Earlier this year, Harvard professor Carole Hooven found herself in hot water. An expert in evolutionary biology and the author of the recent book, Testosterone, she criticised the use of phrases like “pregnant people” in a media interview.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of her colleagues tweeted: “As the Director of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force for my dept @HarvardHEB, I am appalled and frustrated by the transphobic and harmful remarks made by a member of my dept.”

The motto of Harvard, the world’s #1 ranked university, is Veritas, the Latin word for truth. But there, like many other universities, students and faculty are tiptoeing around the truths of biology, let alone the truths of philosophy or morality.

Stories about academics who have been cancelled or deplatformed for expressing unwelcome opinions are a dime a dozen. A liberal arts education used to revolve around Veritas, a fearless search for the truth about life. But in the age of woke, it revolves around my feelings – Vanitas would be more appropriate.

The best and brightest students scramble to enter top-flight universities which function as finishing schools for the children of the elite rather than as boot camps for bold and imaginative thinkers. American universities are mired in an intellectual crisis so dire that some academics believe that higher education is broken.

The new University of Austin is one response.

Announced this week on Substack blog of Bari Weiss, a cancelled journalist from the New York Times, UATX is a bold attempt to build a university from scratch.

The board of advisors is outstanding for their scholarship, courage, and independence. They include gay and lesbian journalists, a respected transwoman economist, atheists, Christians and Jews. The diverse line-up is united by a commitment to academic freedom, pluralism, civility and intellectual grit.

There is Larry Summers, president emeritus of Harvard. There is Jonathan Haidt, a left-leaning psychologist who founded Heterodox Academy. There is Glenn Loury, a controversial black economist at Brown University. There is Leon Kass, who headed up President George W. Bush’s bioethics council. There is Niall Ferguson, the best-selling economic historian, now at Stanford. What do they have in common? – “dismay at the state of modern academia and a belief that it is time for something new,” according to the president of UATX, Pano Kanelos, formerly the head of St. John’s College Annapolis, a famed liberal arts college.

He explained the spirit and ambitions of UATX this week:

Universities are the places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped. If these institutions are not open and pluralistic, if they chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints, if they lead scholars to avoid entire topics out of fear, if they prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth, who will be left to model the discourse necessary to sustain liberty in a self-governing society?

… we are done waiting. We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew. 

Other initiatives exist to combat the suffocating, irrational miasma which permeates tertiary education in the United States. The controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson has mooted the idea of an on-line university. Quillette and The Public Discourse are websites offering scholarly libertarian and Christian perspectives. Dennis Prager has created a YouTube channel with conservative lectures. The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, a champion of free speech, has founded the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

But UATX may be the first attempt to build a bricks and mortar college as a way of fighting back against wokeness.

Universities don’t come cheap.  UATX hopes to raise US$250 million. That sounds audacious, but with so much pent-up resentment at wokeness amongst Americans, it probably is achievable. In 2019, donors gave US$50 billion to American universities. In 2018 Michael Bloomberg gave the astonishing sum of $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University.

UATX is looking for land in Austin. Why Austin? UATX says that it is “a hub for builders, mavericks and creators—the kind of people our university aims to attract and from whom we want to receive guidance”. Elon Musk and Joe Rogan moved there recently, too, so UATX is in good company if it wants to attract talented mavericks.

Three “founding faculty fellows” are helping to plan the curriculum. They are Peter Boghossian, an outspoken critic of critical race theory who was recently forced out of Portland State University; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist and free speech activist; and Kathleen Stock, a lesbian critic of transgenderism, who was recently forced out of Sussex University, in the UK.

In 2022 UATX will host a summer school of “forbidden courses”. In 2023 it will launch a graduate program in entrepreneurship and leadership; in 2023 graduate programs in politics and applied history and in education and public service. In 2024 its undergraduate program will begin.

From the sketchy information available at the moment, the inspiration of UATX seems to be more Libertas than Veritas, libertarian rather than conservative, contrarian rather than orthodox in a Christian sense. In the long run, universities need to affirm rather than negate. They need to be founded on a clear vision of Veritas rather than on indignation at establishment lunacies.

But in the current climate of cowardice and lies, UATX is definitely an inspiring start.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.