Is Bari Weiss U. For Real?

Bari Weiss
Photo by Brian Cahn/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
Tina Nguyen
November 15, 2021

Last Monday, the peripatetic millennial journalist and gadfly opinion machine Bari Weiss announced the formation of the University of Austin, a not-yet-accredited college focused on free speech. On an intellectual level, it all made perfect sense. Ever since her days at Columbia, where she accused the school of hiring anti-Semitic professors, the conservative public intellectual has famously clashed with accused leftists on whatever public platform she’s assumed. Weiss was an iconoclast at not only the right-leaning editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, but also a real home wrecker on the staid 14th floor of The New York Times. Hired by former editorial page editor James Bennet to intellectually stimulate and provoke, Weiss’ brand of commentary agitated Times readers and colleagues. She is perhaps best known for her noisy departure from the op-ed page, in 2020, a saga in which she accused the paper of slanted coverage, the newsroom of political groupthink, and her colleagues of waging a secret bullying campaign against her. 

Due to her frequently viral indignance, Weiss became the vanguard of a group of famously and equally “cancelled” public intellectuals and their sympathizers. Yet ostracism, it seemed, had its perks. Her current perch on Substack, named Common Sense, generates in the neighborhood of $1 million annually. And as Vanity Fair has noted, she is already a fixture on the paid speaking circuit. Naturally, the University of Austin benefited from a Bari Weiss bump. Some 12 hours after Weiss announced the names of some of the University’s affiliates—luminaries like Larry Summers, academics like Steven Pinker, journalists like Andrew Sullivan and Caitlin Flanagan, artists like David Mamet, and a host of other names one can read here—I was told by a founding member that 900 academics had reached out to enquire about joining. 

In the Common Sense post announcing the creation of the school, Palo Kanelos, the former president of St. John’s College, Annapolis, laid out his vision of the ideal university as hearkening back to “an institution that originated in 11th-century Europe,” where its students were “insulated from the quotidian struggle to make ends meet, and where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn.” The University of Austin seems prepared to build atop this by setting up shop in Texas’s weird capital city, focusing primarily on providing an MFA-level program for modern-day aimless postgrads, and then launching an undergraduate program in 2024. It sounds quixotic, but the financing isn’t ephemeral. The University has been seeded, in part, by a charity controlled by Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, and currently has over 700 would-be donors in the hopes of raising an initial $250 million for this University of Phoenix-meets-Tucker on the prairie.