George Will on UATX (Part II)

Wherein I examine UATX specifically.

Ok, so carrying on from Part I of my examination of George Will’s column, How to build a university unafraid of true intellectual diversity, let me move from critiquing Will’s critique of American higher education and look a bit more directly at the proposed University of Austin.

Let me start by approving of the concept of intellectual diversity. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Let me also applaud the liberal arts and liberal arts education.

The devil is, of course, in the details and it often seems to be the case that when critics of American higher education are asking for “intellectual diversity” they really mean something very specific and focused, rather than, you know, diversity.

Will starts his column with a tell:

Western civilization, of which universities once were ornaments and custodians, germinated in Greece. It is, therefore, appropriate that someone of Greek heritage is responding to the fact that many institutions of higher education are infested by unscholarly activists who are chagrined about this civilization

So, “intellectual diversity” isn’t what appeals to him, it is “western civilization” which he thinks is being given short shrift in today’s universities. It is just very difficult for me to accept that Will and his ilk are in favor of “diversity” when they clearly want something very specific.

Along those lines, Will’s conclusion to his piece is as follows:

 UATX, whose trustees include the intellectual luminaries Bari Weiss and Niall Ferguson, will be a safe space for the intellectually adventurous.

So, the awesome intellectual diversity examples just happen to be from a very specific point of view? Coincidence, I’m sure.

As a side note, let me share my amusement with the prominence of Stanford, Will’s exemplar of what is wrong with academia, with the UATX board of trustees. Kanelos once taught at Stanford.* Ferguson is affiliated with the Hoover Institution, which is housed at Stanford. Joe Lonsdale received his undergraduate education at Stanford, as did Brent Bellm.

But, you know, Stanford bad? (Not to mention that Will went to Princeton, Weiss went to Columbia, Bellm did his graduate education at Harvard, and Kanelos went to Northwestern, Boston University, and the University of Chicago).

While it is fair to go to such places and emerge with legitimate critiques thereof, I just find it weird that the thesis seems to be how intellectually stultifying they are supposed to be and yet consistently produce a bevy of conservative-oriented thinkers. (See, also, SCOTUS.)

At any rate, back to the column:

Last summer, UATX offered “Forbidden Courses,” week-long discussions of subjects, from politics to sexuality, that elsewhere send brittle students scurrying in search of “safe spaces.” Kanelos worried that there might be insufficient interest to fill the 80 student places. He says UATX received 44,000 inquiries, and students came from, among other schools, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia and the Sorbonne. One of the teachers was Peter Boghossian, who, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, was “one of the three scholars behind the ‘grievance studies’ hoax, which submitted nonsensical papers to a number of journals, some of which were accepted.”

First, I perused the “Forbidden Courses” page, and I found it more than a little underwhelming in terms of how much forbiddenness there was to be found.

Second, more Stanford pops up: one of the courses is taught by Hoover Institution fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Third, if the goal is intellectual diversity, then why does it seem that the thread that seems to connect these courses are right-leaning intellectuals or what might be deemed “anti-wokeness”? To be clear, the listed persons have some impressive credentials and likely have the skills to lead lively, stimulating seminars. But if your watchwords are “intellectual diversity” then shouldn’t the group be, well, intellectually diverse as opposed to seeming to fit a theme?

If this was real diversity, where is the pro-woke perspective? Where’s the unabashed leftist? (Maybe they are to be found in the list of workshop leaders, as opposed to the courses themselves.) For that matter, this all looks like glorified book clubs rather than actual courses. (Still, a lot of these folks seem more like pundits than professors).

BTW, citing Peter Boghossian is hardly some gold star (see Inside Higher Education: Blowback Against a Hoax). But I suppose one’s mileage may vary.

Beyond all of that, I am extremely skeptical of the entire UATX enterprise, and not because of their lack of intellectual diversity, nor the fairly common aspects of their allegedly forbidden seminars.

No, I am skeptical because a university is a complex entity and building one from scratch is hard (and given the number of schools already in existence, I question whether a new one is a good use of resources). I will say again that I do applaud the general notion of keeping the liberal arts alive, and I find the inclusion of a major, four-year project as part of their curriculum to be laudatory and intriguing. Still, I will say that given the number of existing liberal arts schools that are struggling to keep their doors open, it might have been smarter to try and invest in one of those than to start from scratch.

I am not saying it is impossible to have an incoming freshman class in 2024, but I have profound doubts. Classrooms, library resources, labs (even for very basic science), faculty, and staff take time and money. There is also the question of what kind of student is going to be willing to gamble on a brand-new school.

Beyond that, there is the pesky issue of accreditation. This is a bureaucratic bugaboo at first blush, but without accreditation, other schools will not recognize credit granted nor degrees awarded. So, let’s say I enroll at UATX and decide to transfer out. Will anyone take my credits? If I am in the class of 2028 with a brand spanking new BA from UATX, will any other school admit me for graduate study? These are not small issues.

From their FAQ:


UATX is a nonprofit organization dedicated to founding an institution of higher education in or near Austin, Texas that is dedicated to free and open inquiry. On behalf of that future institution, UATX will pursue authority from the State to offer degrees while also seeking accreditation from an agency duly recognized by the US Department of Education.


Our conversations with our accredited partners lead us to believe that we’ll have a much shorter time frame than that. But we’re not waiting for accreditation to get started on our programming. Until it is accredited, UATX will offer other programs, possibly including programs in partnership with an accredited institution.

Not to get too technical, but that’s hella vague. Accreditation is a lot of work. A key issue is going to be whether they pursue national or regional accreditation. Counterintuitively, national accreditation is easier to get, and is largely worthless. Regional accreditation is what will be needed (I discussed this topic to some degree here). Texas is governed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which is considered the most strenuous of the regional bodies. When I read the UATX FAQ some time back, they stated they would be pursuing accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission (changes to DOE rules made it possible for schools to go outside their regions). The main reason to pick HCL over SACSCOC is that HLC is easier. This strikes me as telling, but perhaps they have reevaluated.

I still don’t see how they do this by 2024, but it won’t shock me if they admit students who will earn otherwise worthless credit towards unrecognized degrees. If they do so, they ought to be viewed as a scam and not a university.

Maybe the partnership pathway is more robust than I assume. Again, the details will matter.

Speaking of their curriculum, the details on their web page are pretty damn sparse.

In general, I just find all the talk about how UATX is special because it seeks the truth. More from the FAQ:


We mean it.

We are alarmed by the illiberalism and censoriousness prevalent in America’s most prestigious universities and what it augurs for the country. But we know that there are enough of us who still believe in the core purpose of higher education, the pursuit of truth. That’s why we are building UATX. At each stage of the construction of our university—from hiring staff to building the curriculum to admitting each student and faculty—we shall ask ourselves: “Are we serving the pursuit of knowledge?” If the answer is no, then it will not have a place at our university.

All well and good, but the other universities mean it as well (and, indeed, a key component of intellectual life is arguing about what such pursuits even mean). The rest of this is posturing.

BTW, I find the location in Austin to be kind of amusing. They are banking on the coolness of Austin to be part of the appeal, but a lot of the coolness of Austin is generated by its liberal-leaning weirdness (if not, dare I say, wokeness).

One parting note. I noted in Part I that Will bemoaned the decreasing amount of teaching being done by tenure-track faculty. UATX has a solution for that: they won’t have tenure, which will make all of their faculty “contingent” in the language of higher ed. Now, there is an argument to be made for doing away with tenure, but from a university-administration POV it has to be understood that tenure is part of a compensation package—that is, it is priced into the overall calculation. Faculty take salaries that are perhaps lower than they might take in other sectors, and without access to regular raises, because of the stability. Do away with tenure, and UATX will need to pay more.

Indeed, the real test for UATX is whether any of their current affiliates will be willing to leave tenured positions at prestigious universities to come be brave and seek truth at a brand-new institution.

*Source is here. I cannot find a complete c.v. on Kanelos (which is weird for an academic) so I cannot say in what capacity.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Grommit Gunn says:

    Feels like the higher ed equivalent of vaporware.

    I feel for any legitimate students they are able to attract.

  2. @Grommit Gunn: Vaporware is an excellent description.

  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    First, I perused the “Forbidden Courses” page, and I found it more than a little underwhelming in terms of how much forbiddenness there was to be found.

    That was my reaction, too. I was also underwhelmed by the syllabi of the courses for which I checked it. Not much beyond a book list and agenda of sessions. I’ve gone to symposia/workshops that had more detailed descriptions of what would be happening.

    Finally, the Polaris Project reminds me of Evergreen State Colleges self-constructed majors. A great idea. And a fit for about 20% of the students who want to go there, as it turns out several decades later. (One of my friends from Seattle Pacific transferred there in 1971. By ~1975, the original self-constructed major program had been significantly revised, removing a lot of the self-constructed part, as I recall.)

  4. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    All in all, folks, this sounds like another variation on the private for-profit boondoggle that was designed to make money off of federal scholarship money. Color me cynical, color me unconvinced, but protests and promises of non-profit-ness aside, it sure is quacking like a ($cam) duck and waddling like a ($cam) duck.

  5. Scott F. says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I think this feature goes back to a Rush Limbaugh rant: “I don’t need to offer equal time; I AM EQUAL TIME.” [emphasis is as I recall the delivery]

    This UTAX project strikes me the same way. It takes a profound level of myopia to host a national radio show or be a paid columnist at multiple national media outlets and simultaneously claim, “I am being muzzled!”

    I can only dream of comparable censorship of my ideas.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve seen nothing on funding this thing beyond a claim they have seed money and are trying to raise $250 million. No mention of donors. Sounds like a hustle, like so much RW activity. I suspect this venture is another argument for a confiscatory top income tax rate. Is there ever a point at which wealthy conservatives start looking at what they’re funding and wonder if maybe they themselves are the suckers at the table?

  7. Kathy says:

    A patient at a therapy session bemoans for a long time her parents never let her take dance lessons, no matter how much she begged, or how much she wanted to dance.

    “Look at it as an opportunity,” the psychiatrist tells her, “not to make the same mistake with your children.”

    “Oh, I know that” she answers. “My children will take dance lessons whether they want to or not!”

  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    I kind of see this as related to Fukuyama’s claims about democracy being the end of history.

    In the same vein, what they want is a particular viewpoint fronted and promoted, but they feel they have to dress it up in the clothing of “diversity”. Just like many dictators hold “elections” which they win with 99% of the votes.

  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    On another front, I kind of get the feeling that one thing George Will is sore about is that once upon a time he could quote the classics (Greek and Latin) or reference them and win arguments, gain accolades and generally feel good about his mastery of such important works.

    And now, people care about the least about this corpus as they have in probably 3 or 4 centuries, if not 10.

    This is a very real loss of status for Mr. Will, and many others like them. They no longer get to say, “Oh, you don’t know what happened to Iphegenaia? What an uncultured barbarian you are!” Because nobody cares.

    (And yes, I do know, but I engage with this stuff as being the equivalent to modern day comics and the MCU, which, by the way, I love).

  10. Kathy says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I’ve said the corpus of Greek mythology was the original MCU.

  11. Chip Daniels says:

    Conservatives have been doing this for a long time now, constructing parallel institutions to compete with the ones they think are dominated by liberals.

    In addition to conservative universities like Liberty University, they have their own magazines, cable news networks, media companies and stars, book publishing houses and think tanks.

    But what do all the conservative institutions have in common?
    No one has any respect for them, even conservatives themselves.

    Conservatives never proudly cite “A study by Liberty University” or “A report by the American Enterprise Institute”. No one cites Fox News or Newsmax as authoritative sources.
    Books by Regnery Publishing are largely seen as a joke, even by conservatives.

    They already have all the tools to change our culture the same way that liberals did.
    Like, why should they care what people at Stanford or Harvard think? They have professors at Liberty University, for Pete’s sake! Who write books at Regnery and get interviewed by Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends!

    But of course, they know that the conservative institutions are inferior to their liberal counterparts. They talk about the “marketplace of ideas” but ignore the fact that in this marketplace, their goods are right there on display and available to whoever wants them.
    But the public has by and large rejected what they have to offer.

    UATX is the two-stroke Trabant to Stanford’s Mercedes Benz.

  12. drj says:

    intellectual diversity

    You know this is code for “the woke libs are persecuting us,” right?

    a safe space for the intellectually adventurous

    And because conservatives are persecuted, it is “intellectually adventurous” to be one, it is claimed.

    Of course, Will is such a tool that he is unable to distinguish between being “adventurous” and being a sweaty edgelord who think it is brave to look down on “urban” (wink, wink, nod, nod) values.

    What conservatives are unable to comprehend is that universities are – by design – places to challenge established wisdom. And they can ‘t stand being challenged because they have no response beyond “it is tradition.”

    And that’s why they need a safe space. Not because they are persecuted inellectual frontrunners, but because they are inellectually enfeebled and cannot defend themselves in a fair debate.


    Western civilization […] germinated in Greece

    While I think it is good to know your history, it is beyond stupid to think that someone like, say, Plato has anything to offer that is germane to the modern world. What Plato offers is an illustration of how completely different, alien even, the ancient Greek value system could be.

    What this tells you is that Will hasn’t read – let alone understood – any of these authors. His image of the past is childishly ahistorical. It’s outright sad.

  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Flat Earth Luddite: My guess is that the grift is even more basic and shorter term. As Steven points out, setting up a physical campus will require barges full of money. It seems a perfect endeavor to separate a few Randian billionaires from large sums. My only question is whether they intend to build anything at all or if they are running a “The Producers” type of scam.

  14. steve says:

    1) This is most likely a grift and the university never really functions.

    2) Point about Austin is well taken. Those professors weren’t going to go live in some truly red state/red city. They also know it would be harder to find students if they did.


  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @steve: I’m not sure about the harder to find students part. Grand Canyon University makes a similar pitch to this one and is doing just fine in more red than blue Phoenix.

  16. DrDaveT says:

    UATX, whose trustees include the intellectual luminaries Bari Weiss and Niall Ferguson

    Wait, what? That Niall Ferguson? What, they couldn’t get John Derbyshire?

    That’s not “intellectual diversity”, it’s rampant wingnuttery.

    (…and I’m one of those people who think that The Ascent of Money was brilliant…)

  17. Ken_L says:

    I don’t know anything about accreditation in the US, but in Australia, an institution’s record of research grants and publications is the most important consideration (whether this is justified is a question for a different discussion). But surely accredited American universities are supposed to devote some resources to research.

    I see no mention of the matter on the UATX site at all. They appear to be focused exclusively on teaching programs. In other words, they aspire to be a junior college teaching anti-wokeness.

  18. @Ken_L: In the US research issues are relevant for specialized accreditation (i.e., accrediting a specific academic program) while what I am talking about here is institutional and has to do with things like basic operations, general qualifications of the faculty, and such.