What the University of Austin Gets Right

Oh, we’ve had some fun online over the last couple of days following the announcement of the establishment of the University of Austin.

There has been much generalized snark (including from me), a parody Twitter account, and at New York magazine, Sara Jones dubbed it a “Bible college for libertarians.”

It should not surprise that a project born out of the culture war would inflame the culture war. A declaration from the outset that higher education is irretrievably broken wasn’t going to garner wishes of godspeed and good luck. In his cri de coeur announcing the project, Pano Kanelos, former president of St. John’s College, throws some pretty big rhetorical bombs essentially accusing all other universities of having sacrificed the quest for truth to the gods of mammon.

This did not sit well with everyone. E. Gordon Gee, current president of West Virginia University and member of the University of Austin board of advisors had to issue a statement saying that while he’s helping out with the founding if UATX, he doesn’t actually think higher ed in general, and the University of West Virginia in specific is no longer a “truth seeking” institution.

Some sound skepticism over the project is warranted considering the mix of personalities that have publicly signed on to the project, but I think it is unfair to call it a scam or grift because I have high confidence that the intentions behind the project are sincere. Now, I think the odds are against anyone starting a liberal arts university from scratch, which to my mind makes funding the enterprise a dubious proposition, but if you were Peter Thiel’s right hand and had millions in seed money to put in, maybe you got a shot?

Another unfair criticism is citing the institution’s lack of accreditation. As the system works, you must be up and running teaching students stuff before the accreditors will come in and consider a stamp of approval. In those cases, the pre-accreditation students are granted accreditation retroactively, so it’s all good, provided you pass muster.

But as Jennifer Wunder, a professor at Georgia Gwinnett College who participated in the on-the-ground work to achieve initial accreditation for her institution, outlines in a long and highly illuminating Twitter thread, the UATX timeline may be somewhere between ambitious and impossible.

I see a lot of people who are used to working in the spotlight more than the trenches, and who as of yet, don’t appear to be leaving their current positions to throw themselves into the day-to-day of UATX. Steven Pinker “has no plans” to teach a course.

Jonathan Haidt wants his kids to go, but seems to be sticking with his chair at NYU. Kathleen Stock will not be moving to Austin.[1] The extent of the involvement of the individuals named on the board seems to be more about branding than anything else at this point.

I think it is incorrect to refer to the University of Austin as a university at this stage because it is much more the idea of a university, a declaration of intent that appears more like a sketch for a house than even a structure with any kind of blueprints, let alone detailed schematics. The announcement is for the purposes of fundraising and marketing more than anything, and on that front, mission accomplished!

I want to also note that this proposal has nothing to do with higher education writ large. This is a battle over “elite” higher education, spaces where many of the people who are signed on to the project either attended or work or both, and which they perceive to be less welcoming to people like them than those institutions should be. Rather than fight the internal battle, they intend to take their ball and start their own game.

None of this stuff matters to the vast majority of people who work in and attend post-secondary institutions in the United States, most specifically, public post-secondary institutions. However, what I think the UATX founders get right about higher education does have implications for how we should be thinking about our public post-secondary institutions.

When Pano Kanelos says “The warped incentives of higher education—prestige or survival—mean that an increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction” he identifies as the tension between operations and mission in the contemporary university. Operations demand that students be primarily treated as vectors of tuition dollars.

I think this is a problem because mission can be compromised by, for example, pouring money into enrollment management and marketing, rather than teaching and instruction. Mission is compromised by using merit aid to attract a more desirable cadre of students – raising one’s U.S. News Ranking – at the expense of accessibility and affordability.

For Kanelos, this is a problem because he believes it infringes on the truth-seeking mission that is housed in the work of the faculty. All those administrators telling professors what to do are a betrayal of the mission. He wants to make sure that the elite include people who think like him.

I want to make sure that higher education is a way to advance the fortunes of people who intersect with the institution.

But under our current structures, without those operations, you don’t even have a chance to get to the mission. No revenue, no university. We can argue about whether there is waste or bloat in the specifics of how universities are run, but any administrative inefficiencies are relatively small next to the structural impediments standing in the way of the mission.

My solution is to publicly fund public universities. All of those efforts currently spent on realizing revenue can be redirected towards the mission. Add in the money collected from taxing elite private institutions to reclaim some of the disproportionate share of public funding they’ve been benefitting from for more than a century, and we’re looking pretty good.

UATX seems to have two approaches to solving this problem. One is to try to rake major dollars from likeminded people. For $50 million you can name one of the planned four academic centers. For $100 million you got yourself a whole undergraduate college. Considering the plan is to start with 20 faculty and 100 students in 2024, that’s a lot of dough per student.

The other part of the plan seems to be simply doing without administration, particularly in the student affairs category. In the announcement, Kanelos criticizes how “Universities now aim to attract and retain students through client-driven ‘student experiences’—from trivial entertainment to emotional support to luxury amenities. In fact, many universities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need. Everything, that is, except intellectual grit.”

I’m not sure if come for the prominent people on the board of advisors, stay for the grit is a great pitch to even the elite undergraduate population, but we only need 100 to get this thing off the ground. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ian Bogost’s piece from 2020 arguing that the college experience is what people are paying for, very much including those who attend our well-established elite institutions. I’m sure Harvard students are very dedicated to their studies, but I also know they take those social clubs pretty darn seriously.

By not taking public money, UATX will also save administrative costs on all kinds of regulatory compliance I suppose, but I have to believe students being students that they will still need offices to deal with issues of health, welfare, discipline, and the like.

An institution without administration is an institution that is also going to require faculty to do a lot of work because there is always work that needs doing.

Maybe I’m wrong and there’s been a lot more detailed thought put into this than it appears in this moment. Or maybe I’m right and we’re looking at the high point in the existence of the University of Austin.

Either way, it’s been fun spending a little time kicking UATX around, but for myself, I’m going to go back to focusing on the schools that educate we non-elites, which is like, almost all of them.