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There is a large yellow brick house with red borders in the West Campus neighborhood of Austin, a short walk from the University of Texas flagship campus. Inside is the headquarters of a new liberal arts college launched to counter what its founders believe is a growing culture of censorship on college campuses.
“We’re done waiting for American universities to fix themselves,” University of Austin promotional video said. posted on twitter Monday morning. âSo we’re starting a new one. “
The ad gained national attention in part for its board of directors – a who’s who of higher education critics and iconoclasts such as former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, the Harvard scholar Steven Pinker, former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers and playwright David Mamet.
But also because the university has decided to open in the capital of Texas.
“If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us,” the new university’s website read, referring to the CEO of Tesla and the podcast host, respectively, both moved from California to Austin in mid-2020.
The mission of the University of Austin is to create a “fiercely independent” school that offers an alternative to what the founders saw as a rise of “illiberalism” on college campuses and a decreasing dedication by universities to protecting the freedom of speech and civil speech.
âMost people, most institutions are really well-intentioned,â Pano Kanelos, president of the new university, said in an interview with the Texas Tribune. âAnd I don’t think there are evil people who are causing this. It’s just a kind of cultural drift.
Kanelos, who this summer stepped down as president of St. John’s University in Annapolis, Md., Said he sees the new university as a “north star” for universities to “reclaim space. open debate “, which it does not do. thinks is happening as often as it should on other college campuses across the country.
âWe may never find the truth, but that’s what scholars do,â he said. âIt’s hard to do if you’re afraid of being punished if you make a mistake. “
Kanelos said the decision to open the University of Austin had more to do with the city’s attractiveness to “innovative thinkers and mavericks.”
âAustin is like a big manufacturing space now,â he said. “Being adjacent to a large part of this space is really intellectually stimulating”
Kanelos said the proposed university has received significant financial support, raising $ 10 million in private donations in two months, allowing it to hire around seven staff. Since its public launch Monday morning, Kanelos told the Texas Tribune that he has received more than 1,000 requests from professors to attend the university, which he says indicates the need for this type of school.
But the university is still far from functioning as a traditional university. It lacks a permanent address for a campus (leaders say they are acquiring land in the Austin area), degree programs (estimated time of arrival for an undergraduate program is at fall 2024) and accreditation (the founders believe the standard accreditation process needs to be reformed, but recognize that oversight is necessary in order for degrees to be considered legitimate).
They have also not officially received nonprofit status from the federal government. They use Cicero Research, which is led by Joe Lonsdale, Austin-based technology investor and advisory board member, as a temporary nonprofit sponsor.
According to 2020 tax declaration for Cicero Research, its mission is to “create and distribute non-partisan materials recommending free market-based solutions to public policy problems” and to “produce and distribute non-partisan educational material on the importance of preserving policies, Texan values ââand history. “
The University of Austin website also promises a new, more affordable tuition model made possible with low administrative costs and fewer amenities than a traditional college campus.
Kanelos estimates that tuition would be about half the average annual cost of attending a typical private university, or â$ 30,000â. The founders aim to raise $ 250 million to launch the undergraduate and graduate program over the next few years.
Don’t expect state-of-the-art recreation centers or high-end dining services, either, Kanelos said.
âWe will probably have a soccer field and a basketball hoop outside,â he said. âNo food court. We’re going to be an old-fashioned, 1950s cafeteria, a stand-in-line kind of place … and the reason is that at the end of the day, students pay for it.
The school plans to start next summer with a no-credit program called Forbidden Courses. It will be open to students from other universities to participate in discussions on topics that “often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities”. The program is currently in design mode with the help of three founding professors, including Peter Boghossian and Kathleen Stock.
Boghossian resigned from Portland State University because of its belief that the university “has turned a stronghold of free inquiry into a factory of social justice.” Stock has resigned from the University of Sussex after being harassed and criticized for her job questioning whether gender identity is more important than biological sex.
A master’s program in Entrepreneurship and Leadership would begin next fall before the launch of an undergraduate program.
The University of Austin announcement comes as leaders at the University of Texas at Austin are working with private donors and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to launch a new think tank on this campus. a school that would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual freedom, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.” Texas lawmakers have already approved $ 6 million in seed funding for the Liberty Institute. UT-Austin officials also pledged $ 6 million.
Emails obtained through a request for cases opened by the Tribune show that at least one member of the University of Austin advisory team has connected with UT-Austin president Jay Hartzell.
According to the emails, Hartzell had lunch earlier this year with Lonsdale, the Austin-based tech investor. In February, Hartzell connected Lonsdale by email with Carlos Carvalho, the professor at UT-Austin who was leading the work on that school’s Liberty Institute.
âJoe is interested and actively working in many of the same areas as you – bringing data to policy issues, supporting free markets and capitalism, and so on. Hartzell told Carvalho. In the same email, he told Lonsdale about the think tank planned by UT-Austin.
“We’re working together on a campus-wide initiative that could amplify many of the same themes in a broader, cross-campus way – with a working title of ‘Liberty Institute’.”
UT-Austin and Lonsdale did not respond to requests for comment. Kanelos said that when meeting with people at UT-Austin involved in launching the Liberty Institute, he said the goals of the center do not represent the whole university he is trying to launch.
Disclosure: The New York Times and the University of Texas at Austin have financially supported The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.