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There’s a large yellow brick house with red trim in Austin’s West Campus neighborhood, a stone's throw away from the University of Texas’ flagship campus. Inside sits the headquarters for a new liberal arts university launching to counter what its founders believe is a growing culture of censorship on college campuses.
"We're done waiting for America's universities to fix themselves," stated a promotional video for The University of Austin posted on Twitter Monday morning. "So we're starting a new one."
The announcement garnered national attention partially for its board of advisers — a who's who of higher education critics and iconoclasts such as former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, Harvard academic Steven Pinker, former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers and playwright David Mamet.
But also because the university decided to open in Texas’ capital city.
“If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us,” the new university’s website reads, referencing the CEO of Tesla and podcast host, respectively, both of whom relocated from California to Austin since mid-2020.
The University of Austin’s mission is to create a “fiercely independent” school that offers an alternative to what founders see as a rise in “illiberalism” on college campuses and a waning dedication among universities to protect free speech and civil discourse.
“Most people, most institutions are really well intended,” Pano Kanelos, the new university’s president, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “And I don't think there's like evil people out there causing this. It’s just a kind of cultural drift.”
Kanelos, who left a job as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, this summer, said he sees this new university as a “north star” for universities to “reclaim a space for open debate,” which he doesn’t think is happening as frequently as it should on other college campuses across the country.
“We may never find the truth, but that's what scholars do,” he said. “It's hard to do that if you're afraid that if you make a mistake, you may be punished.”
Kanelos said the decision to open the university in Austin had more to do with the city’s attractiveness to “innovative thinkers and mavericks.”
“Austin's like one big maker space now,” he said. “Being adjacent to a lot of that space is really intellectually stimulating”
Kanelos said the proposed university has received a lot of financial support, raising $10 million in private donations in two months, allowing it to hire about seven staff members. Since publicly launching Monday morning, Kanelos told The Texas Tribune he has received more than 1,000 requests from professors to participate in the university, which he believes indicates the need for this type of school.
But the university is still many steps away from operating as a traditional university. It lacks a permanent address for a campus (leaders say they’re acquiring land in the Austin area), degree programs (estimated time of arrival for an undergraduate program is fall 2024) and accreditation (founders believe the standard accreditation process needs reform, but acknowledge oversight is necessary so degrees are considered legitimate).
They also haven’t officially received nonprofit status from the federal government. They are using Cicero Research, which is run by Austin-based tech investor and advisory board member Joe Lonsdale, as a temporary nonprofit sponsor.
According to the 2020 tax filing for Cicero Research, its mission is to “create and distribute non-partisan documents recommending free-market based solutions to public policy issues,” and “produce and distribute non-partisan educational materials about the importance of preserving Texan policies, values and history.”
The University of Austin’s website also promises a new, more affordable tuition model made possible with low administrative costs and fewer amenities than a traditional college campus.
Kanelos estimates tuition would be about half of the average annual cost of attending a typical private university, or “$30,000.” Founders aim to raise $250 million to launch the undergraduate and graduate program over the next few years.
Don’t expect state-of-the-art recreation centers or high-end food services, either, Kanelos said.
“We’ll probably have a soccer field and a basketball hoop outside,” he said. “No food court. We're gonna be an old-school, 1950’s cafeteria, stand-in-line kind of place ... and the reason is that ultimately the students pay for it.”
The school plans to start next summer with a non-credit program called Forbidden Courses. It will be open to students from other universities to participate in discussions about topics that “often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” The program is currently in design mode with the help of three founding faculty, including Peter Boghossian and Kathleen Stock.
Boghossian resigned from Portland State University because of his belief that the university “has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory.” Stock resigned from the University of Sussex after receiving harassment and criticism due to her work questioning whether gender identity is more important than biological sex.
A master’s program in entrepreneurship and leadership would start next fall ahead of the launch of an undergraduate program.
The University of Austin announcement comes at the same time that University of Texas at Austin leaders have been working with private donors and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to launch a new think tank on that school’s campus that would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.” Texas legislators already approved an initial $6 million in funding for the Liberty Institute. UT-Austin officials have also committed $6 million.
Emails obtained through an open records request by the Tribune show at least one member of the University of Austin’s advisory team has connected with UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell.
According to the emails, Hartzell had lunch earlier this year with Lonsdale, the Austin-based tech investor. In February, Hartzell connected Lonsdale via email with Carlos Carvalho, the professor at UT-Austin who was leading the work on that school’s Liberty Institute.
“Joe is interested and actively working in many of the same areas you are — bringing data to policy questions, supporting free markets and capitalism, etc,” Hartzell told Carvalho. In the same email he told Lonsdale about UT-Austin’s planned think tank.
“We’re working together on a campus-wide initiative that could amplify many of the same themes in a broader, cross-campus way — with a working title of the ‘Liberty Institute.’”
UT-Austin and Lonsdale did not respond to requests for comment. Kanelos said while he met with people at UT-Austin who are involved in launching the Liberty Institute, he said that the center's goals don’t represent the entire university he is trying to launch.
Disclosure: New York Times and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.