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.
Potential intellectual inbreeding aside, the right-leaning public intellectuals in my rolodex were moderately thrilled about what one of them called a “free market” approach to confronting the free speech issues in higher education. “[It’s] not obvious that you can’t fix what’s broken,” one popular rightwing media personality told me, having heard that the project had been in the works for the past few months. Indeed, the evolution of the digital economy has already remade the media industry, allowing columnists like Weiss to circumvent the progressive gatekeepers who signed her paychecks and build her own subscription businesses on Substack. Why shouldn’t Weiss and her network reconstitute the university, too?
Ever since evangelist Bob Jones began fretting about colleges teaching evolution in the 1920s, America has seen a proliferation of conservative alternatives to higher education—some established as explicitly religious (Oral Roberts University, Liberty U.), some adopting a nonsectarian but anti-progressive stance (Hillsdale College, Claremont Graduate University). Other such institutions function merely as jingoistic, unaccredited diploma mills (Patriot Bible University). Just as promiscuous are the nonprofits and think tanks that use mass communication and outside scholarships to counter what they see as rampant liberal bias in higher education (think PragerU, the nonprofit media company that frequently uploads videos that present factually incorrect claims about, for instance, climate science, immigration and COVID-19).
The University of Austin, however, seems less focused on right-wing ideology than on pedagogy that provides a counterbalance to the perceived censoriousness that has overtaken college campuses, and the culture writ large. The university’s first offering is a summer program called “The Forbidden Courses,” which “invites top students from other universities to join us for a spirited discussion about the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” The borders of the culture war extend even into the University of Austin’s planned “Entrepreneur and Leadership MA,” which is advertised as a corrective to the typical MBA diploma mills churning out “passive learners” taught “a lowest-common-denominator curriculum comprised of the most abstract principles of accounting, finance, management, and organizational leadership.” The solution, per Weiss et al.: a curriculum based on the “classical principles of leadership and market foundations.”
In the coming years, the University aims to take this purportedly heterodox approach a step further with coursework covering the natural and engineering sciences—likely a response to festering culture wars in the scientific community over increasingly controversial topics such as biological differences between the sexes and the heritability of intelligence. Meanwhile, the University plans to acquire the brick-and-mortar trappings of a real college, purchasing land and building physical classrooms, and even promising athletics programs and a student affairs office (though those may be “outsourced or streamlined whenever possible to keep costs down”, per the University’s FAQ). Soon they hope to offer real degrees. Accreditation seems likely, given the caliber and financing power of the people involved, although one imagines a battle with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools would be just the sort of publicity that Weiss craves.
I don’t wish to reflexively disparage the contrarians, a varied group of formerly liberal and center-right thinkers who have been disillusioned after falling out of step with captious liberal institutions. I’ve read The Shadow University. I kind of like Allan Bloom. I’ve consistently found the idea of protesting controversial speakers on college campuses by preventing them from speaking to be sophomoric, and I’ve got the cringey college-era op-eds to prove it. I can vividly recall watching a group of students attempt to perform a citizens’ arrest on Karl Rove when he came to speak at Claremont McKenna, a ridiculous stunt that almost succeeded.
Of course, the University of Austin is something of a stunt too. Whatever legitimate gripes Weiss may have with the progressive monoculture that dominates elite institutions, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the proposed solution: a self-selecting finishing school for elitist young contrarians and the children of the idle rich in search of intellectual credentials to bolster their various grievances. The founding manifesto of the University suggests that it will provide an academic sanctuary for aspiring intellectuals to explore a diversity of political thought. Instead, it’s hard to imagine the school as anything more than a revenue-generating shingle for a centrist elite that is anything but oppressed.
Will 19-year-old minorities, or high schoolers who are the first of their families to go to college, decide that a university dedicated to the study of being a professional gadfly is a good investment? Would my immigrant mother have approved of my sister choosing this place over Yale? (Unless they wanted a direct pipeline into an associate position at Thiel Capital after graduation, and knew this when they started applying to colleges as wee little high school juniors, I’d assume the answer is no. Plus, I assume Thiel, an avowed libertarian, wants members of the Harvard-Yale-Stanford axis allocating his money.)
I still maintain some libertarian tendencies of my own, and those include radical skepticism of scholastic organizations funded by moneyed interests with the explicit goal of churning out young political activists. The unfortunate truth is that, barring some apocalyptic paradigm shift, the primary purpose of an undergraduate university degree is to improve one’s economic status. Of course, there remains the Bloomian notion of academe as a walled garden to challenge students, break down their biases, teach the great tomes and cultivate critical thinking. Certainly that is the literary and philosophical heritage to which the University of Austin aspires. More realistically, a degree in professional contrarianism becomes akin to a M.F.A.: slightly indulgent, potentially prestigious, but with an infinitesimal chance of turning its recipient into the next Chad Harbach or Spike Lee, or in this case… Bari Weiss.
Time will tell whether the University of Austin becomes the next Hillsdale, the next Yale, or merely a physical instantiation of Substack: a safe space for aggrieved center-right academics to expound on race and gender without fear of cancellation. Until then, it has already achieved one of its unspoken culture war goals: to affront and unsettle the liberal academic institutions that its charter critiques. As one particularly enthusiastic person in my Rolodex put it, the University of Austin is “a market-based solution, it features a diverse lot of thinkers unified against woke tyranny, and”—emphasis mine—“it’s likely to create turmoil inside a lot of more mainstream institutions.”
That last point might be the most salient of all. After all, 900 academics rushing to enquire about joining the University hints at the larger, pent-up demand to escape a troubling reality of the modern university—the legitimate worry that academic inquiry is being stifled. But it also hints at a fundamental question of what the modern university is, and where its priorities should lie: is it a walled garden for dedicated academics to freely pursue scholarship without the fear of retribution? Or is it a place devoted to the intellectual and professional development of its students, even if success in that endeavor comes at the cost of professional standing?
Whatever the answer may be, I don’t think the University of Austin comes any closer to answering it. There may be a ledger of intellectual superstars on board, but their starpower outshines the purpose of the university itself.