Project UATX: New Universities, Old Problems

Among the motivations behind establishing a university is a desire to leave old ones. Old in tooth, depraved, decayed, the assumption is that a new institution will return to original purposes on the pretext that these are truly radical. This, on the face of it, is the purpose of the University of Austin (UATX) – at least as originally advertised. “We’re done waiting for America’s universities to fix themselves,” came the words of a promotional video for the incipient body. “So we’re starting a new one.”

This is the sentiment of Pano Kanelos, who left his position as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis to, in his words, “build a university in Austin dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.” What riles Kanelos is the “gaping chasm between the promise and reality of higher education.” Harvard proclaims a dedication to veritas. Stanford students are told “Die Luft der Freiheit weht”: The wind of freedom blows. Nice to have such “soaring words” – but he is not convinced that the “pursuit of truth – once the central purpose of a university” is the “highest virtue.” Campus life is now characterised by “illiberalism.”

The picture painted of the American academy is one riven, culturally torn, and intellectually insecure. A quarter of American colleagues, Panelos states, favour removing colleagues for holding “a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences.”

The announcement would have caused less fuss were it not for the luminaries on the advisory board. There was former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who had received such shabby treatment from colleagues at the Gray Lady. Others included the voracious self-promoting Steven Pinker from Harvard and former president of that institution, Lawrence H. Summers.

Much of what is said by the founders should be seen as justifiably alarming. Whether it is “wokeness” or illiberal, authoritarian scrubbers going through curricula as being undesirable, the old principle stands: fundamentalism, whatever its shape, is the enemy of learning. Education, by its nature, should be a difficult matter of exploration, an opening of the mind which is bound to cause some discomfort. It should never be truth prejudged, those set of agreed-upon facts that turn out, on closer inspection, to be mere acceptable mistruths.

But this is but one aspect of an education system that has become, certainly in the United States, crushing in debt while claiming to be “client” oriented. As William Bunch writes with pertinence, “students who list their pronouns as their biggest concerns aren’t the same ones who crowd campus food pantries to get enough calories to study without hunger pangs, or who worry constantly about whether any diploma will be worth debts that sometimes pass $100,000.”

To hunger can be added issues of mental health, the absence of affordable childcare, reliable transportation, and adequate housing. A 2019 survey of some 167,000 college students by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia found that 17 percent of community college students experienced homelessness in the previous year. On such titanic struggles, UATX has little to say.

Apart from the struggles facing students, academic staff continue to face a disturbing trend towards dour anti-intellectual managerialism, which must surely count as grave a threat as any. Universities are becoming notable for their careerist administrators who sport incomprehensible titles of stunning vacuity. These reptiles serve little purpose other than creating their own industry of work, a nightmarish, fictional world of endless committees, needless meetings, and cretinous babble about teaching and research without ever engaging either. True careerists, they engage in institution hopping with happy promiscuity, taking up positions of such bland horror as “Manager for enabling talent” or “Office for External Engagement.”

As this happens, University Councils are becoming increasingly tyrannical and unaccountable. (This problem is particularly acute in Australia.) Accessing accounts of university expenditure is a pursuit of Sisyphean dimensions; seeking explanations for some of the more daft, self-interested decisions regarding the next “Five Year Plan” are nigh impossible. There is job insecurity, mass casualisation of the workforce, bullying, and institutional trauma. These are not points remarked upon by the UATX board.

Reduced then, to a project of some indulgence, it did not take long for the usual problems of vanity, conceit, and spinelessness to manifest themselves, as they often do when it comes to pledges made by academics. A statement from UATX released on November 15 revealed that some wobbliness had turned up in the ranks. “The University of Austin is just one week old and has thus far succeeded in generating huge public interest. Yet, as is often the case with fast-moving start-ups, there were some missteps.”

The misstep in question seemed to be more of a bruising trip, and shows that academics, for all their high-minded aspirations to independent thinking, find themselves packaged as obedient sheep rather than independent wolves. And when it comes to commitment, it’s best not to be too committed to a cause lest it tarnish your reputation.

According to the statement, “unnecessary complications for several members of the advisory board” had emerged. This was largely because the website of the organisation had “initially failed to make clear the distinction between the Founding Trustees and the Advisory Board.” While this “conflation” was corrected, confusion had arisen between those who were generally aligned with the enterprise as opposed to being in full agreement with the actions of the founding trustees. “The advisory board was never intended to be a corporate body that endorsed everything that UATX did or said.”

This did not convince either the Chancellor of the University of Chicago Robert Zimmer or Steven Pinker of Harvard University, both of whom decided to step down from the advisory board. Much back-arching took place in praising both men: Zimmer with his “Chicago principles” and his “central” importance to UATX; Pinker, for his usefulness in giving advice on “the place of science and critical thinking in higher education.”

Zimmer conceded that the board in question “had no fiduciary, oversight or management responsibilities.” But the organisation, despite having a commitment to “a liberal arts education and free expression” that were dear to him, had “made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views.”

In the time-honoured traditions of cowardice and vagueness, he never mentions which views grated. Zimmer also makes a point of letting his employers know that he was hardly going to do a runner, ingratiatingly stating that his “focus and commitment have been, and will continue to be, to the University of Chicago.” UATX proved to be some little bit of academic skirt, a brief autumn romance.

The unpalatable Pinker, with little shame, was another who felt he could no longer be involved. “By mutual & amicable agreement,” he tweeted mid-November, “I’m stepping off the Board of Advisors of U of Austin.” He wished them well, but preferred “concentrating on Rationality (the book) and Think with Pinker (the BBC radio & podcast series).” Even when leaving a ship that has barely sailed, Pinker could manage a nice spot of self-promotion. That’s loyalty for you.