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:
ARE YOU ACCREDITED?
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.
DOESN’T IT TAKE SOME UNIVERSITIES A DECADE TO RECEIVE ACCREDITATION?
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:
NEARLY EVERY UNIVERSITY SAYS IT STANDS FOR FREEDOM OF INQUIRY. WHAT WILL BE DIFFERENT ABOUT YOUR UNIVERSITY?
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.