Following the recent launch of the University of Austin, a new university that is to be “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” the responses have been mostly cheers from those who have been warning for ages about the left-wing dominance of American universities, and jeers from those who deny there’s a problem. Joanna Williams, a longtime critic of the state of higher education, has been among those cheering: the new university, she writes, “could not only transform the lives of countless students, but also push the boundaries of knowledge.” New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, on the other hand, has called the new university “Trump University at Austin,” and Wajahat Ali of the Daily Beast has called it an “unaccredited safe space for people who are triggered by different ideas.”
We got sick of complaining about how broken higher education is. So we decided to do something about it.
Announcing a new university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth: @uaustinorg:https://t.co/ZqRLXcF2n0
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) November 8, 2021
I disagree with both reactions. Academia certainly needs reform, and I welcome new kinds of institutions, but the University of Austin seems unlikely to live up to its promises.
My sympathies are with the idea of the University of Austin and with those who wish it success. I generally agree with what its president, Pano Kanelos, said about academia in his announcement about the university. He’s right about the “gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education.” As he points out, while universities claim to value the free pursuit of truth, on many campuses students and faculty have been “threatened with disciplinary action for their views,” and large numbers of their fellow academics support those repressive practices. I think he’s also right that this phenomenon has consequences—that “democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal.” But I worry that the University of Austin may not itself be able to avoid illiberalism. Can an activist project organized around shared grievances avoid being corrupted by internal pressure to conform to its own particular ideology, as we’ve seen happen in so many mainstream universities?
In The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, Jason Manning and I identified a new moral culture that is especially prevalent in academia. (Editor’s note: Iona Italia and Helen Pluckrose have interviewed Bradley and Manning on Areo’s associated Two for Tea podcast, here.) We called it victimhood culture because it focuses on the idea that victimhood confers a kind of moral status. It is often rooted in academic Critical Theory and is seen in its extreme form among left-wing social justice activists on college campuses. We contrasted it with other moral cultures, such as honour culture, which prioritises a reputation for physical bravery, and dignity culture, which centres on the idea that all individuals have inherent value.
One area in which the three cultures differ is in how they handle conflict. Honour cultures encourage people to respond to reputational insults—or injuries to their person or property—with violence. Dignity cultures (which have replaced honour cultures in many parts of the world) encourage people to ignore (or respond non-violently) to slights and reputational insults, and to be quick to respond to injuries by appealing to the appropriate authorities and to the rule of law. Victimhood culture encourages people defined as belonging to an oppressed group to respond to perceived slights and insults from people identified as members of oppressor groups by notifying authorities and mobilizing allies to deal with the problem. The rationale offered is that slights against an oppressed group—so-called microaggressions—support domination by oppressor groups. Many current campus threats to free speech and inquiry are rooted in the idea that free speech, open inquiry and due process need to be curbed so that they don’t act as tools of oppression.
It’s easy for truth to become a casualty of victimhood culture. That’s not because social justice activists are against truth: obviously they believe that their own ideas are true. It’s because the truth isn’t always easy to figure out—at least from the standpoint of the liberal ideals that universities still purport to adhere to. And it’s because claiming that a particular idea might cause harm doesn’t tell us whether the idea is accurate. This is why Jonathan Haidt has said that universities need to choose between prioritising truth and prioritising social justice. “Universities that try to honour both,” he says, “will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.”
The University of Austin’s stated commitment to prioritising truth is refreshing. But, as Kanelos points out in his announcement, mainstream universities also claim that their mission is to pursue truth. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas (light and truth); Harvard’s is Veritas (truth), and Stanford’s is Die Luft der Freiheit weht (the wind of freedom blows). None of these universities acknowledge that they’re ready to scrap truth and academic freedom when it conflicts with their political ideology. That they sometimes do just that shows that having a good motto isn’t enough.
One problem the University of Austin faces is that victimhood culture, and its threat to academic freedom and free expression, isn’t confined to the left: those who object to Critical Theory and to the views of self-described social justice activists often embrace their own version of victimhood culture in response. The dynamics are similar. As they organise—hoping to improve the world and trying to support those who have been harmed by their ideological opponents—some of them make heroes of those they see as victims of wokeism or cancel culture. Or they organise their identities around supporting people they see as victims (victims of social-justice victimhood culture) and end up fighting what they see as oppression and injustice. Once fighting becomes a priority, truth becomes a casualty.
For example, we’ve recently seen many opponents of the left—even those who claim the mantle of science and objectivity—embrace strange and false ideas about Covid vaccines or about the 2020 presidential election. Often, the maxim that facts don’t care about your feelings becomes, in practice, facts don’t care about your feelings (but they do care about mine). This should come as no surprise: most of us are familiar with the idea that, once one starts fighting, it’s easy to start behaving just like one’s enemies: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that … he does not become a monster.” This is how any group of people who have common grievances—even grievances about others distorting the truth—may end up distorting the truth themselves, and people who think they support free expression may end up themselves seeking to repress and censor their ideological opponents.
At the time of its announcement, the University of Austin had five founding trustees, a 25-member board of advisors, and three faculty fellows: academics, university administrators and, as Kanelos’s announcement puts it, “journalists, artists, researchers, philanthropists, and public intellectuals.” It’s an impressive group, but one that may present challenges if the university actually wants to become what it aspires to.
I can imagine different alternatives to the modern university: schools that would organise themselves to be beyond the reach of accrediting agencies and government regulators (which have enormous influence over academia); schools that would focus on implementing new ways of teaching or supporting scholarship; schools that would counterbalance the bias in current mainstream universities by focusing on training, say, journalists or lawyers from an explicitly conservative, moderate or libertarian standpoint. But the University of Austin’s announcement and website make clear that it doesn’t intend to do any of these things. It’s meant simply to be a traditional liberal arts university, with a few tweaks, but with the same goals—only minus existing universities’ corruptions.
If the University of Austin’s goal is to be a high-quality liberal arts university, one challenge it faces is the large number of people affiliated with the project who aren’t academics or aren’t known for their academic research. Although many people on its founding slate are highly accomplished scholars (for example, Jonathan Haidt and Glenn Loury), many of them are not. It seems that the reason many of them are included is that they are known critics of so-called wokeness or cancel culture. This isn’t necessarily a problem: if the culture they are criticising is causing intolerance in universities, it makes sense to include a preponderance of founding members who are willing to resist that culture. But it could become a problem. For one thing, it is not a substitute for the academic expertise that every university needs. Most of what happens at a university—most of what’s taught and researched—has (or should have) nothing to do with current political issues—whether wokeism, anti-wokeism or anything else.
For another thing, part of the problem with universities right now is that so many of them are trying to make everything that happens there political—make everything about diversity or social justice. For example, at some of them, faculty are required to provide so-called diversity statements describing their personal contributions to promoting diversity—the clear implication being that every specialist in every academic endeavour is required to engage in activism on this issue. As Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor ask in their book Unassailable Ideas, “Is the ideal outcome to end up 10 years from now with university faculties in which every single faculty member is continuously engaged in some form of compelled diversity-related activity?”
The University of Austin rightly opposes required diversity statements, but we might ask whether we’ll soon see something similar there in reverse. Will everyone there be required to fight Critical Theory, wokeism and illiberalism—or will people be able to study and teach about things that don’t make headlines or get likes on Twitter? Currently, it seems that a large part of the planned curriculum will indeed focus on the controversies that led to the school’s creation. For example, its website describes a “Forbidden Courses” summer programme and promises that this will involve “a spirited discussion about the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” This will surely be valuable to the students, but if the university is to be a serious liberal arts university, and not just, in effect, a vocational training programme for Substack writers, it will need to engage with a much larger body of knowledge and enable a much wider scope of inquiry.
It isn’t reassuring to find that one of the founding trustees of the new university is Heather Heying. Her current prestige is mainly the result of her status as a victim of victimhood culture: she and her husband, Bret Weinstein, left their faculty positions at Evergreen State College after they were targeted by campus activists and received no help in response from campus administrators. Lately, she and Weinstein have spread what are widely considered to be factual distortions about Ivermectin and Covid vaccines on their podcast. If the University of Austin is bent on avoiding the distortions of the far left that have come to dominate much of academia, it’s reasonable to ask how it will avoid having its mission undermined from the start by distortions coming from the other side.
Another issue is raised by the inclusion on the university’s slate of Sohrab Ahmari as an advisor, Bari Weiss as a trustee and Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an advisor and faculty fellow: if members of its leadership group are not clearly and unambiguously committed to freedom of inquiry and freedom of conscience, how committed will the university be able to remain to those values? Ahmari has said that as someone “standing in the ancient tradition of Catholic education,” he doesn’t believe “the university can or should enshrine mere free speech or free inquiry as the highest ideal.”
Bari Weiss, according to Robert Wright, “has long cast herself as an opponent of cancel culture, yet she repeatedly, if implicitly, encourages cancelling people,” and she has said, for example, that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. One would hope the new university’s founders would want to avoid employing this kind of concept creep: it is a tool used to silence debate, reminiscent of how the left has expanded the definitions of its own chosen terms—like racism and white supremacy.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, often a target of the campus left, has also not consistently favoured free speech and tolerance. She’s known mainly as a critic of Islam, and her concerns are usually about the illiberalism of Islamic radicals. However, she does more than criticise Islam’s ideas and practices, for example calling Islam “the new fascism” and advocating a ban on Muslim schools.
Obviously, no group of advisors is going to be perfectly politically neutral, and any attempt to provide alternatives to current universities is going to face obstacles. But the University of Austin seems to be assembling a group of people mostly based on their opposition to a view that has apparently become the consensus in mainstream academia: namely, that the most important aim of a university should be the pursuit of a particular approach to social justice. Assembling a group on this basis may have the unintended effect of undermining academic rigour, and perhaps even undermining the new university’s goal of truth-seeking and free inquiry.
The problem is not the university’s opposition to the current culture of mainstream academia. Jonathan Haidt is right that universities need to prioritize truth over social justice. The problem is that, in the current environment, it might be hard for the new university to do this without defining itself too much in opposition to others. If it becomes merely another moral and ideological community, the new university will risk unwittingly repeating the errors of the existing ones. As Clay Routledge and I have written, on a related topic—efforts to provide an alternative academic journal—“we need to avoid … organizing institutions around competing narratives of victimhood.”
Nevertheless, even though caution is in order, we should all hope that the University of Austin succeeds in its mission. Even if it fails, perhaps we can learn from its errors. And if it succeeds, we’ll owe everyone involved our gratitude.