Plans to create a University of Austin in Texas quickly became a lightning rod after its founders cast the move as a reaction to campuses that have turned toward illiberalism instead of freedom of inquiry and civil discourse.
Higher education experts will be watching to see if the university really can stand for "the fearless pursuit of truth," as its organizers say — or whether it is destined to become another battleground in the culture wars on campus. But they are also keenly interested in whether an entirely new institution conceived of as a private nonprofit organization not bound by legacy structures and costs can become sustainable in today's fiercely competitive higher ed environment.
"It's just really hard to do it," said Charles Clotfelter, the author of "Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity" and a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University. "Universities, most of them got created on the third day, and I imagine that was it."
The list of people involved in the University of Austin's founding includes its fair share of provocateurs, iconoclasts and controversial figures. But it also packs big names in academia and higher ed administration, including West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee and former Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Pano Kanelos, who stepped down in June as president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, is the University of Austin's founding president.
Many universities have no incentive to create an environment protecting intellectual dissent, Kanelos wrote in announcing the college's formation on a Substack newsletter run by former New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss, who is on the University of Austin's board of advisors. He argued that prestigious institutions serve as finishing schools for "the national and global elite" and other institutions attempt to avoid financial collapse in the face of a shrinking number of students who can pay for tuition.
"The warped incentives of higher education — prestige or survival — mean that an increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction," Kanelos wrote. "Universities now aim to attract and retain students through client-driven 'student experiences' — from trivial entertainment to emotional support to luxury amenities. In fact, many universities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need. Everything, that is, except intellectual grit."
A new model?
The University of Austin's website sketches out some details on how it is intended to be different from the picture of contemporary education its founders paint. Some details are very much pulled from the liberal arts playbook. Others appear to borrow from different areas, like workforce development's badging movement.
Classes will be almost entirely in person because the university's founders believe face-to-face communities are closely tied to effective education. It will not "arbitrarily factor in race, gender, class or any other form of identity" in admissions decisions.
It will seek accreditation so graduates can move on to postgraduate degrees at professional and medical schools. But college leaders do not plan to accept public funding.
"We're all, I think, going to be interested to see how this develops in three factors: the business model, the mission and the institutional culture that evolves."
President of the Council of Independent Colleges
A timeline for standing up operations starts with a summer program in 2022 called "Forbidden Courses." Then comes a graduate program in entrepreneurship and leadership that same year and, in 2023, additional graduate programming in politics and applied history, as well as in education and public service. In 2024, plans call for an undergraduate college.
In their first two years, undergraduates will follow a core liberal arts path. Then in their third and fourth years, they'll join academic centers, take competency-based courses and graduate with transcripts that describe skills they picked up during their studies.
The idea is to combine a liberal arts education with research centers "more akin to interdisciplinary think tanks than traditional 'departments,'" according to the website. Eventually, the university will add more graduate programs, Ph.D. programs and possibly a law school.
The site argues that starting a new university will allow its founders to reexamine legacy costs and practices affecting existing institutions.
"UATX is developing a new model that reverses higher ed's lopsided priorities of building up a bureaucracy at the cost of instruction," it says. "Our university operations put intellectual development and scholarly achievement at the center. Student aﬀairs, athletics, and extraneous services will be outsourced or streamlined whenever possible to keep costs down."
The goal is low tuition with a "significant proportion of students" funded by scholarships to make the institution accessible to as many people as possible.
"They say they want to keep tuition low. How do you do that without federal dollars?"
Professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania
Backers are aiming to raise $250 million to grow into a comprehensive university. The university has raised $10 million in two months, Kanelos told The Chronicle of Higher Education. He did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The university is seeking tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3). It's affiliated with Cicero Research, a nonprofit in which one of the university's advisers, venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, is a member. Cicero did not report any revenue, expenses or net assets in the year ending in 2020, according to its initial federal tax filing.
"By getting the values, incentives, and interdisciplinary structure right from the beginning, we can restore the classically liberal university and the enlightenment values that made our civilization what it is," Lonsdale wrote of the university's founding in the New York Post. "We can show off something so compelling that it inspires a revival of the values of free inquiry and pluralism, not just in one new university, but in hundreds of universities. And when we do, we can reclaim the civilizational achievements that come from the open competition of ideas."
Ideological and business questions remain
Kanelos told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the goal is not to create a conservative institution. But the University of Austin couldn't avoid politically framed reactions.
One writer for New York Magazine called it "a Bible college for libertarians." Media coverage often highlighted some of its advisers who left colleges amid scandals.
"I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken."
E. Gordon Gee
President of West Virginia University and member of the University of Austin board of advisors
Gee, the West Virginia University president on the University of Austin's board of advisors, issued a statement saying he is committed to the university he leads and stating his commitment to an inclusive education environment.
"Serving in an advisory capacity does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisors may share," Gee wrote. "I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken. I do not believe that to be the case at West Virginia University."
Other higher ed experts had questions about the University of Austin's business model and operating plans. Marjorie Hass is the president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a trade group for private nonprofit institutions. She was formerly president at Rhodes College in Tennessee and at Austin College in Texas.
Many CIC members stress face-to-face instruction and philanthropic funding to support students, she said. The newly planned university is somewhat traditional because it emphasizes those things, she said.
But how it will handle outsourcing services is an open question, Hass said. So too are how it will allocate dollars to create a new in-person institution, pay for faculty members and admit students without having access to federal financial aid.
"We're all, I think, going to be interested to see how this develops in three factors: the business model, the mission and the institutional culture that evolves," Hass said. "My hope for them is that they really use this opportunity to design things that are good solutions that can be scaled across and shared by other institutions."
Only a few regionally accredited institutions, like the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan or Grove City College in Pennsylvania, don't take federal financial aid.
"Who knows if they'll be able to pull that off," said Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. "The federal dollars are the mother's milk of all of this. I know they are raising a ton of money and they say they want to keep tuition low. How do you do that without federal dollars?"
Is it the right cause at the right time?
Some precedent exists for a university to be founded as a response to the politics of the day, Zimmerman said. The label could arguably apply to the New School for Social Research in New York City. It was founded in 1919 by a group of intellectuals "looking for a new, more relevant model of education, one in which faculty and students would be free to honestly and directly address the problems facing societies." They'd been censured at Columbia University after speaking out against the U.S. entering World War I.
More recently, new universities have been created for pedagogical reasons. Hampshire College in Massachusetts admitted its first students in 1970 after being founded to reevaluate educational practices and emphasize multidisciplinary learning, mentoring and student curiosity.
Reception to the University of Austin was not uniformly hostile. The university's formation appears to be in response to a real problem of constraint on academic freedom, Zimmerman said. Whether it proves to be the right mechanism to address that problem can only be determined with time.
"Frankly, the part about the core liberal arts curriculum to me was the most attractive part of the project, as an educator," Zimmerman said. "It's no secret that the liberal arts has starved at many universities, and STEM is the mantra of the day."
Only time will tell whether the university can assemble the financial heft to survive. Higher ed is a competitive market where long-established institutions enjoy advantages like name recognition, existing infrastructure and accreditation.
The Higher Learning Commission, an accreditor, has received an inquiry from the University of Austin about recognition, a spokesperson confirmed in an email. But depending on circumstances, it can take the accreditor anywhere from one to seven years to recognize an institution as accredited, said the spokesperson, Heather Berg.
Still, the university's initially planned programs and degrees appear to be ones that could generate cash or at least be self-sustaining, said Clotfelter, of Duke. And big donors are out there — if they can be convinced the cause is right.
"This is an economy that has resulted in accumulations of vast amounts of wealth at the top, and so there are lots of money bags that are sitting around," Clotfelter said.