Bari Weiss University of Austin is nothing new
The school promises “forbidden lessons” to the students.
Photo: PBS / YouTube
In 1971, televangelist Jerry Falwell embarked on an ambitious new venture. With the help of Elmer Towns, a Christian scholar, he founded a new institution of higher education: Liberty University. Falwell had big dreams for her new school, as her official bio on Liberty’s website makes clear: Not only would it function as an ideological factory to produce new conservative activists, but it would do so on a large scale. Falwell wanted the school to reach 50,000 students, a goal the school says it has now achieved. Liberty was also not Falwell’s first educational experience. He had previously founded a K-12 school as an apartheid academy. Before the word “awakening” entered the lexicon of the Right, desegregation was the enemy of the day.
Decades later, the right remains obsessed with education, arguing against the alleged prevalence of critical race theory in public schools and the hysterical excesses of academic liberals. Race and gender are always concerns. Enter Bari Weiss, a self-proclaimed tribune of the people, with an announcement that parallels Falwell’s earlier foray into higher education: she too is starting a university with the help of her friends. Unaccredited University of Austin is “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” claims an article on Weiss’s Substack. “Almost a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities approve of the ousting of a colleague for having a bad opinion on burning issues such as immigration or gender differences,” wrote the new president of the college, Pano Kanelos, citing controversial scholar Eric Kaufmann. .
Kanelos is half right. There is a free speech crisis in higher education, but it exists on campuses like Liberty, where students and faculty have long complained about censorship from zealous administrators. My alma mater, a Christian university like Liberty, actively restricted the content we could publish in our student newspaper; a trustee once complained that I had used the expression “reproductive rights” in an article. Years later, the school confiscated copies of an independent student publication. Nonetheless, Kanelos ignores these examples to distinguish Yale, Stanford, and Harvard. In these “best schools,” he asked, “and in so many others, can we really say that the search for truth – once the central goal of a university – remains the highest virtue? Kanelos implies the existence of a past where the university was once free from donor pressure or administrative cowardice or, more specifically, pesky student activism. But this story only exists in his imagination. Universities have always been difficult places, where the free exchange of ideas often leads to intellectual turmoil.
It is precisely this intellectual turbulence that Kanelos, Weiss and their comrades seek to escape, just as Jerry Falwell did in the 1970s. Falwell was not an aberration. The right has long dreamed of alternatives to traditional higher education. Televangelist Pat Robertson founded Regent University for similar reasons. Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to house homeschool graduates and channel them into Republican politics. Hillsdale College has assumed a distinctly right-wing political identity over time and rejects federal funding “on principle”. (A Hillsdale professor sits on the University of Austin board of trustees.) These schools exist as laboratories for right-wing thinking; they are attached not to freedom of expression but to indoctrination. The University of Austin will be no different.
Consider the parties involved. As a student at Columbia University, Weiss developed her own reputation for censorship. A campus organization co-founded by Weiss “demanded that the administration change the department’s program and facilitate the filing of complaints against professors, measures that would have affected the responsibilities and duties of some academics, as well as their employment prospects. futures ”, authors Mari Cohen and Joshua Leifer observed in Jewish currents. Weiss and her fellow activists have targeted Arab professors for speeches they deemed hostile to Israel, efforts she has since downplayed to better present herself as a free speech activist. A “founding faculty member” at the University of Austin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, called Islam a “nihilsic cult of death” and claimed that violence is inherent in religion, which is wrong. bodes well for any Muslim who would like to attend the new university. The new university’s positions on sex and gender aren’t hard to guess, either. Another scholar, anti-trans scholar Kathleen Stock, has voluntarily resigned her post at the University of Sussex, saying student protests have restricted her own academic freedom. In other words, Stock found the freedom of speech a little too vivid to be tolerated.
Others linked to the university are accused of crossing professional boundaries with students. One, Joshua Katz, received a one-year suspension from Princeton University for an inappropriate relationship with an undergraduate woman. Another, Joe Lonsdale, has been accused of raping a woman he mentored, an allegation he vehemently denies. Lonsdale’s nonprofit, Cicero Research, “fiscally sponsored” the new institution.
So what rights will a University of Austin student actually have? They cannot count on a right to freedom of expression, that is clear. The presence of Lonsdale and Katz raises further questions about the university’s position on due process for survivors of sexual misconduct. Students won’t even benefit from an intellectually diverse faculty. Check out the school’s website and you won’t find a single left-wing scholar. You shouldn’t expect to find one either. Lonsdale’s nonprofit Cicero says it is committed to “free market-based solutions to public policy problems.” And as a private institution, the University of Austin will retain great freedom to censor students and faculty as it sees fit – just like Liberty and my alma mater. So what we have is a Bible college for libertarians. Those who are bothered by progress will find refuge on campus. Committing not to be awake, the University of Austin is in fact seeking to break free from free trade. There is a hint of social liberalism, which does not go beyond equality for LGB people and not for trans people and which is too insufficient to strongly distinguish the school from other conservative institutions. At this university, Falwell would see cognate spirits. There is nothing new here.