Bob Zimmer and Steve Pinker resign from the advisory board of the University of Austin

November 16, 2021 • 9:30 am

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):

Zimmer’s announcement:

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:

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.

37 thoughts on “Bob Zimmer and Steve Pinker resign from the advisory board of the University of Austin

  1. The U of A first paragraph seems inconsistent with their third. Are you insulating your scholars from the concerns of worldly life, or are you insisting they focus on learning practical skills from practical doer-people?

  2. The FIRE database does list 491 disinvitation events. An awful lot of those involve Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein. Those disinvitations came from right wing groups — not exactly woke. Another frequent name is Milo Milo Yiannopoulos. He’s a professional dog-and-pony showman who is only “controversial” as long as it is profitable for him — he makes more money if he is “cancelled” and he’s playing all the angry rubes for profit.. If the FIRE database is the basis for establishing this University, it is an overreaction, in my opinion. The problem is NOT the woke folks. It’s the fascists. Woke is a fad.

    1. If you look at the disinvitation database, in the early years it was about equal between Right and Left causing the disinvitations. In the last six years, however, a substantial majority of the disinvitations are from the Left. So why do you say that the problem is not the “woke folks” but the “fascists”.

      And do you really want to call all American conservatives “fascists”? Those who suppress the speech of others are evoking characteristics of fascism, and that’s, for the FIRE database, mainly the Woke.

      1. This week I saw on the news stories about Texas banning books (the largest textbook market in the nation, which thus tends to dictate textbook content). And this, just yesterday in Chicago suburbs: https://chicago.suntimes.com/education/2021/11/15/22783960/downers-grove-north-book-controversy-schools-gender. Seven States have enacted bans on teaching CRT (the bans often go much further (see: https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2021/09/29/critical-race-theory-bans-are-expanding-to-cover-broad-collection-of-issues/?sh=3281bb945e5d).

        Protesting to disinvite speakers (only roughly half successful, and then how many of those were for Milo, who is a professional “cancel culture provocateur”) is certainly bad. But how can they possibly consider the disinvited speakers a more serious threat than the State and District-wide bans? And those are not coming from any woke folks.

        1. If I understand correctly, FIRE specifically deals with higher education, so while they may indeed be concerned with the laws you mention being passed, etc., their focus, as I understand it, is in the universities, and that’s where the disinvitation database applies.

          I don’t think it’s useful to create a false dichotomy here. “The problem” can be “woke folks” and “fascists,” or more broadly, any people inclined to demonize and/or suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree. Indeed, both the terms “woke” and “fascist” are probably gross oversimplifications in almost all cases, like most such pejorative terms. I think it would be better if people dealt with the specific ideas that they think are incorrect. I think we should leave name-calling to the elementary school playgrounds…and frankly, we should discourage it even there.

          Given that, I think that being “anti-Woke” is not a good focus for a nascent University. Starting with a bias as a reaction to another bias is still a bias.

        2. The books are not “banned”.
          To consider a book not suitable for children as it has pornographic material and hence not belonging in a children’s library is not the same thing as banning.
          One would think this is self evident.qqq

      2. So why do you say that the problem is not the “woke folks” but the “fascists”.

        I would argue that the woke folks are fascists. At least their methods bear a striking resemblance to those of fascist governments.

  3. If I had to guess, the problem with the University of Austin is that no one involved had any real motivation to go beyond an impactful (sorry) announcement. I imagine a conversation in which someone says, “OK, we’ve made the announcement. Now who’s going to create the university?” “Not me!” “Me either!”

    1. Yeah anyone who’s actually worked at a university knows that there’s a helluva lot of background administrative work that needs to be done.

  4. There can also be other, more practical issues with this start-up. Enrollment at universities has been dropping for a range of reasons. That is certainly the case here, and I suspect elsewhere as well. There has to be a base of new students and financial backers who are willing to take a chance at a new campus in this environment.

  5. I agree, you cannot build a good institution purely on the basis of anti-wokeness. The problem is how do you recruit a broader array of faculty to a non-existent university? I cannot imagine there are dozens of professors willing to join unless they are strongly dedicated to the “cause”.

  6. The number of times I’ve started reading one of your articles and come up with what I think is an excellent point only to find out, as I continue reading, that you have already thought of it is ridiculous.

    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.

    This is my view. I think the project will be stillborn because its aim appears to be to counter some political view point rather than to advance human understanding. At least that’s the perception that many people seem to have.

  7. The “Anti-Woke” University needs to put its principles into effect and invite professors who are advocates of Critical Theory. Add in some conservative Catholics too, while we’re at it, as well as a handful of academic sworn-enemies in a variety of disciplines and the fears of becoming just another insulated tribe are gone.

    Their Statement of Principles must then add “We believe weapons do NOT belong on campus …”

  8. Well, it is nice to see something like this, and not find the correspondence littered with accusations of bias or misbehavior. It’s disappointing to see that Zimmer and Pinker are gone, but it’s to be expected that this project would have its ups and downs. Frankly, I would have ridden it out a little longer, and tried to influence the direction more.

  9. The Western world, America in particular, seems to be going through a very pronounced Overton Camber ™ where the ‘middle of the road’ runs with some very deep gutters at the sides (left and right). Try too hard to resist being drawn down into one of the gutters and you increasingly risk being drawn into the opposite gutter. It must be quite stressful for people to avoid polarisation and perch precariously in the middle..

    Decades ago there was an inverse camber where it was very difficult to remain in one of the extreme gutters – the tendency was to slide back into the middle of the road. The stress here was to overcome the stultifying conformity.

    Perhaps this is the nature of history in the (relatively) modern world. Periods of conformity followed by periods of polarisation?

  10. Heather Heying and her husband have already done more damage to the public understanding of science than they could ever make up for. They have basically dedicated this year to spreading anti-vaxx obscurantism. Bari Weiss may offer some decent arguments to counter unhinged wokeness, but every time I read her tweet about “the fearless pursuit of truth”, my blood pressure spikes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe she is religious. If she is so fearless, she may want to pursue the truth in some of her own beliefs. People have a tendency to fearlessly criticize shortcomings in others view of the world, but often not their own.
    More generally, it is incredibly arrogant to advertise your college as the one pursuing truth as opposed to other colleges. It comes across as very brash. Admittedly, there are massive problems with colleges in the US and I am sure that I agree substantially with some of the members criticisms.

    1. While I like Bari Weiss very much, I am so very disappointed in Heying and Weinstein. They had a chance to become great voices in the liberal vanguard against far-left/woke/”progressive” politics in academia, but instead decided to go from one extreme to the other and join the Right when it comes to subjects like anti-vaccination. I had such high hopes for them.

      To have Heying be your only scientist is NOT a good look for an attempt to establish a new university.

    2. I have to agree. Every educated and highly knowledgable person who starts to opine on fields outside their area of expertise runs the risk of being dead wrong. Generally, expertise matters though arguments from authority do not so it’s all about the specifics arguments being made, the evidence for and against them, and yes some aspects of the consensus of experts within any particular field. But Bret Weinstein, college-level biologist with a paltry publication record, not only annointed himself epidemiologist, virologist, clinical researcher, and MD but made statements to the public about avermectin and the risks of the vaccines as if he was Dr. Anthony Fauci. His evidence and arguments amounted to conspiracy theories, contrary to the clinical data, and what he did was feign expertise and what he said amounted to arrogant incompetence that surely harmed some people. The nerve of Bret Weinstein and I’m sorry but to hell with him. At his age, not having enough common sense as a scientist to know when not to speak PUBLICLY on subjects outside his expertise (which likely caused actual harm to people) is disqualifying to be a public intellectual. To the degree that Heather Heying followed this lunacy, her reputation is likewise muddied so they should both be discredited.

      Being in the medical field myself, this conduct really burns my onions and I would liken it to scientific malpractice and ethically, given the stakes, it is a far more egregious offense than plagiarism, publishing fraudulent data, etc.

  11. The problem for University of Austin, or anyone else, is you are going to have to rely on “conservative donors” and teach classes on Austrian economics and John Locke, ad infinitum. The “con” curriculum won’t do much to prepare you for anything, now that the Pinochet regime is no more, except work at “con” think tanks. You will probably have to watch Top Gun every night before you go to bed as well. The “con” isn’t much of a step up from the woke in terms of intellectual rigor.

    Second, just because a scholar is cancelled, doesn’t mean that they don’t suck, and certainly doesn’t guarantee they are preeminent in their fields or anything else.

    Jerry is probably correct here, University of Chicago, if it continues to hire the best and avoids going full Soviet, is a better bet than Prager U. in Austin.

    The reality is no one is coming to save you. Everyone wants to brain wash you into their narrow little ideologies, and only you can broaden your mind if you search in hidden crannies for old and forbidden books and absorb and synthesize as much as you can critically. Otherwise, you are sure to end up either a con retread or a woke NPC.

  12. An explicit dedication to the classical Liberal outlook need not diminish the intellectual stature of the University of Austin. In regard to the founding of Cambridge University, Wikipedia tells us: “In medieval times, many colleges were founded so that their members would pray for the souls of the founders.” The anti-woke posture of the University of Austin fulfills a corresponding need.

    Wiki goes on to recount Cambridge’s important role in spreading the Puritan ethos, particularly to the
    people who emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. This emphasis didn’t seem to do Cambridge any harm, nor did the emphasis, from Isaac Newton’s time forward, on Applied Mathematics. We can see that Cambridge did pretty well, and wish good fortune to the University of Austin. Finally,
    just as Oxford was not diminished by the founding of Cambridge in 1231, the University of Chicago will not be diminished by another institution which is dedicated to the Chicago Principles.

    I agree that it would be good for the advisory board to include more biologists. What about an Emeritus Professor of Ecology and Evolution?

      1. Even if the U. of Austin promises to get all the ducks in a row? [The origin of that phrase remains a mystery. Some think it refers to an ancient shooting gallery game (I’m old enough to remember it) which was not at all kind to the ducks.]

  13. … I know Pinker sees tribalism as one of the main cognitive traps of our species, traps that erode rationality.

    Recalls an essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky at Less Wrong, “Politics is the Mind-Killer.” As Yudkowsky says there, “[p]olitics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality—but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.”

  14. I cannot say if the creation of U of A based, at least in some significant part, on fighting the creeping wokeness is good or bad. What I do know is the “quotidian struggle to make ends meet” is one of the greatest barriers to someone such as myself from attending U of C. We clearly need more than one university as a refuge for open-minded centrists, be they left or right leaning, especially those of limited means.

  15. I was skeptical of this project from the start. If a new university is to be founded based on true academic and intellectual freedom — perhaps the two most important building blocks of good university education, and the two most under attack — it must contain all views and all types of people. Its guiding principles should be solely about freedom of speech, academic pursuits, and teaching; it should not be about combating wokeness (which does indeed need to be opposed, especially in universities).

    “[Robet J. Zimmer is committed to his continued support of] Jerry Coyne’s ducks on Botany pond. (ONLY KIDDING)”

    Just kidding? REALLY, Jerry? We all know Zimmer is a duck apologist and supporter. Don’t try to gaslight us!

    EDIT — I should have added that there is one more issue that is of the most critical importance for universities right now: affordability. While that’s somewhat related to wokeness (in that school budgets are ballooning thanks to enormous numbers of hirings for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs/departments and the like), it’s perhaps more strongly related to schools increasingly becoming just another business model for making as much money as possible over the last few decades..

  16. I agree with our host that you can’t promote free speech by starting an institution that defines itself as anti-anything. The money and energy might better be spent on establishing a national detox center for faculty. That is, just as detoxification is defined as “a process of period of time in which one abstains from or rids the body of toxic or unhealthy substances,” the national detox center for faculty would substitute “mind” for “body” in the above definition, with wokeness being the toxic or unhealthy substance. Getting faculty to enroll would need some powerful incentives and might initially prove difficult, but no more so than getting people to admit their problems and join other addiction treatment centers.

  17. Not a good look, non-woke left proponents. Having the big names withdraw from your newly-minted university that’s meant to be a constructive antidote to this moral panic within the first week of its debut is a problem. Failure to launch?

    The left (I’m a member) never ceases to disappoint me with their infighting around subtle distinctions, paralysis by consensus and commitment to ‘all voices matter’ such that they struggle to get much done or be effective. ‘They mean well’ often appears to be the refrain for failure. I hope Austin University is not another false start with a good idea,m but terrible execution.

    1. The left (I’m a member) never ceases to disappoint me with their infighting around subtle distinctions, paralysis by consensus and commitment to ‘all voices matter’ such that they struggle to get much done or be effective.

      That’s been the bugaboo for the Left since before the Comintern — heck, well before the Comintern to the 19th century conflicts among Marx, Bakunin, and Proudhon.

      1. When I was young and even more foolish, I did a series of radio programs on the history of Anarchism, including readings from all the big names. I hadn’t read enough of Proudhon to realize then that he was, at least in rhetoric, a virulent antisemite. However, I still harbor a distinct fondness for prince Pyotr Kropotkin, who was a prince of guy.

        1. “Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin” — names like that are the reason, when reading 19th-century Russian novels, I always give the characters Yank-sounding nicknames like “Pete” or “Al” or “Nick” or “Rod.” 🙂

  18. The remedy for illiberal wokeness is not anti-wokeness, it’s liberalism. We need more universities to adopt UofC’s speech policies.

    1. The word is spreading. The Ontario government, which funds all colleges and universities in the province, requires them to adopt speech policies consistent with those of U of Chicago and report annually on compliance, has done since 2018.

      (Hate speech is illegal under Canada’s Criminal Code and so you do have to be careful what you say. Truth is not an absolute defence, even. Nothing the Province can do about that, though, and their hearts are in the right place.)

  19. Instead of rushing into the thicket of starting a new university, these founders should have formed a group of academics dedicated to counteracting wokeness and the racialization of education.
    For example, they could have urged donors to the major universities to withhold donations from their alma maters if any such woke nonsense and diversity mandates were required. There is nothing like the threat of losing money to make donors alert. A national movement to counteract these neo Stalinist doctrines is needed in the mass media as well as universities. And overall a louder consistent articulation of the values of the Enlightenment to ALL races is needed: full page ads,
    public debates, articles, lectures, etc. with all the prominent names attached, which in turn will
    lead the public to question the credibility and motives of those who would control our speech as well as our thought processes. Wokeness is today’s Newspeak. A response like that of Orwell is needed first and foremost.

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