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Opinion The University of Austin founders’ challenge: Creating a college from another time

Pano Kanelos in Annapolis, Md., in December 2018. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post) (The Washington Post)

Despite conservative complaints, it isn’t actually impossible to keep your university job while dissenting from progressive pieties. But it is getting more difficult by the year, even for people who aren’t necessarily conservative. A liberal academic recently told me that “until the conservatives were gone, I hadn’t realized how much they were serving as our human shields.”

The prevailing orthodoxy has become more and more narrow-minded, with 62 percent of undergraduates telling a Heterodox Academy survey that students are afraid to say what they believe. A study from the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology showed a third of conservative scholars reporting they’ve faced complaints or disciplinary action, and a sizable minority of academics freely declaring that of course they would discriminate against ideological opponents — with younger academics more likely to support firing controversial scholars.

That’s a crisis for the unorthodox, who would seem to have three choices: resign themselves to extinction, reform existing institutions from within or start their own damn university.

Despite heroic efforts from organizations such as Heterodox Academy and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, many reformers seem to be slowly giving up, having concluded that backlash from the left dooms their effort. Entirely new institutions may be the better option.

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This week, Pano Kanelos took to Substack to announce that he was leaving his post as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis to help found a new school, the University of Austin. The school’s board of advisers includes a number of famously dissident academics and writers, including Stanford’s Niall Ferguson, who wrote a separate column for Bloomberg View outlining the dangers to research of ideological policing, along with more prosaic problems such as grade inflation and administrative bloat.

But how many of the tenured luminaries will announce plans to give up their current positions and move to Austin? This points to some of the difficulties facing this enterprise.

Academia has a fairly rigid status hierarchy that has proved extremely hard to disrupt. Look at the list of top schools and you’ll find most were founded before 1900, and some of the most prestigious before 1800. That prestige is the key input into the two main outputs of colleges and universities: degrees and research.

The people behind the University of Austin are right to worry that a fringe has weaponized this prestige to attack dissent on important issues. This ersatz consensus leads to botched research and declining trust in academic expertise — most disastrously during the pandemic, when public health experts started making exceptions to previous guidance in an effort to favor historically disadvantaged groups.

But if dissent is so unwelcome within these departments, will it get a fairer hearing coming from Austin? “The University of Austin” could become the academic equivalent of “Fox News” for the left — an invitation to automatic dismissal, without any examination of the underlying facts.

But the university itself will also face a related problem. Most people go to college less to get an education than to get an educational credential. In a two-sided market, Austin will need to sell students to employers and graduate programs to be able to sell itself to students.

Upstart religious schools such as Liberty University or Patrick Henry College work for families that want kids funneled into a tight religious subculture. But Austin seems to be aiming for the mainstream, and mainstream kids are going to be strongly attracted to brand-name schools. Especially students who want an advanced degree, or a career in academia, where an undergraduate record that screams “conservative” can already be a handicap.

In the best possible future, the school overcomes these hurdles through the sheer power of independent thinking, attracting brilliant iconoclasts who go on to success as entrepreneurs or academics, and become walking advertisements for the benefits of liberal education. But in the worst one, the school attracts students and parents who are united less by a love of learning than their passionate hatred for “wokeness” — and then must cater to that market by becoming a funhouse-mirror-image of its worst opponents.

I hope that’s too pessimistic. Like the founders, I came out of a university system where free inquiry was valued — where you could say practically anything as long as you were willing to stand a little yelling. This seems to me a better place in many ways than the university of today.

But it also seems to me the product of a particular moment. Credentialism was not nearly as far advanced then, nor was the competition for those credentials so cutthroat. The sexual revolution and other drivers of social change had torn down the old orthodoxies but the Great Awokening had not yet provided a new one.

To those of us raised in such freedom, it seemed a natural inheritance. But while I am rooting for the people who are trying to salvage that legacy, I do wonder whether it wasn’t merely a lucky windfall, recklessly squandered and now irretrievably lost.

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