The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The not-so-hidden purpose of the University of Austin

The conservative craving of sleepy capital

The University of Chicago quadrangle, seen empty in winter 2007. No people — just like the University of Austin! (iStock)

A signal virtue of the University of Austin’s “Founding Trustees” is that they are not a silent bunch. Since I wrote about UATX last week, two of the trustees have written explanatory op-eds: Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg News and Joe Lonsdale in the New York Post. Once you get past their long, occasionally accurate indictments of the ivory tower, they provide additional information about how this proposed university will work and why. The latter makes a lot more sense than the former.

Let’s start with the “how.” Both op-eds offer up some detail of how this university will operate. Ferguson mentions a strong core curriculum and “Oxbridge-style instruction, with small tutorials and college-wide lectures.” Lonsdale stresses the need for interdisciplinarity.

So far, so good. But then we get to the comedy gold — how the university will be governed. Here is Ferguson’s description:

The founders will form a corporation or board of trustees that will be sovereign. Not only will the corporation appoint the president of the college; it will also have a final say over all appointments or promotions. There will be one unusual obligation on faculty members, besides the standard ones to teach and carry out research: to conduct the admissions process by means of an examination that they will set and grade. Admission will be based primarily on performance on the exam. That will avoid the corrupt rackets run by so many elite admissions offices today.

If the University of Austin’s goal is to attract top-notch faculty, this is a recipe for disaster. The worst aspect of a professor’s job is grading, particularly large-scale grading. Ferguson proposes to add an order-of-magnitude-increase to that obligation.

The deeper problem, however, is a corporation with final sovereign say over any promotion or hiring decision. In theory, most universities have a board of trustees with similar nominal powers. In practice, trustees rarely if ever reverse faculty recommendations — and they usually look foolish when they do so.

Ferguson clearly wants a more powerful corporation — run by, among others, Ferguson — to exert independent authority. This raises the specific issue for any faculty member of trying to appease the likes of Lonsdale and Ferguson. Lonsdale has … let’s say “traditional” views of masculinity. Ferguson had to resign from a Stanford University governance position over email correspondence he had with conservative undergraduate students coordinating opposition research and intimidation tactics against more liberal student leaders. What a couple of characters!

In his op-ed, Lonsdale warns, “Independent thinkers are repelled by intolerant and rigid intellectual environments.” Agreed — which is why this new university ain’t going to be attracting any such thinkers. Given both Ferguson’s and Lonsdale’s ideological predilections, and given how their kindred spirits are behaving elsewhere, I do not see how anyone to the left of Larry Summers would get tenured by this board, regardless of their scholarship. If advisory board member Sohrab Ahmari is entrusted with similar power, then all bets are off.

Based on these internal contradictions, as well as history, the University of Austin will probably fail to attract quality faculty or students beyond a narrow ideological slice. Then again, that might not be its true purpose.

Both op-eds also stress the need for those with means to back the University of Austin’s play. Lonsdale writes, “Zero-sum thinkers and pessimists have captured too many of our institutions. It’s up to us — especially those of us with the resources to do so — to build new institutions that reflect the principles that we want to define the future. … With a healthy amount of courage, determination, and yes — money, it can be done.”

Ferguson laments, “The capitalist class appears strangely unaware of the anticapitalist uses to which its money is often put. A phenomenon I find deeply puzzling is the lack of due diligence associated with much academic philanthropy, despite numerous cases when the intentions of benefactors have deliberately been subverted.” Just an FYI for Ferguson: It is probably because most interventions of this kind flagrantly violate the academic freedom Ferguson claims to cherish so much.

Still, Ferguson’s and Lonsdale’s musings are of a piece with Ross Douthat’s observations this past week about UATX:

You can’t start a real competitor to our major universities on the cheap. At the same time, though, America is an extremely rich country, with many great new fortunes rising in the Internet era …
there are lots of potentially admirable and productive ways for internet tycoons to disburse their billions. But universities are the great power centers of science and industry and culture in our time, they’re generally agreed to be in serious need of reinvention and reform, and it’s a little peculiar that you don’t see the new superrich trying to put their stamp on the meritocracy — that we don’t yet have the Gates University or the Bezos Collegium.
Not every rich donor has the Muskian or Bezosian capacity to start a university single-handedly. But even just the opportunity to help shape a new one seems worth more than the chance to become a rounding error to the multibillion-dollar endowments of the Ivy League.

Here we get to the nub of the enterprise. No venture like this succeeds without large-scale investments by the plutocratic class. Everything that the University of Austin’s proponents are saying in print amounts to a public form of development. To combat what they view as “woke capital,” they must activate the not-so-woke capital as a counterweight — a campaign for sleepy capital, if you will. It seems increasingly clear that they are flummoxed that an army of plutocrats is not opening up their digital wallets to shower UATX with cash.

Asking rich people to part with their money is actually a difficult task that requires considerable finesse, but maybe this technique will succeed. As I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” the wealthy as a category hold different policy views than the middle class and might be sympathetic to this mission.

That said, “The Ideas Industry” also highlighted alternative explanations. Today’s philanthrocaptalists are keenly aware of the bottom line. It is possible that they do not see the value proposition in UATX, especially given the internal contradictions discussed above. Maybe they do not trust this cantankerous crew to administrate the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars. It could be that they prefer the low-cost option of maintaining their own intellectual salons to the gargantuan enterprise of starting up a university.

There is one last possibility: Most plutocrats look at the current state of American higher education and do not see the apocalypse that Ferguson and Lonsdale claim exists. Maybe, just maybe, they are exercising their own kind of independent thinking.