Bari Weiss and a cohort of distressed conservatives have launched the unaccredited University of Austin to fix a “broken” US higher education system they believe is under assault from “liberal” intolerance.
Former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss announced on Monday that she is helping launch “a new university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth”.
The University of Austin (or UATX) has been formed to fix America’s “broken” higher education system, and will be a refuge for those spurned from “illiberal” college campuses.
We got sick of complaining about how broken higher education is. So we decided to do something about it.— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) November 8, 2021
Announcing a new university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth: @uaustinorg:https://t.co/ZqRLXcF2n0
“Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences,” lamented Pano Kanelos, former St. John’s College president and now head of UATX, in an essay posted on Weiss’ Substack.
“Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they have been threatened with disciplinary action for their views,” Kanelos wrote. Universities, he argued, are designed to defend truth, but he and his “free thinking” cohorts like Weiss do not believe that’s taking place on US campuses.
An ambiguous mission statement claims the institution will be “fiercely independent” and committed to the principles of freedom of enquiry and civil discourse.
However, it lacks the basic requirement for an educational institution – accreditation. At least, for now.
So, what about the programs on offer?
Bordering on self-parody, it will inaugurate a “Forbidden Courses” program (depicted symbolically with a disembodied arm picking at a ripened orange) next summer that aims to offer students a “spirited discussion about the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.”
An Entrepreneurship and Leadership MA program is planned to follow in Fall 2022, with graduate programs in Politics and Applied History and in Education and Public Service slated for 2023. It plans to unveil its four-year undergraduate degree in Fall of 2024.
The university so far boasts a high-profile founding board of conservative heavyweights and lapsed liberals like Andrew Sullivan, Niall Ferguson, Larry Summers, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker – almost all of whom presently hold prominent positions at prestigious US universities.
Others include the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, who frequents the right-wing circuit as a controversial critic of Islam, notoriously calling it “a nihilistic cult of death”. She also checks the box for ire against “wokeism,” which she declared is “the ideology that threatens us today, and has the potential to ruin our societies,” in a speech at the National Conservatism Conference this year.
Another board member is Joe Lonsdale, co-founder of the controversial data-mining company Palantir who stands accused of sexual assault, and whose nonprofit Cicero Research is “fiscally sponsoring” the private university as it awaits tax-exempt status from the IRS.
The announcement of UATX’s unveiling saw criticism and ridicule follow in short order online.
The level of grift here...a plan to raise 250 million for a school that has no accreditation, no degree programs & no instructors... https://t.co/ozEUxdyKgM— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) November 8, 2021
Finally, you can get a degree that almost matches University of Phoenix quality, but without the fear of having to encounter a trans person or a Palestinian on campus— District Sentinel (@TheDCSentinel) November 8, 2021
The funniest thing about this will be watching it crash and burn because it’s run by dilettantes.— Grace Blakeley (@graceblakeley) November 8, 2021
I can already see the headlines about student complaints, staff arguments and funding shortages.
GB news meets Fyre festival. https://t.co/2ayWlcoNyH
Comparisons were quickly drawn to Trump University – a real estate seminar program run by Donald Trump that ultimately ended in three lawsuits, one which was settled for $25 million.
In case you have any money left over after being fleeced by Trump University, Bari Weiss would like to introduce you to the University of Austin, which is totally not a scam.— Really American 🇺🇸 (@ReallyAmerican1) November 8, 2021
*it is a scam*https://t.co/GjTzFqnjqC
The University of Austin is my safety school just in case my application to Trump University gets rejected.— Scott Challeen 🇺🇸 (@ScottChalleen) November 8, 2021
Has ‘cancel culture’ become a marketing grift?
A self-described centrist and pro-Israel apologist known for her diatribes against the in-vogue catchalls of “cancel culture” and “wokeism”, Weiss (in)famously “auto-cancelled” herself as a victim of a “new McCarthyism” in a 1,500-word resignation letter to The Times – the same editorial page that employs several conservative voices from Bret Stephens, David Brooks to Ross Douthat.
"Far from displaying a commitment to free inquiry or open-mindedness, much of Weiss’s work displays a knack for taking thin, anecdotal evidence and framing it in grandiose culture-war terms,” Alex Shephard argued in The New Republic.
One way of scoring culture war points is through launching a romantic village of the oppressed that looks like it’s a scrappy challenge to the orthodoxy. The point is to trigger a new phase in the argument rather than actually do something in that village. In short - it’s bait. https://t.co/ew9qbjQVEj— Nesrine Malik (@NesrineMalik) November 8, 2021
For some, being “cancelled” has even become a mark of prestige and pathway towards a lucrative career; a marketing tactic to enrich those who are already wealthy with large platforms by posing as free speech martyrs and resisting censorship from the “woke brigade”.
Therein lies the rub: cancel culture (at least the version of it being framed to the public) is almost always invoked by the influential and powerful to absolve themselves of accountability and consequences for their words, ideas, or actions.
This “virtue-signaling” and “politically correct” (and mostly online) mob is often analysed through the eyes of an anxious elite. The broadening of the public sphere has meant that if you’re a public figure or commentator, who has a platform or an audience, you no longer have that platform to yourself.
As Clay Shirky wrote in the aptly titled Here Comes Everybody, “the more ideas there are in circulation, the more ideas there are for any individual to disagree with. More media always means more arguing.”
More than ever before, wading into the public sphere and making an argument on topics that affect people’s lives or cuts against the discursive grain, takes courage and an even thicker skin. Expressive pushback is to be expected. The possibility of causing offense is the price of admission to be able to broadcast one’s own opinion onto a stage of millions.
Freedom of speech, then, does not mean freedom from consequences; it is not an abstract principle that can be immunised from social reality.
Ironically with the founding of UATX, those free speech warriors who rail against the supposed hijacking of higher education by (il)liberal activists, have ended up creating a “Bible college for libertarians,” Sarah Jones writes in New York Magazine.
“Those disturbed by progress will find shelter on campus. Pledging freedom from wokeness, the University of Austin actually seeks freedom from free exchange.”