What’s missing from the new University of Austin? (Hint: everything but disgruntled academics)

Twitter was all afire with news of the forming of The University of Austin by a group of right-leaning academics, pundits and gadflies, primarily led by Bari Weiss. Here’s a link to the announcement, written by who will be the new “university’s” president, Pano Kanelos, a post titled “We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We’re Starting a New One,” which was published on Weiss’ substack site “Common Sense.”

It’s an easy story to make fun of because all the people involved in this new “university” have found themselves criticized or canceled for one reason or another, and the announcement’s tone is classic “I am taking my ball and going elsewhere” pout (more on that below). What makes this even  more amusing is the University of Austin happens to be located in the same city as another well-established university. Somehow, I expect a lawsuit of some sort that will result in either a name change or a move to a new city.

When I first heard this story, I tweeted and compared these plans to MOOCs, and I thought about the book I published two years ago, More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs. The book is for sale of course, and it is also available in its entirety on JSTOR here. Unfortunately, the book was published just as Massive Open Online Courses were no longer a threat to traditional higher education and after MOOCs morphed into a series of training courses and “edutainment” (think MasterClass). Fortunately, my book is actually about the history of efforts and failures to “disrupt” higher education.

In my book, I argue that MOOCs were not an unprecedented innovation in distance education, but rather a continuation of previous innovations like more “traditional” online courses and programs that began getting traction in the 1990s, along with correspondence courses and programs from the early 20th/late 19th centuries. Since the demise of MOOCs (and since my book was published), there have been several other lukewarm at best attempts to change everything about higher education. There was the launched and now largely failed Global Freshman Academy part of Arizona State’s enormous online presence. Frank Bruni wrote last year about Minerva University as an alternative for going to college online during the pandemic, but as far as I can tell, Minerva remains an eccentric school of about 1000 students.  There was Outlier, which was pitched as a better version of MOOCs, and while it still appears to be around, they seem a long ways away from “disrupting” higher education as we know it. And so forth.

But as I read and re-read and thought about Kanelos’ announcement, I realized there actually is something different. The University of Austin is trying to create an entirely new kind of “higher education,” one completely devoid of students, courses, degrees, and research, and one sustained entirely by the presence of cancelled faculty and disgruntled quasi-intellectuals. Kanelos is not the first academic to imagine how much better the university life would be without students, but he may very well be the first one to actually write this down and announce it to the world.

More details than perhaps you want after the break.

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Kanelos begins by claiming that universities are thick with “illiberalism” and the result is conservative/contrarian/provocative faculty are being silenced. Kanelos points to some studies on this– all of which were conducted by the conservative-leaning Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. Isn’t it odd that the CSPI seems to only focus on the ways conservatives in academia have been targeted? Isn’t it odd Kanelos makes no mention of left-leaning academics who have been targeted by the Professor Watchlist and by groups like Turning Point USA? But whatever.

Anyway, the situation has gotten so bad that Kanelos and his colleagues have decided to start a new university. Or something kind of like a university, sort of.  Kanelos says that future historians will study how things got so bad and intolerant in academia, but in the meantime, he and his colleagues are taking action:

We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.

I mean that quite literally.

A little later, Kanelos “literally” makes it clear he isn’t talking about an online university:

It will surely seem retro—perhaps even countercultural—in an era of massive open online courses and distance learning to build an actual school in an actual building with as few screens as possible. But sometimes there is wisdom in things that have endured.

The university as we know it today is an institution that originated in 11th-century Europe. The fact that there have been universities for nearly a thousand years—despite all the extraordinary changes in the nature of knowledge and communications technology in that time—tells us something important.

Considering the fact that right now this “actual school” in “actual buildings” is currently a rented office space in what looks like a neighborhood near the other famous university in Austin, Kanelos et al has a ways to go.

Anyway, it’s not just the lack of infrastructure; it’s also a lack of students or academic content or even a perceived need. Oh, there are some nods to students in Kanelos’ announcement, and there is promise of actual classes and degree programs on the “university’s” website— graduate degrees in “Entrepreneurship and Leadership,” “Politics and Applied History,” and “Education and Public Service.” There’s even vaguely a reference to establishing the undergraduate college by 2024.

But this is quite different from MOOCs and other efforts by educational entrepreneurs. From the beginning with correspondence, distance education innovators have been motivated by two contradictory impulses: how can we provide better access to an education to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend a university, and how can we make money from this? When Daphne Koller spoke passionately in her 2012 TED talk about Coursera’s goal of providing access to higher education to the townships in South Africa, I think she was being completely sincere. Of course, she also explained in interviews the business model and how Coursera planned to make money– and she clearly hoped a lot of money. I think the same is true with these other entrepreneurs: yes, they all want to/wanted to make money, but they also all believe their innovations filled an educational need that would help students.

In contrast, the University of Austin has just skipped ahead to trying to create a university comprised of a board of advisors and “faculty fellows” all of whom see themselves as somehow cancelled and “wronged” by the rest of the illiberal academic establishment. I can actually picture this. If you too are an academic, just imagine that guy (and it is not always but usually a man) that forces you to roll your eyes and bite your tongue every time he opens his mouth. Now imagine an entire university comprised of slightly different versions of “that guy.”

Kanelos’ argument about anti-conservativism in higher education is mostly but not entirely wrong. Higher education does have a left bias that sometimes crosses over to orthodoxy. I see my own politics and general views not as “radical” or “leftist” or even “progressive,” but as “liberal,” and in recent years, that has sometimes gotten me on the wrong side of some of my colleagues. I’ve seen this play out in a variety of ways, though less on my campus (faculty and students at places like EMU are too busy with trying to balance the work of academia with the work needed to pay the bills) and more in academic organizations and at conferences. To me, it doesn’t seem like students and universities as a whole are doing most of the canceling; it feels more like academics are mostly canceling each other.

That said, the left bias these people are complaining about is being grossly exaggerated, and I don’t think higher education as a profession is a lot more politically skewed than many other professions. I mean, professions like the military, corporate management, banking, policing, and fire fighting all tend to be conservative, and I don’t hear a lot of complaints about that. And look, if someone wants to be famous in large part for being a contrarian and a provocateur (as is the case with every single one of the people named in this announcement), then that someone can’t get too upset if they make people mad at them. Academic freedom and tenure offers a level of job security, but your students and colleagues and the public at large are still entitled to object and to disagree with you.

And there is always a story behind the story. For example, take “wronged” elsewhere previously founding faculty fellow, Peter Boghossian.  I blogged about him and his colleagues a couple years ago because of their botched effort in “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.” You can read my post, but in the nutshell, I don’t think he got in trouble because of his politics (as he claims). Boghossian got in trouble because he did not follow the rules of his university’s Institutional Review Board and he was apparently unaware it is completely wrong, immoral, and even illegal to do research that purposefully embarrasses research subjects. Apparently, he didn’t think the federal rules and protocols for doing research involving humans applied to him. Considering his discipline (philosophy) is not one where scholars routinely do research involving human subjects, that’s not surprising.

Anyway, I have a feeling that the University of Austin will soon be morphing into some kind of think tank or maybe a right-leaning website or something like that, which is totally fine. But I bet the faculty meetings would have been a real hoot.

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