I have opinions on this silly University of Austin/UATX nonsense, but I fear the nascent institution is about to become an ex-institution, because its official supporters are rushing to distance themselves from it all. So, before my words become totally obsolete, I put up a video stating my piece.
A year from now, this is going to be a curious artifact of yet another goofy right-wing reach for the straws, and people won’t even remember what UATX was.
Transcript below the fold.
Today I want to take a quick look at the so-called University of Austin, the new spawn of the Intellectual Dark Web and its ideological priesthood. There really isn’t much to see: in spite of its grandiose presumptions and its big donors, it really is nothing more than a guy parked in an office in Texas and a website. The IDW loves its loud pretensions, though, so that’s not going to stop its proponents from claiming they’ve done something bold and innovative.
They are prone to rather empty declarations. So, this university is “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.” Great. So is every university, although UATX is going to try to claim that they are the only one that really means it. They are also “done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves” — I am amused by the double meaning in that phrase — “and so are building anew”. This is a reflection of the common right wing complaint that they aren’t represented by the liberal faculty of our liberal universities, which is nonsense. I’ll make the case in a bit that universities are fundamentally conservative institutions — it’s just that conservatives in this country have advanced so far into crazy town that they can’t recognize conservative ideas any more.
Let’s look at the people behind this organization.
These are the trustees, it says. This is a typical university structure: universities are usually governed by a board of regents or trustees who are the legal agents of the university — they have obligations to oversee the fiscal health of the university, and are also the final authority for appointments. My appointment as a tenured professor, for instance, had to be approved by the university of Minnesota board, which is usually a formality — a board that makes arbitrary decisions against the wishes of the faculty is going to face a lot of political opposition. Consider, for instance, the uproar when the board of regents at UNC denied tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones. This is a group that should have a lot of power, constrained by the responsibilities of the position; they are also typically significant financial donors to the university. But look at this bunch — it’s a joke.
Kanelos is the current president. Ferguson is the most ironic member — he’s a conservative, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and also has a senior position at Harvard. If the legacy universities are so awful at righting themselves, isn’t he a glaring counter-example? Then we get a couple of nobodies: Weiss is an ex-journalist and promoter of right wing ideologies — I guess with her in charge we won’t have to worry about any Palestinian faculty getting tenure. Heying…I’ve got a whole video about Heying and her husband, Bret Weinstein. She’s a disgruntled ex-faculty member who runs a podcast popular among conservatives. Seeing her their gives me hope that maybe the state of Minnesota will appoint ME to the board of regents. I say that jokingly, because I have zero qualifications for the position.
And then there’s Joe Lonsdale. Silicon Valley tech bro, venture capitalist, billionaire, pal to Peter Thiel, dude with no academic qualifications other than an undergraduate degree in computer science, but he does have hundreds of millions of dollars, which means he’s the only one who counts here. Face it, the real purpose of UATX is to act as the propaganda arm for venture capitalists who want to protect their tax exemptions, and Lonsdale is making an investment here.
BOARD OF ADVISORS
Next, we have a board of advisors. This is empty noise. Basically, all this is is a collection of names who have signed on to the vague sentiments expressed by the university founders. It is the embodied equivalent to an internet poll — these are people who were asked, “Do you think a university dedicated to the principle of free speech is a good idea?”, and they made the huge effort to click “yes”. That’s it. They’ve made no other commitment. Pinker, for instance, when asked if he would be teaching any courses there, said “no”. None of these people will be making any signficant material or intellectual commitment to UATX — they are only there because they have reasonably well known names, to add an illusion of real backing. They are also ideologically “pure”, as far as UATX is concerned, a mob of conservative thinkers.
We know they’re mere placeholders though, because one of them has already broken ranks and said as much. Here’s Robert Zimmer, quitting his position already.
I was asked to serve in an advisory role to the University of Austin by its founding president, Dr. Pano Kanelos. This board had no fiduciary, oversight or management responsibilities. While the new organization’s commitment to a liberal arts education and free expression reflects topics that are very important to me, I resigned from the Advisory Board on November 11, noting that the new university made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views.
“no fiduciary, oversight or management responsibilities”…so what do they do, then? They’re the cheerleaders of the UATX team. That’s all.
They’ve also lost Gordon Gee, who has said, “I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken.”
Then they lost one of their biggest names, Steven Pinker, who writes:
by mutual & amicable agreement, I’m stepping off the board of Advisors of U of Austin #UATX, wishing them well. I’m concentrating on Rationality (the book) and Think With Pinker (the BBC radio & podcast series) & won’t be speaking on this further.
Yeah, he’s lying. Rembmer what Zimmer said: “no fiduciary, oversight or management responsibilities”. His endorsement was not costing him any time. It’s clear that he saw this as a drag on his reputation, and was deserting the ship as quickly as he could.
BUT HE SHALL NEVER SPEAK OF THIS AGAIN. I think he’s embarrassed to have ever been involved in this debacle.
Then, the people who really matter: the faculty. They have three faculty, sort of. We know nothing about their appointments. Are these full-time faculty? Do they have tenure? What kind of course load will they be expected to handle? What makes them especially qualified to design the curriculum of a new university? They seem to have been “hired” entirely because they are controversial. Both Boghossian and Stock recently resigned from appointments at other universities because they faced a storm of opposition for their radical and rather hateful positions. Ali…I don’t know. Has she ever taught anything? What research does she do?
I don’t know what kind of curriculum such a limited set of faculty could offer — courses in how we hate Islam, trans people, and social justice? It’s just such a bizarre assortment of rogue academics, I don’t understand how you can build a whole university on such a limited pool of “talent”.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
This is a joke. That’s not to say you can’t found a new university nowadays, you certainly can, especially if somebody hands you $250 million to do it. But everything here is completely backwards. For it to be the beginnings of a real university, rather than just a false front like PragerU, you have to start with a rather more pragmatic goal. Look at Harvard, for example: founded in 1636 by colonists in Massachusetts who wanted a place to teach and train their sons (it was only sons, of course) in scholarly skills that didn’t require sailing off to Europe. Or look to the state’s models. The federal Morrill Act of 1862 gave states massive amounts of land to be dedicated as an endowment for establishing a system of universities to train citizens in agriculture and engineering. They also set up normal schools for more broadly training teachers for public schools. Schools already favored free speech, so making “free speech” the moral foundation of your expensive new institution is silly and pointless. To compete with European universities? That’s understandable. To make knowledge available to the citizenry, to improve health and welfare and prosperity? Yeah, that’s a good one. To make a place where people can use the N-word or mock people who reject traditional masculinity? Nope, that’s just stupid and pointless, since you can do that at the local bar. It also doesn’t make the country better.
I also need to point out that one thing they get right is that an endowment is essential. A university does not and never can make a profit — it is a service that is more powerful the more widely it is available. What gives universities the ability to practice free speech is having some measure of financial independence, which was achieved by giving them land grants or financial endowments that could be invested and provide a reliable income free of political persuasion. One of the limitations of the current system is that we aren’t quite as independent as we need to be — state legislatures still control the purse strings. Which is one reason universities are at their heart conservative and cautious and careful to avoid antagonizing the Republicans in charge. You are not going to fix that by putting Silicon Valley venture capitalists in charge of your revenue.
One other aside: those land grants? Where did they come from? Essentially they were stolen from the native peoples of the continent, without consultation or payment. American universities are basically colonial institutions. Somehow I don’t think that will get into the UATX curriculum.
OK, one more aside: many of them are built on a racist foundation, as well. The 1862 Morrill act (Note: signed in the midst of the Civil War) created funding for state universities, but people noticed that these were universities for just white people, and that they discriminated against the black population. So the second Morrill act of 1890 told the states that you lose the funding if you discriminate, and you either open your doors to everyone, or you set up and fund separate institutions for black people. A lot of states chose the latter option, and that’s where the historically black colleges and universities, the HBCUs, come from, because the white colleges didn’t want to share classrooms with black people. Academic freedom says we ought to be teaching that, you know.
WHAT MAKES US DIFFERENT
Let’s get back on track with UATX. I want to see what makes UATX different, besides the superficiality and deplorable lack of substance.
Here’s where they lay it all out, and I’m sorry, it’s nothing but bureacratese and vague promises, which is exactly like what we get from the administration of every university.
“A commitment to freedom of inquiry.” Unless you’re looking at a bible college or something like Liberty University, they all say that, and we mean it, too. That’s why we have these diversity programs the IDW hates — you can’t have freedom of inquiry if everyone on campus is stamped from the same mold, takes the same things for granted, and never gets pushback from different ideas. UATX, when you look at their trustees and advisors, is dominated by well-off conservative white people, with only a few exceptions, and they all hold the same priors. Where’s the diversity of ideas?
I’m also amused by the claim of “intellectual humility” — is that why one of their first hires was Peter Boghossian? And “respect for the dignity of each individual” — is that the role of Kathleen Stock, notorious transphobe?
And that’s the most substantive commentary on this page! It’s all downhill from here.
What “New financial model”? They don’t give any specifics. They don’t have any income stream, other than “Rich people give us money”, and their expenses right now are to hold down an office in Joe Lonsdale’s company, and to buy up vast tracts of land to house their promise of a campus. I’d say that right now the entirety of their expenses are administrative. They’ve only got three faculty, who aren’t currently teaching anything, so I don’t see much in the way of resources being spent on academics. Also, every university talks about paring back administrative costs, so this is nothing new. Where is the difference? Maybe if they had something specific to say, which they don’t, we see something new.
Also, oh my god, “align institutional incentives with student outcomes”. That’s the kind of meaningless noise I read every day in memos from a conventional university administration.
UATX can top that, though. Look at their “Innovative Curriculum”, which says nothing about their curriculum, let alone explains what’s innovative about it. Instead, it just says they’ve got brilliant people designing it.
top men 9sec
Yeah, who? They sure aren’t on their faculty, or their list of advisors. There are people who focus on subjects like curriculum design and evaluation. They aren’t there.
I guess we need to look at their programs page.
“UATX is developing the first curricular model that synthesizes a rigorous liberal education with an education that prepares the next generation of leaders to renew the promise of American society.” Uh, what? A liberal education is the standard model for almost every college in the country, and we can also say we’re preparing the next generation of leaders. What’s new here? What’s first about any of this? Harvard could have said the same thing in the 17th century. The University of Minnesota says the same thing right now. There’s nothing distinctive here at all, and instead we just get the same fawning over “visionaries” who don’t exist. Or is this just sucking up to Moneybags Joe Lonsdale?
Then they launch into an absurd timeline. They’re going to have a graduate program next year. Who’s going to teach it? They’re going to have a complete undergraduate program by 2024. How? They’re going to have to hire mathematicians and literature professors and physicists and spanish language teachers and psychologists and philosophers — oh, yeah, they’ve got two of them — and biologists and political scientists and artists and chemists and oh jesus so so many people to meet the needs of a liberal arts program. And they have to put up classrooms! And laboratories! And stock them with supplies! All in just two years. This is going to involve an unprecedent rate of hiring new people, and will be absurdly expensive, and it all has to be done from scratch. I’ve been in the position of being a new hire, and it takes a year or two to get everything done when you’re just moving into an already completed building with essential facilities already completed.
This is not going to happen. It’s physically impossible. Furthermore, how are they going to recruit all those top-notch faculty when all you’ve got is a few acres of land, maybe, no reputation (or unsavory reputation), and a total lack of awareness of what it takes to set up and run, for instance, a biology lab? And no colleagues! This is a bottom-of-the-barrel employment opportunity for anyone, and the applicants will be only the desperate dregs of the academic talent pool.
Oh, right, but they already have one — count ’em, one — summer course they’ll offer: the Forbidden Courses, where the students will engage in “spirited discussion about the most provocative questions”. But what will they learn? Where’s the meat and potatoes here? This is nothing but Nazi-bait. They’re going to draw in the dregs of the student pool with this, and it will only appeal to the kind of students who want to talk about holocaust-denial, or flat earth, or Ayn Rand, who don’t want to be told that their preconceptions are wrong, and just want to be told how brave they are for asking questions. And who is going to teach it? It sounds like they’re going to bring in guest lecturers for a day at a time to babble. Maybe Joe Rogan or Dave Rubin will pop in. Ooh, Elon Musk has an ego, he’d probably love to pretend he’s a professor for an hour.
This is all transparent garbage. It doesn’t say much for the intelligence of all those advisors on the main page that they can’t see through it.
Let’s get down to the bottom line. Let’s ask a few questions.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
I’ve already addressed many of these, but here’s an interesting one.
“DOES THE UNIVERSITY HAVE ANY POLITICAL OR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATIONS?
No. The University will be fiercely independent in all matters.”
“Fiercely independent.” Cool. But the very next question…
“IS UATX PUBLIC OR PRIVATE? NON-PROFIT OR FOR-PROFIT?
We are fiscally sponsored by Cicero Research”
Fiercely independent, but totally fiscally dependent on Joe Lonsdale and Peter Thiel. Written with a total lack of understanding of the contradiction inherent in the statement.
Or how about this?
“ARE YOU ACCREDITED?”
Simple answer: NO.
“DO YOU OFFER DEGREES?”
“SO WHAT DO YOU OFFER?”
Good question. Answer: next to nothing. One vaguely worded summer course, possibly granting credits from an unaccredited university, and grand promises for the future which I doubt they can accomplish. That’s it.
The announcement is about a week old, and we’re already seeing the rats abandoning ship. I’ll make a further bold prediction: remember that line about being “in the process of securing $250 million”? I’m going to guess that was from those wealthy investment bankers dipping a toe in, bankers who are now seeing the whole trial balloon sink with humiliating ratios, with the UATX supporters distancing themselves with unseemly haste, and that that quarter billion dollars is even now in the process of slipping away. UATX is stillborn. It’s going to fade away. Pano Kanelos is probably having panic attacks right now while his rep, and his job, are thrown out on the trash heap.