On November 8, Pano Kanelos, former President of St. Johns University, announced on Bari Weiss’s Substack site that “We can’t wait for universities to fix themselves. So we’re starting a new one.”
The purpose of this new school, the University of Austin (henceforth, U of A) was to counteract the “wokeness,” the “chilling of speech”, and the indoctrination and repressive intellectual climate that Kanelos and his cofounders—Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, and Joe Lonsdale—perceive as dominant characteristics of good American universities. As you can see, the cofounders are mostly contrarians, which is not in itself bad. But the tenor of the university, as you can see from Kanelos’s statement and its nascent website (the U of A also has its own Wikipedia page), is to combat Wokeness with anti-Wokeness. Since most good American universities are liberal in curriculum, administration, and professoriate, what we have here is comparable to the schism between the “Progressive” Democrats and more centrist Democrats in Congress.
First, Kanelos diagnosis the problem, which I’m not doubting is a problem:
The numbers tell the story as well as any anecdote you’ve read in the headlines or heard within your own circles. Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.
The picture among undergraduates is even bleaker. In Heterodox Academy’s 2020 Campus Expression Survey, 62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe. Nearly 70% of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports at least 491 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Roughly half were successful.
On our quads, faculty are being treated like thought criminals.
And the fix:
. . . . We believe human beings think and learn better when they gather in dedicated locations, where they are, to some extent, insulated from the quotidian struggle to make ends meet, and where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn, beyond the extent of their knowledge and wisdom.
We believe that the purpose of education is not simply employment, but human flourishing, which includes meaningful employment. We are therefore also reconceiving the relationship between a liberal education and the demands of our dynamic and fluid professional world.
Our rigorous curriculum will be the first designed in partnership not only with great teachers but also society’s great doers—founders of daring ventures, dissidents who have stood up to authoritarianism, pioneers in tech, and the leading lights in engineering and the natural sciences.
There are some great names who aren’t contrarians listed on the Board of Advisors, including U of C professor Geoff Stone, playwright David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, as well as writers and intellectuals who have received some pushback. But you can look for yourself. And the founding faculty fellows, who are designing the curriculum, are Peter Boghossian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Kathleen Stock.
But what worried me was the overweening impression that this was a university dedicated largely to being anti-Woke, dedicated to being, in part, a refuge for canceled intellectuals, and a university without a curriculum. The first two items are not, I think, a good basis for founding a university. You don’t promote freedom of speech and thought by loading the curriculum with those who are anti-Woke. And we already have a great university dedicated to freedom of speech and non-indoctrination, with a great curriculum and great teachers. It’s called the University of Chicago (yes, there are woke elements here, too, but we’re pretty close in our principles to the U of A). If there’s any example of a university that can succeed without being marinated in wokeness, it’s ours.
Further, though the U of A touts natural science as a (minor) part of the curriculum, there are very few scientists of any sort involved, and only one biologist: Heather Heying. The rest of the curriculum (both undergraduate and graduate) seems to comprise technology, mathematics, and engineering. As I said, Heather Heying is the only biologist or natural scientist, while there’s a geophysicist (Dorian Abbot) and an AI researcher from MIT (Lex Fridman).
If you had looked at the Board of Advisors two days ago, you would have also seen two advisors who are now gone: Steven Pinker and Robert Zimmer. You all know of Pinker, while Robert Zimmer, the former President of the University of Chicago, recently resigned to become our Chancellor and to continue his promotion of free speech and thought on campus. Zimmer is a good guy and dedicated to the perpetuation of the principles of the U of C: free speech, no chilling of speech, and no official ideological or political positions of the university.
Those names are now gone. Yesterday, both Pinker and Zimmer resigned from the U of A. Here’s the U of A’s announcement, with part of it (indented) below.
From the statement.
The University of Austin is just one week old and has thus far succeeded in generating huge public interest. Yet, as is often the case with fast-moving start-ups, there were some missteps. In particular, our website initially failed to make clear the distinction between the Founding Trustees and the Advisory Board. Although we moved swiftly to correct this mistake, it conflated advisors, who were aligned in general with the project but not necessarily in agreement with all its actions and statements, and those who had originated the project and bear responsibility for those things. This led to unnecessary complications for several members of the advisory board, including Robert Zimmer and Steven Pinker, for which we are deeply sorry. We fully understand their decisions to step down as advisors.
The advisory board was never intended to be a corporate body that endorsed everything that UATX did or said. On the contrary, our goal in seeking advisers was precisely to have expert critics from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, united only by a shared desire to help us create a new institution that would set an example of academic freedom in action. It was always our intention for this board to be a fluid and informal group.
What we can see from this was that Pinker and Zimmer had some differences with the five founding Trustees, and left despite the U of A’s assertion that the advisors would have freedom of action and criticism. But we don’t know exactly what those differences are.
Bob Zimmer, at least, gave a hint when announcing his departure on the University of Chicago website (click on screenshot below to read it; I’ve reproduced it in toto below):
I was asked to serve in an advisory role to the University of Austin by its founding president, Dr. Pano Kanelos. This board had no fiduciary, oversight or management responsibilities. While the new organization’s commitment to a liberal arts education and free expression reflects topics that are very important to me, I resigned from the Advisory Board on November 11, noting that the new university made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views.
My focus and commitment have been, and will continue to be, to the University of Chicago*. I will continue to work on and speak about the issue of free expression on campuses, and I wish the University of Austin success in advancing this essential priority.
*and Jerry Coyne’s ducks on Botany pond. (ONLY KIDDING)
So we see here that Zimmer’s philosophy and assessment of university principles differed from that of the founders, and the implication to me is that their anti-Wokeness was too strident. He couldn’t differ with the three founding principles on the U of A’s website, as those are pretty much the same as the U of Chicago’s. The statement by the U of A about “what makes us different” could be a bit problematic, as it emphasizes not only a “novel fiscal model”, but an emphasis on practical results for society: doing rather than thinking. That’s not exactly the way the U of C operates. And, above all, Kanelos’s statement on Weiss’s site indicts all universities (not excepting Zimmer’s!) for being “illiberal” and “treating its faculty like thought criminals”. Well, that’s not the case here, and I can see how that would tick off Zimmer. Why, committed as he is to our own refusal to take University stances on politics and ideology, would Zimmer want to be part of Antiwoke University?
But I’m just speculating here. All we really know about Bob’s resignation is in his statement above: that he had differences with the U of A’s “statements about higher education in general.”
Pinker has been even more quiet about it, announcing his departure only with the following tweet:
By mutual & amicable agreement, I'm stepping off the Board of Advisors of U of Austin #UATX, wishing them well. I'm concentrating on Rationality (the book) and Think With Pinker (the BBC radio & podcast series) & won't be speaking on this further. https://t.co/xgo7exT61C
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) November 15, 2021
Knowing Steve—but not his reasons for leaving—I can only guess at those reasons, but I’m pretty sure they involve differences in philosophy with the school and its founders. I would make two guesses. First, Steve is ardently pro-science. We first saw this in his article in the New Republic “Science is Not Your Enemy“, a plea to colleges, especially the humanities and social science, to embrace the harder sciences of biology, physics, and chemistry, and above all the stringent empirical methods of those sciences. This essay expanded into his book Enlightenment Now, which prescribes science and scientific thinking as one of the three main ways to continue the progress kicked off by the Enlightenment. Yet, as I said, there’s precious little science at the University of Austin.
And from reading about his new book, Rationality (I haven’t read it), and the interviews he gave about it, I know Pinker sees tribalism as one of the main cognitive traps of our species, traps that erode rationality. See these links for where he expresses that view. Perhaps he saw membership in the U of A, with its explicit anti-Wokeness, as him joining a university based on a tribal philosophy.
Again, I’m only guessing here, but these things are on the record and they do limn some differences between Pinker and the U of A. Since he’s not giving us any more than what he said in the tweet above, the rest is silence.