University of Austin: the new front in the fight for US campuses

While mocked as a cast of falsely aggrieved outcasts, planned private upstart raises fear of fundamental new avenue of well-resourced partisan attack on academia

November 16, 2021
Activists hold a protest near the Manhattan apartment of billionaire and Republican financier David Koch as mentioned that the University of Austin has links to the Knoch brothers
Source: Getty
The University of Austin has links to the Koch network, which donates large sums to sway politics and research

In the days since it was revealed, the University of Austin has been widely dismissed as a collection of academic and political outcasts seeking to revive their professional images by crafting a paradise of free-speech fundamentalism.

But a closer look at the affiliations of leaders at the private liberal arts upstart, which is due to begin classes next autumn, suggests a more serious and strategic move by a group of wealthy donors looking to expand their already robust campaigns to stamp ideological agendas on to US campuses, some experts have warned.

“We can laugh at it now,” said Isaac Kamola, assistant professor of political science at Trinity College who just co-authored a book examining Charles Koch and the myriad ways he and like-minded conservative philanthropists have infiltrated US higher education. “But I think we do so at our own peril.”

That is because Mr Koch and his allies have shown their ability to deploy billions of dollars in ever-expanding ways to shape student experiences, direct hiring and set research agendas.

If they succeed in creating their own university, Dr Kamola said, that control will grow even deeper, more partisan and more ideological.

Austin introduces itself as “a university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth”, that revives face-to-face student debate in the tradition of Plato. “We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves,” the project’s president, Pano Kanelos – the recently resigned head of St John’s College in Annapolis – declared in his introductory thesis. “And so we are building anew.”

Dr Kanelos touted a team of two dozen creators and advisers that includes Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University. On 15 November the University of Chicago said that one of them, Robert Zimmer, its chancellor and former president, had withdrawn from his advisory role, noting that Austin had “made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views”. Professor Zimmer was joined by Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, prompting Austin to apologise for implying such advisers agreed “with all its actions and statements”.

Beyond those, the listed advisers and contributors include several academics and political figures with histories of being condemned for their words and actions, often related to their dismissal of the structural disadvantages in US society facing people who are not white and male. They include Joshua Katz, a professor of Classics who was suspended from Princeton University for a year for having an inappropriate relationship with a female undergraduate, and Peter Boghossian, a former assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University who resigned after he was found to have committed research misconduct in his attempts to ridicule social scientists. Another high-profile hire is Kathleen Stock, who recently left the University of Sussex as a result of ongoing controversy over her views on gender identity.

Several others on the list have ties to Mr Koch and his philanthropy, according to an analysis by Dr Kamola’s co-author, Ralph Wilson, a co-founder and former research director at the advocacy group UnKoch My Campus now serving as director of the Corporate Genome Project. They include people who have worked for Mr Koch or at academic centres or thinktanks he has funded, Mr Wilson said. The University of Austin also attributes its own initial funding to Cicero Research, part of a thinktank that largely shares Mr Koch’s libertarian-styled agenda.

Together, said Davarian Baldwin, professor of American studies at Trinity, the evidence suggests that the University of Austin is the new academic vanguard of political forces that have put heavy emphasis in recent years on confronting advocates of socio-economic progress and then claimed free speech victimhood when challenged.

It’s all part of a fiction, Professor Baldwin said, “that those who are actually in power are in some way the victims of some other kind of power”.

An Austin spokesman declined to explain whether or how the university would itself avoid political and donor influence in its operations; or why it was choosing a Chicago-based regional accrediting agency. The agency that usually covers Texas – the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges – recently opened an investigation into the University of Florida for banning its professors from countering the state’s Republican governor in a voting rights court case. With its move, Austin is taking advantage of a Trump administration policy that lets institutions pick accrediting agencies outside their region.

The spokesman did, however, promise that Austin expected no limits on academic expression. “We believe a fundamental part of liberal education is engaging rigorously with radically alternative views and ideas,” he said, “as long as they abide by our university operating principles of open inquiry and civil discourse.”

Several experts said Austin could do far more to expand academic freedom through steps that include admitting more students from low-income and minority communities, and countering the nationwide trend toward hiring low-paid contingent instructors.

Such steps, said David Atkinson, associate professor of history at Purdue University, “would be a truly radical act in today’s higher education landscape”.

“The biggest challenges facing higher education,” said Steven Mintz, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, “are how to provide a far greater number of students with a rigorous, well-supported liberal education that promotes their well-rounded development.”

New institutions of higher education that truly improve intellectual diversity seemed rare, said Roopika Risam, associate professor of secondary and higher education and English at Salem State University. “This is yet another straw man shot across the bows in the culture wars,” Dr Risam said of the Austin project. “There have been so few that have actually succeeded.”


Print headline: Dismiss University of Austin ‘at own peril’

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Reader's comments (1)

I disagree critical thinking cannot exist if there are political agendas that forbid discussion of issues.