The new 'anti-woke' university.

The school says it's trying to fix what is broken.
Isaac Saul Nov 16, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering the new free speech-focused, anti-woke, University of Austin college. Plus, a question about how we can trust elections again.

A screenshot from UATX's teaser video

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Quick hits.

  1. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), the longest-serving member of the Senate, announced his plans to retire. Leahy was first elected in 1974. (The news)
  2. President Biden signed his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law yesterday. (The signing)
  3. Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist host of InfoWars, was found liable on all counts for damages in a defamation lawsuit brought by the parents of eight victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. (The ruling)
  4. The judge presiding over the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial has rejected a request by all three defendants for a mistrial. (The rejection)
  5. U.S. journalist Danny Fenster, who was held in jail for six months in military-ruled Myanmar, was suddenly released yesterday. (The release)

Today's topic.

The University of Austin. Last week, a group of donors, scholars, writers and political activists announced the launch of a new college: The University of Austin. The people behind the school say that fundamentally, it will be dedicated to free speech, citing concerns about “the illiberalism and censoriousness prevalent in America’s most prestigious universities.”

The school will go by UATX for short, and is launching a noncredit program called "Forbidden Courses" as a kind of soft launch, which the creators say will encourage “spirited discussion about the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities," according to The New York Times.

Pano Kanelos, the former president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, said he was leaving his job there to run the university, a move he announced in former New York Times writer Bari Weiss's newsletter (Weiss is also part of the university). Historian Niall Ferguson, Palantir Technologies co-founder Joe Lonsdale, and evolutionary biologist Heather Heying also helped Kanelos conceive the mission of the college. Other big names have been cited as part of the UATX's board: Lawrence Summers, former Harvard president; Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist; playwright David Mamet; and economist Glen Loury, according to The Times.

(On Monday, Pinker and Robert Zimmer, the University of Chicago chancellor who was also named on the board, announced they had stepped down).

The school plans to expand to master's programs and then undergraduate courses, and tuition is expected to be $30,000 a year once it is up and running, about half the average cost of private university tuition. They've raised $10 million and hired seven staff members, and are hoping to raise $250 million to launch the school. They are currently applying for accreditation and hope to build a physical campus where undergraduate programs can begin in 2024.

Below, we'll take a look at some thoughts from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right is supportive of the new school, saying it’s great news for higher education.

In Bloomberg, historian Niall Ferguson wrote about why he's helping form the college.

"Something is rotten in the state of academia and it’s no laughing matter," Ferguson said. "Grade inflation. Spiraling costs. Corruption and racial discrimination in admissions. Junk content (“Grievance Studies”) published in risible journals. Above all, the erosion of academic freedom and the ascendancy of an illiberal ‘successor ideology’ known to its critics as wokeism, which manifests itself as career-ending ‘cancelations’ and speaker disinvitations, but less visibly generates a pervasive climate of anxiety and self-censorship.

"Having taught at several, including Cambridge, Oxford, New York University and Harvard, I have also come to doubt that the existing universities can be swiftly cured of their current pathologies," he wrote. "In Heterodox Academy’s 2020 Campus Expression Survey, 62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented them from saying things they believed, up from 55% in 2019, while 41% were reluctant to discuss politics in a classroom, up from 32% in 2019. Some 60% of students said they were reluctant to speak up in class because they were concerned other students would criticize their views as being offensive. Such anxieties are far from groundless."

In City Journal, Jacob Howland wrote of finally getting some "good news in higher education."

"As our elite universities sink into the muck of activism, demand increases for genuine teaching and learning—and the supply is growing of good professors who have left or been pushed out of dying institutions," Howland said. "Many, including me, have argued that the time is ripe to start a new university. The master plan for UATX describes it as 'committed to open inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse' and 'fiercely independent—financially, intellectually, and politically.' It draws inspiration from Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report, with its defense of 'the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.'

"Talk is cheap, but Kanelos’s plan is serious. UATX is backed by distinguished and independent minds," Howland said. "This group is long on courage: [Ayaan] Hirsi Ali lives under threat of death from Islamists, while Weiss, [Heather] Heying, [Peter] Boghossian, and [Kathleen] Stock resigned from positions at the New York Times, Evergreen State College, Portland State University, and the University of Sussex, respectively, after weathering sustained and vicious attacks by their colleagues and students."

In The Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer said the University of Austin could "reawaken" true learning.

"The new University of Austin will stand against 'cancel culture,' speech codes, leftist indoctrination, 'safe spaces' for students who can’t bear opinions different from their own, obsessions with race and sex to the exclusion of substance, racial preferences in admissions, and hugely expensive administrative staffs," Hillyer wrote. "True open-mindedness, not ideological straitjackets, will be the norm... What the incredibly diverse board members all have in common is a commitment to the idea of a university as a place that doesn’t force answers on students through ideological intimidation but instead encourages queries aimed at rigorous, 'unfettered pursuit of truth.' Note the word 'pursuit,' which indicates a cast of mind favoring inquiry over the hidebound certainty you are likely to get on most campuses."


What the left is saying.

The left is opposed to the new school, saying it’s the latest grift from people who overstate the threat of cancel culture and progressive politics.

In Politico, Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth said new schools usually carve out a space for themselves by offering a novel idea.

"The University of Austin makes space for itself in this ecosystem, however, not with a bold new idea but by attacking the other species already out there," Roth said. "Its own justification for launching is that other institutions suffer from not being adequately devoted to truth, from a lack of civility, from a failure to protect free speech and from being too tied to the elite liberal consensus that has been branded lately as 'wokeness.' We’ve heard such complaints again and again from moderate and conservative critics at odds with students and faculty devoted to such things as rooting out racism, treating less conventional people with respect and eradicating gender-based violence and discrimination. Most of the critics are themselves in favor of these things in principle, but they fear that through a combination of self-righteousness, hypocrisy and group think, campus cultures have gone too far.

"I realize that the University of Austin is trying to raise money from donors whose wallets will open more quickly when they hear complaints about woke warriors or pronoun police," he said. "But you shouldn’t misleadingly disparage higher education in general in order to make a place for yourself — especially when declaring one’s devotion to truth."

In New York Magazine, Sarah Jones said this is nothing new.

"In 1971, the televangelist Jerry Falwell embarked on an ambitious new venture," she wrote. "With the help of Elmer Towns, a Christian academic, he founded a new institution of higher education: Liberty University. Falwell had grand dreams for his new school, as his official biography on Liberty’s website makes clear: Not only would it function as an ideological factory for churning out new conservative activists, it would do so on a grand scale... Liberty wasn’t Falwell’s first educational experiment, either. He’d previously founded a K-12 school as a segregation academy. Before “wokeness” entered the right-wing’s lexicon, desegregation was the enemy of the hour.

"Decades later, the right remains fixated on education, agitating over the alleged prevalence of critical race theory in public schools and the hysterical excesses of college liberals," Jones wrote. "[Paul] Kanelos is half-right. There is a free-speech crisis in higher education, but it exists on campuses like Liberty’s, where students and faculty have long complained of censorship from zealous administrators. My alma mater, a Christian university much like Liberty, actively restricted the content we could publish in our student newspaper; a trustee once complained that I had used the phrase 'reproductive rights' in an article... Nevertheless, Kanelos ignores these examples to single out Yale and Stanford and Harvard."

In MSNBC, Katelyn Burns said this might be the "best cancel culture grift yet."

“The 'school' purports to teach to students 'unthinkable' ideas that the founders say they are currently being persecuted for espousing in traditional academia. But the supposed university is unaccredited — and it doesn’t offer any degrees. Instead, it appears to be the latest, and largest, in a long line of cancel culture-related grifts," she wrote. "On my podcast, Cancel Me Daddy, we call this the 'cancel culture grift economy.' The general idea is that there are certain social rewards that come with being canceled. So-called controversial or forbidden ideas have a veneer of guilty pleasure. Things that are illegal or taboo have always been attractive to people, like having your first drink of alcohol when you’re a teenager.

"It’s this attractiveness that helps cancel culture grifts pay off," she said. "There’s no universally agreed upon definition of 'getting canceled' and it’s claimed for a wide variety of consequences for terrible speech or actions, from losing a job to getting doxxed to mild intellectual disagreement."


My take.

There's so much to say it's hard to know where to start.

The most cogent criticism of the people behind this new university seems rather obvious, and I'm struck by how few people are pointing it out. While the group advocates heterodox thinking on the battlefield of ideas, they are a rather homogenous group on the two issues many of them are best-known for discussing incessantly (besides free speech): trans issues and race. Now, I'll confess, I don't know the views of every single person involved — some two dozen people have been associated with the school's founding — but I've read much of the work of at least 10 of them, have taken cursory looks at the others, and their views on how our country should navigate racism and trans people’s issues — and, in fact, most issues related to politics — are nearly uniform in opposition to the progressive left.

Bari Weiss, particularly, is a complex character. I am a regular reader of her work and truly have enjoyed much of what she's written. I also struggle to understand why she has become such a pariah on the left. But as a Jew who often feels politically homeless, I see some of my own story in her: She is a Jewish, right-of-center, pro-Israel, gay, former New York Times writer who says she was shunned from her old job and then launched an extremely successful newsletter on Substack to get control over her own work. In short, she seems (as I often say about myself) to be politically incongruent, constantly changing her mind, and (she would say) legitimately invested in free speech, as am I.

But she also has a history seemingly at odds with the quest she claims to be on now. In college, Weiss ran an organization that worked to make it easier to file complaints against professors and targeted Arab faculty for speech it believed was hostile to Israel. "Weiss has a long history of claiming to support free speech while trying to curtail the speech of Palestinian rights advocates, from her college days through her years at the Times," Jewish Currents noted.

As I wrote in Friday's subscribers only edition, I am exasperated by America's victimhood culture. Part of that victimhood is people claiming they are being "silenced" or "canceled" or celebrating their own "bravery" for speaking about things that are not actually that taboo. As Will Wilkinson recently pointed out, a cadre of these "heterodox" thinkers likes to pat each other on the back for "selling the impishly defiant thrill that washes over a person when expressing a popular but slightly controversial opinion."

Wilkinson notes that an example of a plausible claim that is genuinely risky to express would be something like "tons of our brave troops are guilty of literal murder." Meanwhile, Weiss and others celebrate the "bravery" of saying things like "men and women are different," a belief the vast majority of the American public believes and 99 out of 100 people you stop on the street would affirm. I think he has a pretty good point.

But don't misunderstand me: I'm happy about this news. Truly and unabashedly. I'm so tired of people in our country complaining about things from up in the peanut gallery and then refusing to do anything besides whine on social media. While I don't think the group behind UATX are heroic warriors saving the country with unrelenting courage, I do think they're right that many of America's best-known colleges are increasingly censorious, illiberal and uniform in thought. The dangers of that reality shouldn't be understated. And kudos to this group for taking the leap, leaving their jobs and focusing on trying to build something better instead of just complaining about it from the sidelines. There is far too little of that today.

In fact, the school seems interesting enough to me that I just might try to enroll in a class or two. I am, in no uncertain terms, most intrigued to see what a "Forbidden Course" is and very curious to know how this college looks and feels different from the Pennsylvania state school I attended. I'd pay a couple thousand bucks to find out. It may very well be that these folks fall on their faces (starting a college seems incredibly hard), but they deserve credit for trying, and they're clearly sincere in their convictions. Anyone viewing them as a threat must implicitly understand the weaknesses of higher education as they exist now, and even if UATX fails, the demand and attention it’s getting may push the colleges we already have toward a more liberal (in the literal sense) future.



Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm getting frustrated, on both sides, about the idea of election tampering/fraud. It doesn't seem like it's an "issue" that's going away anytime soon before 2022 and beyond. How do we get to a point where people believe election results again?

— Anonymous, Philadelphia, PA

Tangle: I really don't know. Obviously, I've written a lot about election fraud (or the lack thereof) and stated repeatedly my belief that the 2020 election was free, fair and above board, despite the madness of mail-in balloting and the many semi-plausible conspiracy theories that have percolated online.

But so far, I've yet to find a good way to talk anyone out of their beliefs en masse. I've debated people on radio shows, tweeted hundreds of explanations, and gone down the rabbit hole of just about every fraud claim I could ferret out. And from all that work, I've had maybe a half dozen readers and followers tell me I changed their minds. In this week's This American Life podcast, producers follow Ed McBroom around, the Michigan Republican who produced a report on his state's elections that debunked claims of election fraud. Every time McBroom leaves his house, he's confronted by people claiming fraud, and he actually takes the time to explain away every single suspicion they have. And each time, the conversation ends not with their minds changed, but with them feeling suspicious of McBroom merely for having an answer for everything they bring up.

One man, a resident with no stated election training or political background, says at the conclusion of McBroom explaining why every single allegation he had was bunk, that he just didn't believe that McBroom — the man who runs Michigan's elections — had the "expertise" to find the fraud. Yet this resident believes his internet sleuthing uncovered it. I'm not sure how to operate in that world.

Of course, it's not just Trump supporters. Plenty of people on the left still believe Trump is the one who was illegitimate and that he stole the 2016 election, and liberals have leveled quite a few baseless allegations of stolen elections just in the last decade. But the distrust of elections on the right, egged on mostly by former President Trump, seems far more dangerous right now. When extensive audits by the aggrieved party, sound news reporting, and the many court rulings and publicly available evidence can't rebuild voter trust, I'm not sure what can.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The Biden administration is expected to begin the process of expanding Covid-19 booster shots, Axios' Caitlin Owens reports. Just 36% of Americans 65 and up have gotten their booster shots, according to the CDC, and the Biden administration wants to get more people shots before the holiday season arrives. New York City, California, Colorado, New Mexico, West Virginia and Arkansas have already approved boosters for all adults, which experts say should be taken some 6-8 months after initial inoculation to maintain immunity. "I believe it's extremely important for people to get boosters, and I am hoping very soon we will see a situation where there won't be any confusion about who should and should not get boosters," Dr. Anthony Fauci said. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 48.3%. The percentage of college student Republicans who said they would be "somewhat" or "very" reluctant to give their views on a controversial political topic in class.
  • 31.5%. The percentage of college student Democrats who said they would be "somewhat" or "very" reluctant to give their views on a controversial political topic in class.
  • 47.1%. The percentage of seniors across 100 universities who said their political leanings had changed during college.
  • 30.3%. The percentage of those students who said they became more liberal.
  • 16.8%. The percentage who said they became more conservative.

Have a nice day.

A New Zealand couple has dug up what they believe is the largest potato ever found.  When they put it on a scale, the weight was a stunning 17.4 pounds! "We couldn't believe it," Donna Craig-Brown, who found it while weeding her garden, said. "It was just huge." The couple's potato has garnered them global acclaim, and they are awaiting a Guinness Book of World Records ruling on whether it's the largest potato ever found. The current heaviest potato on record is 5 kilograms, but this couple's potato weighed in at 7.8 kilograms. In the meantime, Donna's husband Colin says he is parading the potato around town in a toy dump truck for their neighbors to enjoy, basking in the glory. NPR has the story.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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