A new institution was announced Monday: the University of Austin. “We can’t wait for universities to fix themselves. So we’re starting a new one,” wrote Pano Kanelos, the new institution’s president, who is the former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md.
“There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education,” he wrote, arguing that prominent universities such as Yale and Harvard, while claiming in their mottoes to to pursue truth, fall short. “Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?”
The new institution will be “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” Kanelos wrote in the Substack newsletter of Bari Weiss, an author and former journalist. Its website says the new institution will “lower tuition by avoiding costly administrative excess and overreach” and that its curriculum, “designed in partnership not only with the world’s great thinkers but also with its great doers,” would require students to “apply their foundational skills to practical problems in ﬁelds such as entrepreneurship, public policy, education, and engineering.”
The institution currently lacks a campus and about $250 million it will need to fund its programs; it aims to begin several graduate programs the next two years and an undergraduate college in 2024.
The institution’s key funder so far is the co-founder of Palantir, the polarizing data-mining company. Its advisory board includes people such as Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard University president and U.S. treasury secretary; Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute; Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist; and E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University.
Some professors and students at West Virginia were surprised by Gee’s involvement.
Gee wrote to the campus in Monday. “Serving in an advisory capacity does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisors may share. 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,” Gee said. “However, having devoted my life to higher education and served as a witness to an ever-changing landscape over time, I do agree that change needs to happen in terms of how higher education is perceived and supported. I am keenly aware that change cannot happen in a vacuum. It needs the breadth of ideas and the depths of challenging concepts to truly emerge stronger. Without these difficult conversations, nothing will advance.”