Acton Institute Powerblog

The University of Austin is scaring all the right people

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Whether the new university “dedicated to the unfettered pursuit of truth” will succeed is anyone’s guess. The real issue is why so many are trashing it before it even starts. […]

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Conservatives tend to be skeptical of the uses of the word diversity, but they love variety. They believe that American higher education is better when you have a rich choice among schools—uniformity being a feature of progressive ideologies—that each has a particular mission and identity. Such variety serves the interests of students and parents who seek to be educated within a tradition. The current success enjoyed by schools such as Hillsdale testifies to the desire of parents and students to escape the ideological indoctrination characteristic of so many schools. No parents want to drop $200,000 to have their children turned against them.

In his recent book A Time to Build, Yuval Levin diagnoses the many pathologies of our institutions, but also suggests that this is the time to either renew them or to build new ones. Of course, any effort to build a new institution will be resisted by regnant ones. This resistance is compounded by barriers to market entry as well as prohibitive start-up costs. It’s one thing to start a cocktail bar and another entirely to start a new utility. While large industries such as banks might be fiercely competitive with each other, they will collude to resist new financial management systems.

All this is at play with the recent announcement of the founding of the University of Austin in Texas (UATX). Let’s begin with an obvious truth: All institutions have to begin sometime. There’s no compelling reason why you can’t have new ones, and as Clayton Christensen argued some years ago, higher education is not immune from creative disruption. What’s interesting about UATX  is that it is neither innovative nor novel—it emphasizes a traditional education—nor is it threatening the model of higher education itself. Rather, the University of Austin predicates that the model is sound while its practitioners are the problem.

A list of the problems plaguing higher education would have to include a sticker price that makes it increasingly unaffordable to middle class families, disjointed and incoherent curricula, overweening ideological pressures, the existence of The Other University on campuses that threatens academic integrity, administrative bloat, and so on. The financial model has divided schools into haves and have-nots, and the instructional model has become drearily uniform and dull. The context thus creates opportunity for innovation, even if the innovation is a combination of a few new ideas and more very old ones.

I have no stake in UATX per se. Those involved in its creation are free to do as they like, this being America, where opportunity, risk, and creative ideas often produce interesting things. What intrigues me is the backlash to the idea, those who have been deeply and angrily critical of the venture even though they, apparently, have nothing at stake. Live and let live, otherwise a moral imperative of theirs, seems not to apply.

Why the vociferous response? It has to do primarily with three aspects of American higher education, and my guess is that the commentators often have a stake in all three. The first deals with what has become the central purpose of higher education: the conferring of status and the concomitant influence it brings. Status is one of the most psychologically powerful motivators for human beings, and it results from institutional prestige and networks. It is, as Rousseau argued, the result of our tendency to compare ourselves with one another and thus see ourselves as competitors. The status comparisons of educational institutions are pervasive and pernicious. Any new competitor is a threat to current status holders.

With status comes the ability to influence. The vast majority of Americans don’t care if Bari Weiss and her friends start a new school, but the people who write blogs, run colleges, and work in mainstream media seem particularly threatened. Whether the sense of threat comes from the waning influence that accompanies increased competition (many critical articles also go after Substack) or from fear of having their own undergraduate educations exposed as fraudulent, much of the intelligentsia has been particularly hard on the initiative.

The final and related factor is the ideological homogeneity and accompanying illiberalism on campuses, which at least some of the commentators have tried to deny. Any effort to break apart this monopoly on institutional control (by which I mean control of the governing apparatus, with its endless training sessions as well as the curriculum) is actively resisted, as is any effort to draw attention to it. The very existence of UATX, therefore, poses an existential threat simply by alerting the public to issues of institutional control. One can hardly be surprised that the president of Wesleyan University appeared in the pages of The New York Times to denounce the effort as attacking fictional problems by treating faculty and students, none of whom, he claims, are woke, as scapegoats for their own failures.

The critics of UATX thus understand what’s at stake and why they can’t just shrug their shoulders in response. It’s not simply that a new school is being attempted; it’s that it’s being done publicly and by persons with large platforms, and in some cases by people within the establishment (including and especially the noxious carpetbagging Gordon Gee, that living embodiment of perverse self-promotion). By drawing attention to the corruption of our legacy institutions, startups such as UATX and Substack demand institutional responses that range from appropriation to calumny. The New York Times, for example, responded to John McWhorter’s highly popular Substack newsletter by hiring him and giving him a column. The response to UATX has been character assassination.

Many of the responses are thinly disguised ad hominems, attacking the ability of “our most ludicrously self-regarding and mawkishly preening intellectuals to perform otherwise anatomically impossible acts.” The most vicious example of this argument was made by Katelyn Burns on the MSNBC website. Like many commentators, she accused the founders of being high-stakes grifters who were merely seeking a soft-landing place for “disgraced academics.” Taking the argument one step further, she suggested that “the only value the school will deliver to students is an ability to indulge in the guilty pleasures of racism and transphobia.” The charge that those involved with UATX form a “clown car of intellectual dark web dweebs” who are disguising their racism has been frequently repeated.

Not to be outdone, Sarah Jones at New York Magazine accused the founders not only of grift but of creating “a Bible college for libertarians.” The real threat to academic life, she argues, comes not from our mainstream institutions but from the off-stream ones, the conservative campuses that are dogmatic and suppress free expression. She identifies the effort made by UATX with Falwell’s creation of Liberty University, arguing that wokeness serves as the same bogeyman for the Austin people that desegregation did for Falwell. And let’s tip our hat to Adam Laats over at Slate, who suggests that behind such conservative efforts one finds the shadowy and hooded members of the KKK. Nor should we be surprised that the disruptive presence of UATX reminds establishment figures of the other great threat to their rule: Donald Trump.

Critics have rightly pointed out, however, that a venture as ambitious as this can’t proceed unless sufficiently capitalized. While concern has also been expressed about the main funders, the critics show a lack of imagination about how schools can be financed. Some money is necessary, but schools can operate much more inexpensively than they currently do. Eliminate programs not essential to the educational mission. Don’t overpay administrators. While I’m skeptical of the school’s plan to outsource student and maintenance services, it is a potentially effective economic model, particularly if students do a lot of the maintenance and service jobs. Keep the amenities minimal. In the extreme this may mean not playing the accreditation game, the value of which resides mainly in mutual recognition and not in its efficacy. If UATX can dim the mystique of accreditation and bring into question agency collusion with government, it will have already served a useful purpose.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get traction within legacy institutions. Good work needs to be done outside or alongside them. Still, not much progress get made by simply being oppositional. Prudential disagreement, criticism, and alternatives are required, and UATX may or may not be an example of such. While I think there is much to be said for inter-institutional pluralism as an alternative to intra-institutional pluralism, an alternative that creates genuine choices, it also deepens the problems infecting our legacy institutions. Perhaps the time has come to abandon them, but in the meantime, drawing attention to their pathologies is required. If they don’t take their medicine gratefully, they may find their own survival, which they ought not take for granted, increasingly tenuous.

Jeffrey Polet

Jeffrey Polet is professor of political science at Hope College and a senior fellow with the Russell Kirk Center.