We should embrace the University of Austin

The recent announcement of the establishment of the University of Austin, whose mission is to pursue a truly liberating education against a backdrop of cancel culture and the ongoing silencing of ideas across many colleges and universities, has set the world of education and the media aflutter. Some have welcomed this news calling it the most “hope-giving event in higher ed in years,” while many others have ridiculed and the mocked the project, calling it a fraud and a grift.

What has been particularly disturbing — but unsurprising — to me as a professor is seeing so many in the academy immediately denouncing the new project with inflammatory statements such as, “UAustin is not an intellectual project, it is a political one. For masquerading as the former, it deserves its ridicule, and it deserves to be iced out.”

Via Twenty20

These anti-academic criticisms reveal just how important it is to have competition for students in the world of higher education. The University of Austin is just getting off the ground and has the desire to disrupt the status quo with the idea that universities must be “fully committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse.” Attacking an institution with such a simple and appropriate goal is petty and runs against the entire enterprise of research and teaching.

Moreover, those in the academy who denounce a new institution with no track record to date only reveal just how dangerous it can be for students and faculty who dare to challenge the entrenched and illiberal norms that limit viewpoint diversity and the debate of heterodox ideas. In reality, anyone in the academy should welcome the competition for both students and ideas; that is how social and intellectual progress is made, and good ideas should be vetted and reconsidered regularly. One can meaningfully evaluate the school on its merits and its faults only after the University of Austin starts teaching and producing research and scholarly output; it is impossible to legitimately critique a proposed institution within hours of its public establishment. These harsh, illiberal, and simply ignorant responses show the need for new institutions that have not been hijacked by woke administrators and faculty.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the University of Austin will succeed and flourish even with funding and smart and thoughtful people at the helm. But it is worth noting that it is possible to establish new colleges and universities in the current era that can join elite schools around the nation. Certainly, some of top schools like Harvard College (1636), the College of William and Mary (1693), and Yale University (1701) pre-date the establishment of the nation, but others such as Stanford University (1891) and the University of Chicago (1890) are considered peers to the earlier schools.

While the United States has not seen a wave of new schools created in recent decades, there have been more than a handful that have succeeded recently and entered the elite as Austin hopes to do.

Consider Soka University, whose current campus in Aliso Viejo, California was established in 2001. It is a world-class liberal arts college and has the second-highest endowment per student of any college or university in the nation. Soka focuses on liberal arts and human rights and is ranked 29th in the US News rankings — just behind Barnard, Smith, and Wesleyan.

Or look at Florida International University (FIU), which was founded in 1965 and is now the fourth-largest research university in the United States by enrollment and the youngest American university with a Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society chapter. Or turn to the University of California-Irvine (UCI) which was also established in 1965 and is ranked 36th by US News next to other elite schools like NYU, Tufts, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UCI enrolls more than 30,000 students, is considered a “public ivy,” and has highly selective admissions. And there are many other cases of less elite schools from the University of Texas at Dallas to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County that are thriving.

There is precedent for establishing new elite schools in the nation, and the world of higher education certainly needs a new school to jostle the cartel-like, mimetic behavior present at elite schools whose administrators, activist-scholar faculty, and diversity/equity/inclusion offices decide not only what is taught and how, but who can speak and even what can be uttered. The University of Austin rejects this paradigm entirely and will hopefully offer a real alternative for students and faculty who desperately crave the safe spaces to question, debate, and hear a multitude of ideas even when they disagree or find them upsetting. This introduces competition and the marketplace of ideas back into elite higher education, which should be embraced by everyone because truth and a better society will emerge when ideas, prejudices, and biases are critically evaluated and not simply accepted as true.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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