“This is a bold group of individuals who are willing to say, ‘we are committed to these long-held ideals of the pursuit of truth, academic freedom, open inquiry, and spirited debate,’” said University of Austin (UATX) advisor Stacy Hock in an exclusive interview with The Texan.
Hock, a native Texan philanthropist with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Texas, is one of more than 30 members of UATX’s diverse board of founding trustees and advisors. Other advisors include Harvard President Emeritus Larry Summers, Brown University economist Glenn Loury, former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author David Mamet.
Since founding trustees journalist Bari Weiss and former St. John’s College President Pano Kanelos announced plans for the university on Monday, Hock says UATX has received more than 3,000 inquiries from potential faculty.
“These are not just recent Ph.D. graduates, but tenured professors, chaired professors, from many different universities,” said Hock. “The outpouring of inquiry to be involved professionally and to be a part of this project has been overwhelming.”
While Hock noted there were still individuals doing “great work” in higher education, she attributed the response partially to frustration with what many academics see as a “diminishing or a curbing of open and civil discourse” in institutions both nationally and internationally.
The first named members of the UATX founding faculty include philosopher and outspoken feminist Kathleen Stock, who as a professor at the University of Sussex sparked controversy for stating that transgender women are not biologically women and for her support of a ban on transgender women in women’s bathrooms and giving puberty blockers to minor children. Stock resigned following months of sustained harassment and death threats.
Founding faculty members also include philosopher Peter Boghossian, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch Parliament and now a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali is also a former Muslim who has received death threats for her public critiques of Islamic treatment of women.
After enduring harassment from both students and fellow faculty at Portland State University that included false allegations and years-long investigations, Boghossian resigned earlier this year writing, “[The university] has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.”
In 2022, UATX will offer a summer program entitled “The Forbidden Courses” for top students from other universities to explore controversial topics that have led to “censorship or self-censorship” at other institutions.
In the Fall of 2022, UATX will offer a 12-month Master of Arts program on Entrepreneurship and Leadership that will emphasize classical principles of leadership and market foundations and “embed” students in real-world professional fields.
“This program will ask students to engage with diverse perspectives and big questions, immerse them in world-class experiences, and equip them to be leaders in the public and private sectors,” said Hock.
In the following year, there will be an expanded two-year MA program, and additional graduate school offerings in Politics & Applied History and Education & Public Service, and in future years programs in technology, engineering, and mathematics.
According to UATX founding trustee and historian Niall Ferguson, the group will treat the project like a “start-up” company, and gradually build up programs and offerings. Undergraduate studies are slated to be unveiled in 2024 on a physical campus.
In an interview with MIT research scientist Lex Fridman, also a UATX advisor, Ferguson emphasized the importance of an in-person experience that included interactions both in and outside of a formal classroom.
“The core activity of teaching and learning I think requires real space,” explained Ferguson.
Hock says they have already begun the process of obtaining accreditation, have been raising private funding, and are also in the process of obtaining property for a campus in the Austin area.
The project had already raised over $10 million before Monday’s public announcement but founders expect to raise $250 million before launching undergraduate programs in 2024.
UATX will also join a small handful of American universities such as Hillsdale College in Michigan that eschew federal and state funding to maintain independence from government-imposed programs and excessive regulation.
Founders of UATX have also pledged to keep tuition costs at a minimum by avoiding large athletic programs and excessive bureaucracy, and plan to offer generous donor-funded scholarships.
The university’s website also states that they are recruiting students of all income levels who can “provide evidence of intellectual curiosity, perseverance, and grit,” but that they will not “arbitrarily factor in race, gender, class or any other form of identity” to admissions decisions since UATX will stand “firmly against that sort of discrimination in admissions.”
Not all responses to the founding of a new university with a commitment to ideological diversity have been positive.
Critics have accused the founding group of racism and Islamophobia. Some on social media have dismissed UATX advisors as disgruntled conservatives and profiteers although the group includes a wide array of ethnic and political diversity and is seeking non-profit status. Some media have been overtly contemptuous, with one major Texas newspaper jeering that “critics of ‘cancel culture’” had started an “unaccredited university.”
Kanelos, who will serve as the first UATX president, says that the time is right for a new university and points to studies showing that an increasing number of college students say their campus climate prevents them from discussing what they believe.
Even Texas schools have drawn scrutiny for free speech issues, with only Texas A&M University earning a high rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Hock notes that UATX has not only heard from a multitude of academics seeking involvement with the project, but that student inquiry this week has been “overwhelming.”
“I had one Texas mom email me who said she was crying at the possible opportunity for her children, and a very successful businessman who said, ‘my children may now have a place to go to school.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.