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Build Your Own University
The dynamics of liberalism and the prospects of the University of Austin
Prominent academics recently announced the formation of a new institute of higher education: the University of Austin (UATX). The brainchild of Pano Kanelos, former President of St. John’s College, the collaborative project is a milestone in the modern history of academia: it signifies that the intellectual, political, and cultural climate on campus is finally so stifling, so biased, and so unhospitable to serious scholarly inquiry that very comfortable, very tenured professors are willing to abandon—at least nominally—the model of college education that has dominated American life for at least 50 years.
The University of Austin’s list of trustees, advisors, and faculty fellows reads like a red-carpet of American intellectual culture. There’s Glenn Loury (Professor of Economics at Brown University), Bari Weiss (former New York Times journalist), Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Hoover Fellow at Stanford University), Renowned blogger Andrew Sullivan, journalist and Catholic “integralist” Sohrab Ahmari, Jonathan Haidt (NYU professor and founder of Heterodox Academy), evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, and playwright David Mamet, among many more. But there are already signs of trouble. Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker and the Chancellor of the University of Chicago (Robert Zimmer) have already severed their association with the effort, which UATX attributed to “some missteps” in the rollout of the project.
As the author of an open letter (co-signed by over 190 scholars) that vowed non-compliance with the ideological excesses of American university administrators and students, I was happy to see these luminaries taking up the retort that leftist elites so often throw in the face of those concerned with the sociocultural consequences of groupthink: “Don’t like it? Build your own ___[insert something that is very hard to build here]__!”
UATX’s website pledges that their team is intent on “reclaiming a place in higher education for freedom of inquiry and civil discourse.” This is the most critical challenge facing higher education (and there are many). Nevertheless, the “re” in “reclaiming” gives us pause. It suggests a “return” to an older tradition of higher education in America. And while it is certainly true that there is, in fact, a worthy historical tradition of higher education in this country, it is an open question as to whether that tradition can be “reclaimed” in any meaningful way.
The Liberal Tradition of Academic Inquiry
Most dissident academics who concede the dysfunction of our universities today insist that the problem is that our schools have abandoned the commitment to a liberal tradition that lay at the core of America’s great system of higher education. Indeed, in a recent column for The American Conservative where UATX advisor and self-professed “post-liberal” Sohrab Ahmari justifies his involvement in the project, he concedes that “the institution stands confidently in the liberal tradition,” in the sense of classical liberalism, a philosophy that values free inquiry, free association, free persons, and equality under the law. These values are emphasized on the UATX website under the heading “Our Principles,” including the belief that the “unfettered pursuit of truth” is a “cornerstone of a free and flourishing society” and the school’s full “commit[ment]” to “freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscious, and civil discourse.” If the university can stay true to those ideas, this will be a major achievement in the current landscape of higher education. The problem is that I doubt UATX can stay true to them.
The last statement on the “Our Principles” page promises that UATX will be “fiercely independent – financially, intellectually, and politically.” Financial independence will be key: the oceans of federal money in the world of higher ed have done a great deal to corrupt the social function of universities. Intellectual independence is trickier. Presumably, faculty and students will maintain objectivity when it comes to scholarly inquiry, avoiding presuppositions and subjective biases, and maintaining an attitude of distanced neutrality in their approach to critical questions. These values (independence, neutrality, objectivity, etc.) extend from classical liberalism (and the doctrine of scientific rationalism that maintains a central role in liberal democratic governance). For this reason, I am skeptical of the university’s claim to political independence. Liberalism may value neutrality, independence, and objectivity. But liberalism itself does not embody those things: it is neither neutral, nor independent, nor objective. The very fact that classical liberalism has values at all demonstrates this truth.
In promising political independence, the architects of UATX commit a dangerous error that is all too common among western scholars: they assume that the liberal democratic worldview is apolitical, that it somehow exists above political concerns. They seem content that the presence of a liberal intellectual sensibility is proof of the absence of ideology (and therefore, bias, irrationality, and subjectivism). In fact, classical liberalism is itself an ideology.
Liberal Culture and Institutional Leftism: A History of the Modern University
John O’Sullivan – a British journalist, commentator, and speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher –gave us “O’Sullivan’s Law,” which states that “All organizations that are not [explicitly] right-wing will over time become left-wing.” The last two decades of American life have underscored the deep truth of O’Sullivan’s observation. For example, it remains a shock to many conservatives that after years of corporate-friendly regulatory and tax policies from the Republican party, Corporate America went woke so hard and so fast. Consider also Big Tech. Only a few years ago, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey paid lip service to the studied neutrality and openness to public deliberation that define the classical liberal tradition, saying that the platform constituted the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” Now, a year after Twitter banned the sitting President of the United States and completely erased news stories that may have been detrimental to political candidates on the left, Dorsey stepped down.
It must be understood, then, that liberalism’s ideal—institutional neutrality, independence, and competence—inevitably results in institutional leftism, because liberalism’s other values inevitably dilute and change the character of any institution over time. These other values include tolerance, pluralism, diversity, equality, and change. The story of the wokeification of American universities is the story of the incessant encroachment of liberal principles in higher education: the wokest campuses in the nation today were classically-liberal institutions in the not-so-distant past.
At the turn of the twentieth century, American colleges were sites of open inquiry where a diversity of ideas were in rational, civil competition with one another—the hallmark of a healthy democracy. But, as Allan Bloom observed in his seminal book The Closing of the American Mind, prior to World War II the American universities were aristocratic institutions. Paradoxically, a democratic society which sought to demolish the doctrine of aristocracy nevertheless relied on an intellectual institution that functioned aristocratically. These schools were mostly populated by the white sons of wealthy American families. While the pre-war universities were functional in terms of the role they played democratic governance, they were also defined by a culture of privilege and entitlement that has always run counter to America’s democratizing spirit.
As is always the case in a liberal democracy, the power of the demos eventually levelled the aristocratic university. After the end of the war and the passage of the GI Bill, the universities were flooded with the sorts of Americans who would have previously been excluded from higher education. The entry of veterans into the institutions diversified the perspectives, attitudes, and aptitudes on campus. Essentially, the campus was no longer an oasis for the children of the upper class.
In 1965, a federal student loan system removed any financial barrier that barred qualified lower and middle-class students who were not veterans from attending college. Many universities went “co-ed,” and young women flooded the campus. As the civil rights movement unfolded, schools aimed to admit more ethnic minorities. Of course, due to the inferior education that those groups had received when the schools were segregated, a significant chunk of these candidates were academically unprepared for collegiate study. Thus, policies of “affirmative action” were implemented to diversify the campus, eliminate race privilege, and ensure a more pluralistic intellectual climate. The university was getting more and more accessible. But not accessible enough: the student body consisted almost entirely of Americans who spoke English.
Reinvent – Don’t “Reclaim” – Higher Education
Wokeness—the radical left ideology that now reigns over American campuses—is the logical end of the liberalizing impulse that has been unfolding over the course of a century. At its core, it is an attitude that views any barrier, any disparity, and any advantage as evidence of a nefarious effort by a privileged elite to undermine the prospects of equity, inclusion, accessibility, and pluralism (liberal values all).
A count of the people listed on University of Austin’s website reveals that almost all of them were educated in the top-25 research universities in America—a milieu that can accurately be called a monoculture. Those without advanced academic degrees from top-tier schools have a long history of success within the echelons of elite institutions, whether in the field of journalism, finance, or public life generally. Put differently, the group involved in UATX looks decidedly aristocratic: it doesn’t seem to reflect the values of classical liberalism such as diversity, egalitarianism, pluralism, and accessibility.
Of course, this is not to say that this is not a diverse group of thinkers. They are. But will “diversity of thought” be enough to allow the school to resist the democratizing forces that slowly decayed the educational institutions to which UATX now seeks to provide an alternative? Will there be sufficient energy (among a group of academic liberals) to resist such a democratization?
UATX is attempting to “reclaim” the intellectual conditions that obtained in American universities in 1940, and then hit the pause button. But there is no pause button to hit. You can try to press “rewind” and return to the conditions of 1940, but then the clock starts ticking from there. At best, new universities founded on “classically liberal values” are beginning an 80-year process of degradation anew.
Sketching a New Model of Higher Ed: One Blueprint (Among Many Needed)
Reinventing college will require a vital culture of experimentation and cooperation among competing innovators who must develop a variety of new institutional models. Many of them will undoubtedly fail, but this process is a prerequisite for the emergence of a viable alternative structure for higher education.
History tells us that Aristotle’s school wasn’t initially an “institution” in any sense. It was a group of people who began to meet and study together at the Lyceum, a public place in Athens that philosophers often gathered. Aristotle didn’t own any property there. But as his reputation grew, the number of students in his orbit did as well. In the ancient world, a “school” like the one he created at the Lyceum would have been little like Harvard Yard: it probably would have functioned more like the ranks of martial arts dojo: a relatively small group of people, who through their participation in formal regimens of training create mentorships, friendships, and associations with groups outside the school. The “identity” or “brand” of such a school would first come into being through the reputation of its instructors and the vitality of their teaching, but over time it would be distinguished by the shared intellectual orientation and professional aptitude that the alumni would bring into the world beyond.
Facing a monumental task like building a school, it’s easy to be discouraged. But creating alternate models might be less difficult than it seems. Obviously, innovators won’t have access to the billion-dollar budgets of the public mega-colleges. The indistinguishable size and structure of one elite school from another is part of how the monoculture emerges: they are all competing with one another on every existing field of competition. Alternative models will need to be smaller and more focused, serving a local community.
Could a “school” look like this today? Certainly, the technological and equipment needs of modern education wouldn’t allow such an entity to meet in a public park a la Aristotle, but it’s not a large leap to imagine that a school of this kind could operate in the rented retail space of a strip mall.
What if tuition for higher ed was more like paying for a gym membership, with one flat rate monthly which entitles the subscriber to utilize the organization’s services and facilities as much or as little as they desire? What if $400 dollars per month could buy you access to an interdisciplinary study group and entrance into a social sphere where instructors led all the students at the school as they read and discussed the same books together, debated solutions to the same set of local problems together, ate together, listened to music together, did leg day together, etc.? What if a school consisted of 150 minds instead of 15,000?
What if a flat individual commitment of $5,000 per year compensated a small group of instructors from a narrower range of interrelated fields—where the school was trying to appeal to potential students with a circumscribed set of intellectual interests instead of trying to be everything to everyone? What if instead of trying to create the Renaissance Man with basic competence in all essential areas of study, independent institutions focused on instruction in a narrower range of fields aimed at producing a deeper competence, catering to students who all enter the school sharing some general idea of the type of professional work they will pursue?
What if instead of credit hours and courses, there was one course per semester? What if there was a daily schedule of sessions led by various faculty members which students could attend at their discretion (come to three sessions per week, or spend every day at the school, attending four sessions daily, with study time and open dialogue in between)? What if instead of segregating beginning students from more advanced ones in separate courses, everyone attended the same sessions? What if after 3 years such an institution awarded a student in good standing with a credential or certificate that highlighted the outcomes achieved over the complete course of study?
Obviously, for some time, new schools would operate at a financial loss. But the immediate goal is not to create an economically viable alternative to the modern university; the first goal is to create a structure that does the social, professional, and cultural work that we need for it to perform. When new models are found that effectively achieve these ends, a secondary goal would be finding financial stability – and perhaps, eventually, profitability. But patronage doesn’t seek personal profit. Rather, it aims at intangible enrichment of a community –especially those who do not command the monetary resources of the elite patrons. There are many potential patrons who see the advanced state of decay and corruption in the university system as it exists and sense its detrimental effects on American life. The question remains as to whether they care enough about it to lose money.
The announcement of UATX is a welcome change in the landscape of American academia. But ultimately, the big change that it seeks to implement is attitudinal rather than structural. As the nation’s universities threaten to collapse under the combined effects of their financial duress, administrative bloat, and political turmoil, this moment offers a unique opportunity for experimentation and innovation. In this sphere, “building back better” simply won’t do. We need to build back different.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.