AUSTIN, Texas — You may remember the announcement one year ago today of a new private university here that hoped to better promote civil discourse and viewpoint diversity—to avoid what its leaders see as a “liberal bias” on most campuses that they say leads to groupthink rather than free and open inquiry.
The news went viral—it was all over social media, and even cable news.
Along with all that attention, though, came plenty of criticism. To some, it seemed like the goal was to make a university that just skewed in the opposite political direction. Even a couple of prominent academics who had signed up to advise the new university dropped out amid the backlash, including Steven Pinker, a well-known Harvard professor who is a bestselling author.
All that noise around the institution has kind of died down these days. So we were wondering what’s up with the University of Austin, or UATX as it calls itself for now, since you can’t call yourself a university in Texas unless you are certified by the state.
It turns out, this fledgling university has been quietly working on raising money and finding land for the campus—and testing out its unusual model. That included hosting a two-week series of summer classes it dubbed “forbidden courses.”
To find out the latest, EdSurge sat down last week with the president of the University of Austin, Pano Kanelos, in the effort’s temporary offices here.
Before taking this role at UATX, Kanelos was president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, an institution known for its Great Books curriculum. And early in his career, he was a classroom teacher in a school as well, as part of one of the first cohorts of teachers in Teach for America.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: What is the north star for you that made you want to get involved with this upstart university? Why create a new institution from scratch?
Pano Kanelos: We say that the north star of the institution is the fearless pursuit of truth. Obviously you have to unpack that. What we think the purpose of a university is, and this will get to why I’m doing this project now, is to give human beings the ability to better understand themselves and the world. So to develop what we commonly think of as critical thinking or critical capacities. And in order to do that, you have to have a maximalist approach to the exchange of ideas for human beings to learn, and to extend the realm of their knowledge.
They have to be explorers. They have to go beyond what’s comfortable, beyond what’s familiar, into uncharted territories.
And one of the things that inspired us was the state of higher education today where it feels like the scope for that kind of exploration is becoming increasingly restricted or constricted for various reasons. … So trying to create an institution that foregrounds that, that makes its north star to think about what the pursuit of truth entails, what’s possible in the pursuit of truth, what’s impossible, and how we can extend the range of human knowledge in ways that are both fearless and maybe even courageous.
If you’re concerned about an ideological bent to an extreme at colleges, is there a risk that you end up creating something that has a bent in the other direction and polarizes the other way?
We’re highly aware of that risk and are doing everything to avert that. The problem is not—as you hear in the media—that the left has captured higher education and is a bunch of Marxist professors who are trying to corrupt the youth and all that. That’s not the problem. I mean, the left does dominate higher education, yes. The problem is simply that political asymmetry is a phenomenon. The fact that any institution of higher learning, if it becomes politically or ideologically asymmetrical, tilts things too far in one direction, it makes it harder to have open inquiry and open conversations.
And that applies on the right as well. So if our purpose is to become, let’s say, transpolitical—to exist outside of politics so that politics can be something we study … then moving in the opposite direction and creating a conservative institution would frustrate our ambitions from the very beginning. So we have no intention to do that.
You’re looking for land to build a physical campus. When it’s off the ground, how will it feel different to a student that is on the campus and taking classes compared to a traditional campus?
I don’t know that the campus itself will be radically unconventional. I mean, we want to build a beautiful campus—I think beauty is a prerequisite of learning. You want to create an atmosphere that allows students, faculty and staff to exist askew from society, from the general culture, so that they can learn how to create some distance and reflect upon what’s happening in the world around them. So I don’t know that our campus itself would be constituted in a way that is radically different than others.
But I think campus culture is something that may be different. We believe very strongly that for us as a country, as a culture, as a world, [we need to] pull back from the kind of heated, no-holds-barred politicizing of everything, and from the kind of zero-sum-game mentality that we all seem to be inhabiting.
«We thought we could stay outside the culture war by being an institution of higher learning. What we didn’t realize is the kind of gravitational pull of the culture. You just can’t avoid it.”
—Pano Kanelos, president of the fledgling University of Austin
So from the moment a student enters our campus, probably even before they come, we’re going to be very intentional in thinking about how do you build cultures of conversation? How do you build cultures of trust? What sort of things do we need to do as students, as faculty, as a campus community that will allow us to get to know each other as human beings in the deepest possible way so that we can then engage in the kind of vexing questions that humanity faces.
Because I think we have this often backwards in the culture today. What happens too frequently is that we meet each other over contentious issues, and we meet each other as strangers. And so the exchange that we have is one of kind of anonymity and conflict. If we get to know each other as human beings, if we get to trust one another and then engage in conversations that may be difficult or contentious—that they have a very different tenor at that point. You have the ability actually to listen to, and to find ways to cross over from one idea set to the other, to learn together, to change your mind, because you’re engaging another human being.
It’s been the radical dehumanizing of discourse that I think is the root problem we have today, both in the culture at large and I think to some extent in universities.
This is the perfect time to ask about something you’ve actually done, since a lot of your university is still just a plan at this point. But this summer you ran two weeks of summer courses called “forbidden courses.” They were on subjects that included “Psychology of Social Status,” and “Learning from Native Sons: The Pain, Rage, and Hope of America’s Most Loyal Critics.” Why these courses, and why do you think these would be forbidden at another campus?
That’s a great example. We call them forbidden courses because we’re trying to attract young people from other universities. And if you tell young people something’s forbidden, it’s automatically attractive. So it’s a bit cheeky.
But what we really meant is forbidden in the sense that we wanted to have conversations that don’t often fit comfortably into the campus environment or cultures today. So things that people are hesitant to talk about, or at least hesitant to express their own opinions about—to create a space where that could actually happen.
So how did we do this? They were small, 40 students each week for two weeks. So we had about 80 spots. … Even before they came here, it was a process of communicating to students what the value set was. That we’re creating an institution that is going to welcome people from across the spectrum of political inclination, belief and experience.
And then in the actual selection process, we had them write a series of essays and we had them talk about not only their interests in the program, but the experiences in their lives that prompted them to want to engage in this kind of program. And that told us a lot about who they were, where they were coming from, the kind of ideas that they would bring to the table. We were very careful to curate a group of students who we knew had different things to say to each other.
It sounds from the video on your website that some were people who are actively supporting Trump, and others are Black Lives Matters activists.
Yes, and everything in between. We had one kid who came and told us he was a committed monarchist—he believed that democracy was overrated. Then we had a kid who was an anarchist. And bringing them together and giving them an opportunity to know that everybody else is there for the same purpose, that lowers their guard.
And then on the first evening, for example, we had a banquet. And Peter Boghossian, a professor … and a cultural critic who thinks a lot about these issues, he has 13 rules for difficult conversations that he went through [with the students]. One rule, for example, is when you listen to what somebody says and when you respond, don’t say, “but”—say “and.” If somebody says X, you say, ‘I hear what you’re saying, and here’s what I have to say.’ Little things, tiny strategies that create a ‘rhetorical ecosystem’ that changes the tenor of conversation.
And so the conversations that we had in that group were extraordinary. The students universally said [in surveys as they left] that this was the experience that they hoped they would have at a university.
It’s not just talking about [the subjects of the courses], like empire, it’s not talking about capitalism or race. It’s talking about the stuff that lies behind those issues. What is really true about the human experience? What is it that we can say about the human experience that rings true to us? What answers are better? What answers are worse when we ask questions? … Behind them is something even more important than that is just the general question of what does it mean to be a human being and how should we live our lives?
Your model has other differences as well. You mentioned there won’t be traditional academic departments.
Absolutely. So we’re not planning on having traditional academic departments. We’re going to orient the education around what we call “centers of academic inquiry,” which are more like research institutes or think tanks—thematically constituted. So we have one on politics, economics, and history, and one on education and public service.
The idea is that the faculty who are gathered there, or a combination of scholars and practitioners, so they’re bringing the world inside the university and outside the university together. And the work that they do is going to be project-oriented and applied primarily.
You’ve also said as you launched this that there are too many administrative costs in running a traditional university these days. Meanwhile, we are seeing more and more services and facilities at universities, but lately there’s been a lot of talk of things like adding mental health services in this tough time and as a more diverse population is coming to traditional colleges. How do you balance trying to keep your costs down and these other needs in higher education?
I think you gotta separate those things. I mean, our intention is to meet the deepest human needs that our students have. Those human needs include pastoral needs, intellectual development, socialization, those sorts of things. So I think mental health falls under something that’s sort of essential. That’s different from sushi bars and climbing walls.
If you look at the way universities have developed … there is an amenities arms race to attract students. Why? Because the truth is that it’s a buyer’s market. There are fewer students seeking higher education today than there have been traditionally in the past. …
Everybody knows there’s a demographic cliff coming in 2025. And so schools are increasingly agitated about this and trying to compete with one another for students. And, you know, nobody really touts the academic differences between institutions. I mean, if you go on a set of college tours and you visit 10 campuses, you’re not really going to learn very much about the academic differences between institutions. Maybe one has a program that another one doesn’t have, et cetera. What they’re gonna foreground for you are, the brand-new cafeteria or the shiny workout center or the successful football team.
Will you have any of those things?
No, none of those things. Because I think all of those things are extraneous. If you believe as I do that the cost of higher education is an ethical problem, not just a financial one, then with a clear conscience we can’t build a university that’s amenities-oriented.
I do have to ask about the issue that made all the headlines a year ago when you launched. Because some people, including Steven Pinker, the prominent Harvard professor, were on an advisory board at first for UATX and then withdrew. Pinker said he worried your university was going toward polarizing in the opposite direction. Do you hope to get him back?
Look, I’d love to have Steven back. We had 38 on the advisory board when we started, and we lost two. And for the first 24 or 48 hours after we announced, we were the number one story on Twitter in the world. You kind of kick the hornet’s nest and all the attention you get and all the negativity. The fact that pretty much everybody stuck with us through that I think was a sign that they were committed to what we were doing.
What we failed to see in advance was, we thought we could stay outside the culture war by being an institution of higher learning. And what we didn’t realize is the kind of gravitational pull of the culture. You just can’t avoid it.
We shouldn’t have been shocked that we would’ve been put into categories by this hyper-politicized, partisan world when we announced what we were doing. It has calmed down [because] that’s just not what’s happening. A year later, people are curious about the model that we’re talking about.
I have no interest in a culture war. People were calling us the anti-woke university. Who would build a university that is “against woke”? What does that even mean? You build a university that stands around for millennia. A couple hundred years from now, all of our current political concerns are gonna be footnotes. People are gonna be like, “what, Twitter? What is that?”