A New University Returns to Higher Ed’s Roots

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 11/7

When it comes to reforming academia, we generally see two strategies at play. The first, which we may call the “Save Our Schools (SOS)” strategy, holds that American higher education in its current state is still salvageable. SOS-ers advocate for both internal reform—changing curricula, trimming administrative fat, encouraging intellectual diversity, etc.—and external reform—foreign gift transparency, First Amendment protections, Title IX revisions, and the like. If these reforms are successful, they claim, then we can restore academia to its former glory. Or at least we have a shot.

On the other side we have the “Burn It All Down” strategy, or perhaps more accurately, the “Let Academe Burn Itself Down” strategy. Burn-ers are not so optimistic about reforming academia as it now stands, and many believe that to pursue the above-mentioned reforms is to polish brass on a sinking ship. They think we should allow mainstream higher education to destroy itself, which it’s already doing quite well, and focus on developing alternatives, such as short-term vocational programs and MOOCs.

Of course, this is not a zero-sum game. It’s possible to pursue reforms to existing institutions while also supporting the establishment of new ones. I suspect that most people, while they might lean one way or another, see the benefit of both approaches and would rally behind reformers they know in either camp. But time is short and resources are limited, so perhaps a “divide and conquer” strategy is the way to go. SOS-ers and Burn-ers can put their differences aside and work on winning the battles in their own arenas. This combo-strategy may be more effective than a simple either-or choice.

In this week’s featured article, we turn to an exciting bit of news from the Burn-er camp. Pano Kanelos, former president of St. John’s College, Annapolis, has announced on Bari Weiss’ Substack blog the launch of a new institution: The University of Austin (UATX). His headline says it all: “We Can't Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We're Starting a New One.”

Who’s “we”? As he explains, Kanelos has assembled an impressive Board of Advisors for the fledgling university, including Weiss herself, Niall Ferguson, Glenn Loury, Steven Pinker, Wilfred McClay, and many, many more. Additionally, UATX has three founding faculty fellows—Peter Boghossian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Kathleen Stock—who are working together to plan the school’s institutional design and forthcoming curricula.

UATX’s mission is on one level quite simple: “the fearless pursuit of truth.” What a shame that this is a revolutionary pursuit in our day. To expand on this central mission, though, I’ll let Kanelos speak for himself:

Our rigorous curriculum will be the first designed in partnership not only with great teachers but also society’s great doers—founders of daring ventures, dissidents who have stood up to authoritarianism, pioneers in tech, and the leading lights in engineering and the natural sciences. Our students will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilization and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Students will come to see such open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of them a brave, sometimes discomfiting, search for enduring truths.

If this is music to your ears, then stay tuned: The University of Austin will launch its summer program this year, its graduate programs over the next two years, and its undergraduate college in 2024. The National Association of Scholars stands behind UATX and will support its ventures in any way we can. Our country and its future leaders desperately need to be trained in the fearless pursuit of truth—it is our hope that UATX can serve as a haven for true higher education for many years to come.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Florence Jones, Public Domain

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