes, statesmen, or saints. All the same, most students attending elite universities want to know where graduates go. Do they work in finance? Tech? Management consultancies? Do they attend elite graduate or professional schools? Established universities can provide a record of these things.

A new university must appeal to something else, and that is why the Board of Advisors is so important. The Board has some prestigious scholars, accomplished journalists, and successful entrepreneurs. One might think that the Board should have only included highly accomplished scholars to maximize prestige, but the problem with prestige is that it is a currency of greatest value to elites. Not everyone who will consider the University of Austin for their education will travel in elite circles. They might take a greater interest in Bari Weiss because of her stance on free speech, despite her not being an incredibly accomplished scholar like her fellow board member Leon Kass. Finally, entrepreneurs are important for connecting universities to fundraising networks necessary to preserve the university’s finance solvency and giving prospective students some reassurance that they might have access to these networks when seeking employment.

The source of the prestige, in this case, is the commitment to open debate. Many competitive students simply give lip service to the progressive monocultures at most elite universities and would love to have the opportunity to attend an equally elite university where they do not fear that any errant comment might land them in an administrative struggle session or that they will be surreptitiously filmed and outed by their peers on social media for committing some unspoken taboo. The composition of the Board signals to these students that UATX is for them.

Finally, the decision to include Sohrab Ahmari among the Advisors is odd. Ahmari has publicly stated that he disagrees with the core mission of the university yet somehow still accepted a position on the Board. According to him, his dissent was the very reason he was encouraged to join. Such a message coming from a founding Board member seems imprudent, although perhaps consistent with the ethos of encouraging debate. That said, his public non-endorsement of the UATX mission seems akin to appointing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the board of the Heritage Foundation.

The University of Austin is in Austin for a reason. The city is becoming the new tech capital of the United States, and its current higher education institutions are lacking in key respects.

A Timeline for Degrees

Finally, there is the timeline for the University of Austin’s development. As the website explains, the university will not begin with an undergraduate curriculum, but summer courses designed to help stimulate the student market and develop a summer program alumni cohort who can then enter into other elite institutions. Their goal for their second year is to start a master’s program in “leadership” and “entrepreneurship,” to be followed a year later by additional master’s programs in politics and applied history, and education and public service.

These graduates will then create an alumni base that can support the planned undergraduate program. This is important because students will likely not have the option to use federal subsidies, as the University of Austin seems willing to forego the money—wisely—to avoid federal regulations that come with those dollars.

The one reservation is that these are not established fields of inquiry but rather amorphous subjects. One must hope that these schools will offer a demanding curriculum in liberal arts that aims at developing student character and encouraging them to become good leaders and entrepreneurs. That seems to be the idea, as the website says the Entrepreneurship program will teach

the classical principles of leadership and market foundations, and then embed them into a network of successful technologists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and public-policy reformers. Students will then actively apply their learning to the most urgent and seemingly intractable problems facing our society, both in the private and public sectors.

Is this an MBA program? Is it some other degree? If the former, then this is just one more MBA program among many. If the latter, then this might be worse. A new university cannot garner prestige by promising an untested degree program. Students are already taking a serious risk attending UATX; they are almost certainly going to balk at a “Masters in Entrepreneurship” unless the program ends with guaranteed placement in a promising firm.

As for funding, the University of Austin announced that they already have $250 million committed to starting the institution, which, from the research I have already conducted, is low for starting an undergraduate institution. However, for starting a summer program with the aim of future buy-in from prospective alumni and later graduates in professional fields, that amount is fine. More vital is the money-to-prestige conversion that comes with forming and placing these alumni. Being a University of Austin graduate might present a barrier to employment with more politically motivated firms—the denizens of woke capital will not hire these people. This is where the university’s Silicon Valley connections, such as that the university’s co-founder Joe Lonsdale will be vital.

The University of Austin is in Austin for a reason. The city is becoming the new tech capital of the United States, and its current higher education institutions are lacking in key respects. The University of Texas is a gargantuan institution that is very much a typical flagship public university with all the administrative bloat and progressive ideology that entails. Fortunately for the students, there are several exceptions throughout the faculty, but they are just that—exceptions. St. Edwards University is a beautiful, sleepy Catholic liberal arts college that has shed much of its Catholicism. Thus, the location offers a possible advantage. Against this competition, UATX graduates would be well-positioned to influence a city of growing importance.

Founding Intentions

My greatest concern is not that this university will fail, but that it will not be able to maintain its founding mission. A university committed to open discourse normally struggles to preserve that ethos over time, as ideological divisions emerge from within the faculty and administration—divisions that often prompt universities to adopt our cultural status quo. The University of Austin might consider requiring faculty and administration to sign statements of commitment to free speech, robust debate, and due process akin to the statements of faith many religious universities require of their employees.

My hope is that this is the first of many announcements of new institutions, signaling that conservatives, classical liberals, and independent-minded scholars are willing to put their money where their mouths are. I fully expect that the people leading the University of Austin will struggle at times in their efforts. If the institution opens as planned, the real test will be who teaches and who attends. Will people select the University of Austin over Harvard? Over Amherst? Over Virginia Tech? Over the local community college? We will have to wait and see.

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