Pretend It’s a University

A gate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Via Getty Images)

There was big news in higher education at the end of 2023—not that sad nonsense with the presidents of Harvard et al. but the very welcome news that the University of Austin (UATX), a newly created private institution with a small campus in Texas and a couple of hundred million dollars in the bank, has been certified by the state as a degree-granting institution and plans to admit its first class in the fall of 2024. Tearing down Harvard is pretty easy, with Harvard itself doing most of the sledgehammer work, but building something new and better is an audacious proposition and will be a long process—a long, slow process that unfolds at the pace of genuine scholarship rather than at the pace of social-media posting.

UATX has been the target of some genuinely shocking, genuinely vicious, and genuinely stupid criticism, written off as some kind of right-wing grift. (Disclosure: Over the summer, I spoke at the UATX “Forbidden Courses” seminar, an unpaid talk about the futility of undergraduate journalism “education,” as though you needed permission from a credential to look around and ask questions and write down what you learn.) But it is very strange what passes for “right wing” just now: Pano Kanelos, UATX’s president, is the former president of St. John’s College, Annapolis, not a talk-radio host. Other figures associated with UATX are not exactly veterans of the John Birch Society: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali refugee whose first big issue in politics was female genital mutilation and forced marriage in the Muslim world; Tyler Cowen is an eccentric economist and polymath whose interests range from public-choice theory to art collecting; Richard Dawkins is an emeritus Oxford fellow best known for his evangelical atheism and his work on evolution; Caitlin Flanagan writes for some weird political magazine I’ve never heard of; David Mamet is our country’s finest living playwright; Princeton’s Robert George is … Robert George. I suppose we are meant to conclude that “not explicitly left-wing” is to be understood as a synonym for “disreputably right-wing.” But that is not how the world works, at least for reasonably intelligent adults, which is what universities are supposed to attract and produce.

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