Anyone heard about that new university starting up? Promising big things, saying that the current lot of universities are failing, associated with a lot of prominent names apparently selected on the basis of whether or not they were on the Epstein flight logs? All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. Whatever my issues with the New College of the Humanities, though, it is a currently a real place you can go and get a degree, so I'm not certain (as many people seem to be) that the University of Austin is wholly a case of Internet Doing Something. Maybe I wouldn't have started advertising until I had something more concrete in place, but you've got to get eyes on your institution if you want people to attend. You can’t get a degree yet but they’ll probably be able to find a way to offer one soon enough.
That said, I do understand people's skepticism about the project chiefly because I can read the list of the people "involved". They are almost all either actual high-profile academics—with real, lucrative professorships or positions in university administration—or they are opinion columnists. The former seem highly unlikely to interrupt their existing gravy trains for more than a few Skype appearances, and the latter have basically nothing to contribute because opinion columnists, have nothing useful to contribute, at all, ever, to anything. Many of those involved seem to be displaying what Andrew Rilstone refers to as Jeffcotism on their issues of choice: inferring from the fact that most people don't agree with them that there's a conspiracy against being able to say the things they would like to.
Obviously, I’m not instinctively inclined toward these folk. I tend to think they are at best annoying, and at worst actively harmful (Even if you disregard the rhetoric directed at various groups, one of the confounders has spent much of the last year podcasting trying to tell anyone who will listen that should take ivermectin instead of getting vaccinated). I also try not to take too seriously people who don't deserve it, because life is short, but they've convinced some Palantir guy to give them lots of money (probably not hard) and an actual university president to leave his job (probably harder), and there does seem to be some kind of an audience for their viewpoint. So what are they actually trying to do here?
The University was introduced in a post on Substack, and the arguments that the president of this new university, Pano Kanelos, presents fall into a couple of categories. There are some which I feel are trivially true:
- that prestigious universities are a finishing school for an international elite;
- that universities cost too much;
- that many universities spend too much on things that aren't necessary;
- that universities are lindy or whatever;
- that it's good for people to be able to learn in a place with other people, and not have to worry about money;
- that university should not just be about getting a job, it should be about "human flourishing" (but that also entails getting a meaningful job, so they should help you do that).
You might quibble with some of the details but in general I think these points are fair. Then, there are the claims that I feel are more open to question, or at least to some clarification.
- there aren't enough conservative academics;
- that some people in unis feel like they can't say what they think;
- that democracy/society will/is fail/ing because education is illiberal;
- that lots of big names are into this, we have many different political beliefs though, honest;
- that they're, like, all about truth and stuff. bring it on, haters.
Now, whether or not I agree with the guy, this is a somewhat coherent and admirably high-minded attempt to explain their mission: universities aren’t working right now: we want to build a new one where conservatives can speak their minds without fear of censure; where there is no impediment to truths and minds being spoken; which, if done right, will ultimately save Western society from the morass in which it finds itself. He also marshals in support of his argument some alarming factual points about the success of modern universities: apparently 40% of people who pursue a degree do not get one! Though the woolliness of that wording could perhaps stand to be dug into a little more, I think that sounds like a real, serious problem.
Meanwhile, here are the big names you've heard of sounding off about it. And another one. They seem to differ, slightly—the emphasis being less idealistic and more lib-trigger-tastic. I’m not saying that the "Saving Western Society" and the "Screw These Teens With Their Dyed Hair And Their Trigger Warnings" conceptions of the university can’t co-exist, but the levels at which they're operating do seem to sit slightly in tension, to my eyes. At very least, there is a certain bathos to the president making grand pronouncements about capital-t Truth and Freedom To Think while the big names are all giving it the old heave-ho about wokeism.
As ever, the real litmus test of their commitment to independence of thought is this: how many people who are actually economically left-wing are contributing to this endeavour? How many who support causes which can lead to institutional censure in academic contexts like Palestinian rights? How many, even, from any other less explicitly left-aligned tendencies which aren't just "trigger the libs"?
I often think back to something someone said to me once, to the effect of “actual free-thinkers would be really weird, and probably quite annoying, but in a different way to these people”. The thing that frustrates about the UATX supporters' club is the stance they affect of being fearless seekers-after-truth, brave Dr Joneses who will go into the cavern of Ideas and get the golden idol of Knowledge before the boulder of Cancellation rolls down and crushes their career. This should be more straightforward. I know that it probably sells better to talk the big game about Dangerous Ideas and whatever, I do. Just Being Sensible is probably not commercial sense for these people. For pity’s sake, though.
A sidebar here: NCH and UATX both think the current university system is compromised in some way, and they want to provide an alternative. Fair enough, lots of problems there, no doubt. However, reading the initial news stories, NCH claimed its mission as being to provide a better kind of university for the students (which did, as I recall, seem a bit tasteless amid a backdrop of massive cuts to HE funding elsewhere.). The majority of the noise from this new one is about attitudes held by faculty. Superstar faculty are very much like newspaper columnists—the thing that gets people's attention to get them to buy the more prosaic primary product—but aren't you supposed to at least pretend that the university is chiefly for the benefit of students?
From their perspective, too: what do IDW-aligned prospective students think they're going to learn here, beyond a stern lesson about the non-refundability of student loans? Is there some sort of secret additional level of controversial opinion they're going to unlock? None of the ideas presented will be, as they claim, "forbidden". I can tell you this for a fact right now. The contributors say all their opinions out loud already in their books and columns and Joe Rogan appearances and it's almost invariably boring-as-sin standard centre-right-to-right talking points, sprinkled with the same complaints folk have been making about Tumblr teens, or TikTok teens, or whatever we call them now, forever. Even when they do highlight excesses or issues with the left, their criticisms are largely insubstantial. I tend to think someone like Freddie DeBoer is a better kind of critic here, insamuch as he frequently tries to focus on practicality, a prism I similarly wish more people would apply to their criticism. From the other direction: if you wanted to pay Scott Alexander and the Less Wrong crew a lot of money to make Rationalist U, I'd be more on board for that than this. At least it would fall apart in an interesting way; they'd try to turn every dorm into a polycule or sort all the students into houses depending on what they think about Newcomb's paradox or something.
In the time between my drafting most of this, leaving it for long enough that it becomes absurdly non-topical and actually publishing, I've found something that, I believe, does something like what the president is looking to do, with a minimum of cost and bluster. The Catherine Project seems to provide some degree of structure around some Great Books stuff, for free, in small groups online. A lot of the organisers hail from St John's College, like the president of UATX. I would be interested in participating in one of these! It strikes me that if you really thought Western civilisation was under threat from people not sufficiently appreciating its virtues and great works, you’d get more bang for your buck putting a bit of money and promotion behind this kind of thing than just starting another university. I agree that universities have their issues, so rather than just doing basically the same thing, why not try and make something that's shaped a bit differently? Alas, I suspect there’s less money and kleos in it.
Based on the initial post, it's unclear exactly what 'involvement' entails here. Kathleen Stock, an academic from my neck of the woods, left her position at the University of Sussex recently and has taken up a position as a “Founding Faculty Fellow” at Austin. However, she will not be moving to Austin, or working full-time on this, something she seems to have in kind with the majority of the people on the list. It largely seems to be a list of folk who vibe with the idea. The one person who has definitely left his job to work full-time on this is Pano Kanelos, but he’s not really a big name, he just seems like a competent administrator who believes in the idea that the bigger names have been able to offload the actual hard work onto. It seems it was also unclear to some of those named in that initial post also. Robert Zimmer is particularly funny here as his chief reasons cited are differences of opinion regarding how good actual universities are—you think he might've nailed down that one before he signed up. ↩︎
As mentioned, several of them were also "involved" with NCH and as best I can tell, are not any longer and have not been for quite some time. ↩︎
Applying verbal pyrotechnics to the most standard arguments of one's political tendency/class shard is well and good, but for some reason all those who have at some point borne the imprimatur of legacy media institutions, whether they've now migrated to Substack or not, are universally tedious bores who one would struggle to compare to the most disappointing sparkler. ↩︎
thought? given that NCH seems to have been bought by an American university as a beachhead over her in the UK. ↩︎
I feel I should add: My position on opinion columnists very much extends to the left-wing ones. I have no particular beef with George Monbiot or Owen Jones but equally I have less than no desire to read them. I view Chapo principally as comedy. In some ways it's not even opinion, agree or disagree, that I dislike so much as the comical self-regard of the professional opinionator. ↩︎