By almost any measure, colleges and universities are failing students—and the country. They provide an increasingly inferior product at an increasingly exorbitant cost. It’s a joke that many universities have more administrators than undergraduates. It’s a huge problem that only a third of all college students expect that they will be prepared to enter the workforce when they graduate, and that employers nevertheless believe that recent graduates vastly overrate their competencies. It’s a scandal that fewer than 60 percent of students who enroll in a four-year college graduate after six years, and that many of these—not to mention those who do obtain a degree—leave with crippling debt. But the failure of our universities imperils more than the economy. It has damaged our essential institutions and has begun to erode the foundations of civilization itself.
Education joins what would otherwise be separated, enlarging the realm and enriching the comprehension of human experience. It works in multiple dimensions, linking past and future, time and eternity, and the individual with society and the world. The person mired in ignorance is disconnected from what is before and after, above and below, and from his neighbor on either side, like a point frozen at Cartesian coordinates (0,0,0). This is the situation of the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, who, in their media-saturated ignorance, are chained by the neck so that they can see nothing of themselves or their neighbors and nothing above or behind them—nothing but shadows that flash before their eyes.
The backbone of civilization links the discernible past with the uncharted future. But the civilizational spine that gives form and spiritual firmness to a nascent age does not grow spontaneously. It is generated and regenerated by education, which preserves and transmits the hard-won inheritance of tradition and culture. In receiving this multifaceted inheritance, we come to appreciate the necessary conditions of peaceful order and human flourishing. And in encountering the best—and honestly acknowledging and wrestling with the worst—that has been thought and said and done, we learn to look up and around: to search out timeless truth and transcendent being and to attend to our neighbors. Thus enlarged, we may at last become capable, as John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of a University, of forming an “instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us.”
The word “education” comes from the Latin educare, “to lead out” or “to bring up.” Many American colleges and universities, however, approach education in ways that effectively keep students down. They teach them that our aspirations for truth, beauty, and goodness have been mere projections of the lowest instincts: instruments of domination and servitude, power, and systemic injustice—as though there were nothing beyond the rigged game of the Cave, where a few puppeteers keep multitudes of oppressed peoples in the dark. That teaching would be unobjectionable, were the voices opposing such reductivism as audible on campus as those advancing it. But they are not.
What is strange is that many professors accept the puppeteers’ terms, even as they rail against them. They act as if their job were to reverse the expansion of mind and heart that education is meant to accomplish—to turn poetry into jargon, music into discord, and wine into water. For everything appears small and flat and gray in the dim light of cultural repudiation. Heroic greatness of soul is reduced to toxic masculinity. Beauty is understood to be a construction of whiteness, and mathematics, the glory of pure intellect, an instrument of cultural subjugation. Intellectual humility and interpretive charity, tried-and-true gateways to surpassing wonders, are in many universities as dispensable as ancient languages are for classics majors at Princeton, or Chaucer and Shakespeare for English majors at Yale.
This is not all. In Plato’s Cave image, the would-be educator receives no hearing. He confronts a chorus of hostility and derision and is accused of corrupting souls. Similarly, speakers, professors, and students who challenge political and intellectual orthodoxy in our universities—generally advancing views, incidentally, that most Americans find uncontroversial—are regularly disinvited, slandered, and sometimes fired simply because of the opinions they hold, the questions they ask, or the arguments they make. Little wonder that more than 80 percent of college students report self-censoring.
In brief, a crisis of illiberalism engulfs American higher education. Wherever the free exchange of ideas is discouraged, wherever intellectual pluralism is suppressed, the pursuit of truth is crippled and thought deformed. But it’s not just students who are shortchanged. Life in general becomes more solitary, impoverished, and brutish. These are symptoms of incipient societal osteoporosis, which, in the worst case, culminates in fractures of the civilizational backbone. This is what happened during the French Revolution, when the National Assembly reset the calendar to the Year One, and in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge, not to be outdone in cultural repudiation, began at Year Zero. At such times, thought and imagination shrivel, like a plant cut off at the root. Neighbor turns against neighbor, and individuals, overcome by anxiety and depression, turn against themselves. And while ideological tyranny and societal collapse may seem like remote possibilities in the United States, too much of our common life looks like what historian Niall Ferguson calls Totalitarianism Lite.
To be clear, the picture I’ve just sketched reflects my own views. My colleagues at UATX, commonly known as the University of Austin, would doubtless describe things differently, though I wouldn’t be surprised if most agreed with much of what I’ve said. In any case, we are united in our belief that higher education needs radical reform and that the best way forward is to start a new university.
Let me say something about who we are, what new ideas we plan to implement, and why I think we can have a major impact on higher education.
Our guiding principles are few but firm. We have faith in the process of liberal education—in the capacity of individuals to discover truth and attain freedom through the unfettered examination and open discussion of fundamental human questions. We are committed to high standards of academic rigor. We believe that students can learn, and professors can teach, only if they are free to ask questions and share opinions without fear. We are committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse, without which truth is eclipsed and education decays into indoctrination.
Free and open debate, however, is not a sufficient condition of teaching and learning. We are guided by a robust conception of human flourishing. We believe that a rigorous education reveals the basic stuff of our being and equips us to pursue what we love and do well. We seek to cultivate excellence as the condition of meaningful freedom: the power to do good, honor truth, and nurture beauty.
We want our students to understand the foundations and blessings of civilization and political life, to grasp the importance of law, virtue, order, beauty, meaningful work and leisure, and the sacred. We want them to appreciate the unique vibrancy of the American form of government and way of life. We want them to become conversant in the various languages of understanding and to learn to advance ideas and arguments logically and lucidly in speech and writing. We especially want them to develop prudence, which requires seeing things whole, making connections, and sorting signal from noise across multiple domains of experience.
We believe that politics should be a subject of study in a university, not its operating system. We reject partisan politics and the ideological invasion of the classroom and the laboratory. As an institution, we will not publicly endorse or promote political positions.
Students need a dedicated space in which to grow and ripen. They need to be disentangled from the urgencies of the here and now. We therefore embrace the idea of the university as a tower—not of ivory but of glass. From within the tower, it must be possible to observe and reflect on society; and from without, to see what goes on inside it. Radical transparency, not a value of most universities, is essential to everything we do.
UATX aspires to revitalize American higher education as a steward of tradition and an engine of innovation. This combination, which recalls the Roman god Janus, who looks backward and forward simultaneously, makes for a creative tension. Tradition without innovation tends toward sterility; soil is fertile only to the extent that it is enriched by the decayed residue of new growths. Innovation without tradition is blind; it tends to repeat the mistakes of the past while falling short of its successes.
A UATX degree will not, at first, have the cachet of an Ivy League school. But “we don’t sell credential, we develop potential,” as our founding president, Pano Kanelos, recently remarked. And we propose to offer a genuinely liberal and liberating education at half the cost of elite colleges and universities. How?
First, we will have a low administrative footprint and guard against administrative bloat. We will outsource as many tasks as possible to private entities and individuals. Higher-level on-campus administrative positions, like head librarian or registrar, will, as far as possible, be filled by Ph.D.s competent to teach in our academic programs. We will forgo the usual Club-Med student amenities. We won’t have expensive intercollegiate athletics. We are researching ways to introduce economic efficiencies into administration, such as giving academic units direct control over and responsibility for their budgets.
We will channel the money we save on administration and nonacademic amenities toward instruction. These cost-saving measures will strengthen our academic programs and help us attract good students. Financially unstable universities inevitably erode academically. They chase income wherever they can find it, regardless of academic quality, and replace seasoned professors with poorly paid and overworked adjuncts.
We care about academic freedom and have taken steps to preserve it. To begin with, we will not offer tenure. Tenure is supposed to protect academic freedom, but today it has paradoxically led to narrowing the confines of acceptable opinion and has encouraged political conformity. In the humanities and social sciences, as several surveys have shown, self-identified liberals outnumber conservatives 12 to one and are far less open to opposing political viewpoints than the general public. What is more, universities increasingly require Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion oaths for tenure-track jobs and tenure in all academic fields, including those in STEM. For these reasons, conservatives are unlikely to be hired and even less likely to receive tenure.
We find this undesirable not because we are an institution of the Right. We are not. We are trans-political. It is because, in a university, all sides of every contested question deserve a hearing. If students read Friedrich Hayek, they should read Karl Marx—and vice versa. We propose to advance intellectual pluralism and avoid ideological sclerosis by offering graduated-term contracts with specifiable deliverables. To reward those willing to risk working without the protection of tenure, we will have low course loads and pay extremely competitive salaries. And if issues of academic freedom do arise, we plan to submit them to an Academic Freedom Review Board external to the university, with whose judgment we are pledged to abide.
What about our curriculum? We begin with Intellectual Foundations (IF), a core liberal arts program required of all undergraduates in their first two years. IF seminars, complemented by common lectures that draw connections across different courses, will emphasize writing and discussion. Courses include “Chaos and Civilization”; “Knowing, Doing, Making, Wisdom”; “Writing and the English Language”; “Quantitative Reasoning I and II”; “The Beginning of Politics”; “Christianity and Islam, Europe and the East”; “Intellectual Foundations of Economics”; “Modernity and the West”; “Work, Leisure, and the Good Life”; “The Uses and Abuses of Technology”; “The American Experiment I and II”; “The Sublime and the Beautiful”; “Ideological Experiments of the Twentieth Century”; and “Mortality and Meaning, God and Suffering.” Readings range from Homer, Euclid, Genesis, the Gospel of John, Ibn Tufayl, and Confucius to Descartes, Tocqueville, Orwell, Frederick Douglass, and Flannery O’Connor.
By the time students enter their junior year, they will have several intellectual Velcro hooks with which they can grab on to any new subject. That will be crucial as they enter one of our Centers of Inquiry—Arts and Letters; Politics, Economics and History; Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; Education and Public Service—and begin to concentrate on another distinctive element of our curriculum, the Polaris Projects. These projects involve doing, making, building, or discovering something of general benefit. Like the North Star, they are meant to orient a student’s education and give it an overall trajectory. Polaris Projects can be creative, scholarly, technical, artistic, philanthropic, entrepreneurial—the list is not exhaustive. But all will involve connecting with people and employing resources outside the university.
Our students may not always bring these projects to fruition. But the process of seeing a human need, drafting plans, formulating and reformulating goals and means, researching and experimenting, and trying and failing will prepare them to be thoughtful innovators and builders. It will teach them how to work cooperatively; how to research precedents and identify best practices; how to form and leverage connections; and how to plan, execute, assess, and publicly present their own work. It will prepare them for life.
I believe that UATX will help rescue American higher education for two reasons.
First, we will succeed. The demand for authentic education far exceeds the supply. We proved that with our Forbidden Courses program this past June, which attracted exceptionally capable and broad-minded students to study subjects like religion, feminism, capitalism, and ideology with cultural and intellectual leaders like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Niall Ferguson, and Deirdre McCloskey. Our students wrote widely circulated and laudatory articles about their experience. Forbidden Courses alumni spontaneously formed a Student Advisory Board for UATX and held elections for officers.
Our outstanding team of trustees and advisors includes leaders in politics, business, culture, the arts, and the academy. We have received more than 5,000 job inquiries from professors and thousands of inquiries from students. And fund-raising is going extremely well. In the first ten months after the public announcement of UATX, we gained more than 1,500 individual donors, more than 60 of whom made gifts of six, seven, or eight figures, and we’re on track to hit our capital campaign target a year early. This is really happening.
Second, success breeds imitation. UATX will still be in the process of acquiring accreditation when our initial class of undergraduate students graduates (this is, in fact, how the process works). These first students will be risk-takers who want an education more than a credential. These are the kinds of people who become innovators and builders. They will make their mark in many fields, including the rapidly changing arena of education—and when they do, the world will take notice.
Infectious excitement is a natural consequence of intellectual invigoration. “You’ve given us a sense of hope,” one Forbidden Courses alum wrote, “and that hope and incredible vision has spread all the way to Dublin, Ireland, where I applied from.” Another called UATX “one of the most exciting developments in American education and intellectual life,” while a third wrote that “UATX has renewed my faith in the future of academia.” I have no doubt that our example will encourage a new generation of educational entrepreneurs to found colleges and universities worthy of such hope and faith: places where teaching and learning will again flourish.
Top Photo: Recalling the Roman god Janus, UATX aspires to revitalize American higher education as both a steward of tradition and an engine of innovation. (DEA/G. NIMATALLAH/DE AGOSTINI / GETTY IMAGES)