The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What is the University of Austin’s purpose?

Will it be a proper institution of higher learning or Troll State?

The University of Minnesota is a university in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. Definitely a real university, unlike the University of Austin at present. (iStock)

Three and a half years ago, Bari Weiss wrote a long-form essay about the intellectual “dark web” for the New York Times. Alas, some of the folks profiled in that piece have experienced unfortunate trajectories. When I read the story, however, what struck me was Weiss’s ambivalence about this group of intellectuals. There was this passage, for example:

I get the appeal of the I.D.W. I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.

I bring this up because Weiss’s latest endeavor appears to be an attempt to advance the wish she articulated in that essay.

On Weiss’s Substack, Pano Kanelos writes that he left his position as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis to helm the start-up institution of higher learning called the University of Austin, or UATX for short. (UTAX would have been super-awkward.) He has done so for very clear reasons: “Can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?”

While not accredited yet, UATX will seek accreditation and try to enroll its first master’s students next fall — and might I just say good luck to the nonexistent admissions staff that will have to gin up that process this late in the game!

The Wrap’s story about it makes comparisons to Trump University, which is both unkind and untrue. Beyond Weiss, the board of advisers has a healthy dollop of current and former university presidents, including Harvard’s Larry Summers, the University of Chicago’s Robert Zimmer, and West Virginia University’s E. Gordon Gee, among other folks.

In a statement to the WVU community, Gee made it clear that he does not necessarily agree with Kanelos — or anyone else on the advisory board for that matter: “Serving in an advisory capacity does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisers may share. I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken.”

Gee’s clarification hints at the first problem the University of Austin might face in trying to function as a real university. If its faculty even remotely resembles the board of advisers, the school would be assembling the most cantankerous, egotistical assortment of individuals since the Trump White House. Faculty governance is difficult in the best of times, and trying to herd that crew toward collective decision-making might require the very kind of illiberalism that they accuse other universities of embracing.

Another reason for the online scorn is that the university’s nascent website contains the kind of trolling that Weiss disdained three years ago. In its Frequently Asked Questions page, the first answer for why it is locating in Austin is, “If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us.” Ha ha, get it? Let’s just say this troll does not pass the test that the website assures us is its guiding rule: “Are we serving the pursuit of knowledge?”

At this point, UATX is more notional than real. Its grandiosity does invite a few questions, however. Why will the first program be a graduate degree in “entrepreneurship and leadership”? Are business degrees really the area where the forces of illiberalism within the ivory tower are at their strongest? Also, the FAQ page states that UATX has “secured the seed money necessary to launch the university.” Recently, funders are known to try to exercise influence over their university donations. Are there any strings attached to that funding? Was the Elon Musk joke a subtweet to get him to kick in some funds, too? Finally, how will you avoid the pitfalls that have befallen other universities founded on ideological grounds?

I wish UATX good luck — I like a world with more universities than fewer ones. I remain somewhat uncertain, however, whether this fledgling project will come anywhere close to its stated purpose.