The University of Austin (UATX) was announced to great fanfare on Monday, November 8, on the popular Substack of former New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss. “We got sick of complaining about how broken higher education is,” Weiss tweeted that morning, “So we decided to do something about it. Announcing a new university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.” Headed by Pano Kanelos, the former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, UATX boasted a roster of prominent academics and journalists known for pushing back against what they see as the hegemonic culture of “wokeness” that has supposedly undermined free expression and intellectual inquiry at America’s leading universities.
“I am not alone,” wrote Kanelos in the announcement. He then rattled off a list of cofounders that included Weiss, Niall Ferguson, Andrew Sullivan, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Glenn Loury, Caitlin Flanagan, Tyler Cowen, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as well as former and current university presidents like Harvard’s Larry Summers and the University of Chicago’s Robert Zimmer. Based out of Texas’s capital, which recently became home to the anti-woke Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the like-minded podcaster Joe Rogan, UATX promised to offer bright young undergraduates an alternative to the stale liberal dogmas on race and gender. Focused around the “great books,” the university would design its curriculum “in partnership not only with great teachers but also society’s great doers—founders of daring ventures, dissidents who have stood up to authoritarianism, pioneers in tech, and the leading lights in engineering and the natural sciences.” Anticipating the inevitable jeers from donors, foundations, activists, parents, students, and faculty in support of the status quo, Kanelos added: “We welcome their opprobrium and will regard it as vindication.”
Unfortunately for Kanelos, opprobrium has quickly become the least of his problems. Within a week of its announcement, several of the aforementioned luminaries who had gathered around the project were already distancing themselves. Zimmer, the UChicago president, resigned from UATX’s advisory board with a terse statement implying that Kanelos had possibly misled him about the nature of his proposed involvement and “noting that the new university made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views.” Pinker, who teaches cognitive psychology at Harvard, was even more succinct in his resignation: Announcing in a tweet that he was withdrawing from the board, he added that he “won’t be speaking on this further.” (In a defensive statement on November 15, UATX acknowledged some “missteps” in its rollout of the advisory board.)
As many commentators have already noted, the problems with UATX run deeper than a botched rollout. In a conversation with The Nation’s Jeet Heer, the writer Jacob Bacharach laid out the underlying financial challenges of setting up a real institution of higher learning, as opposed to a “Potemkin university” with no assets, no degree-granting programs, no campus, no courses, and no research programs. For now, the latter is all UATX is—and for it to become anything more, it will have to raise staggering sums of money from ideologically like-minded donors, which, one reasonably suspects, is perhaps the main purpose of the project. In the meantime, those advisers who already have coveted and lucrative gigs at accredited universities are making it clear that they have no intention of abandoning those sinecures.
Only time will tell whether UATX can deliver on its grandiose ambitions, or whether it will reveal itself as a de facto grift and a source of embarrassment for everyone who was briefly associated with it. But even if it does manage to produce something resembling an actual university, UATX will never truly compete with those elite schools that it has pitted itself against. The project’s uphill battle points to a deeper contradiction within what might be called the recent wave of neo-neoconservatism that has emerged in response to the social justice movements of the past decade. That contradiction, simply put, is that these intellectuals, like their neoconservative predecessors, depend on elite institutions for legitimacy.
Some of the figures involved in UATX are directly rooted in the neocon lineage; Weiss, for instance, is a protégé of the neoconservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, while Ferguson and his wife, Hirsi Ali, have been vocal champions of Anglo-American imperialism in the Muslim world. Although today neoconservatism is usually linked to the foreign policy doctrine that gave us the Iraq War, it originated as a backlash to the New Left of the late 1960s, which challenged the mid-century liberal establishment’s authority on every front—including by revolting against the administrations of leading universities like Columbia and UC Berkeley. Some of the foundational figures in the movement achieved professional success in and around elite universities after World War II, and the New Left’s assault on higher education played a major role in spurring their shift to the right.
The neoconservative reaction to left-wing activism on campus has guided the center and the right through multiple iterations of campus culture wars ever since. When Kanelos writes that UATX students “will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilization and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly,” it’s hard not to hear echoes of Leo Strauss, the political philosopher and defender of the Western canon who counted many key neoconservatives as his disciples; or of Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, a touchstone of that era’s fights over campus political correctness; or of Bloom’s close friend Saul Bellow, who fictionalized Bloom in his novel Ravelstein, and who mocked multiculturalists by challenging them to name “the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans.”
Neocons championing the Western canon is nothing new. But whereas in the past they did so in order to bolster the established universities, their heirs seek to subvert those institutions by founding a new university altogether—and one that is improbably funded by the STEM-loving tech sector. UATX’s project rejects the traditional authority of established institutions that the original neoconservatives sought to protect, even as it remains myopically fixated on them. At the same time, UATX’s boosters are dependent on these institutions for their own authority and legitimacy. The neo-neocons behind UATX are almost uniformly graduates from and/or instructors at the very same elite universities they now scorn. Weiss has a BA from Columbia; Ferguson studied at Oxford and has taught at Harvard and Stanford; Sullivan is a product of Oxford and Harvard; Loury attended Northwestern and MIT and teaches at Brown; Haidt went to Yale and Penn and teaches at NYU; I could go on. The point is not to accuse any of them of hypocrisy—it’s valid to reject one’s own educational background—but to note the inconsistency of their current position. Even as they claim that these universities have been hollowed out by a woke left, they are counting on the credibility conferred by their elite pedigrees to legitimize UATX.
Neoconservatism has never fully reconciled its supposed hostility to liberal elites with its intimately felt obsession with liberal elite institutions—a tension that persists to this day. For all the attention that Weiss and her cohort have directed toward incidents of so-called “cancel culture” in higher education, the same handful of schools tend to come up again and again in their examples. There are literally thousands of degree-granting universities in the United States alone, yet we keep hearing about a few dozen highly exclusive ones from the self-proclaimed champions of free expression. In fairness, they might argue that those are the schools that educate and socialize our ruling elite, and, as such, they deserve special scrutiny. But their focus on such a small sample size suggests just how dubious their core claims are: There’s little hard evidence that colleges nationwide are suffering from an epidemic of “wokeness.”
The schools the neo-neocons have spent much of their lives in have cultivated rarefied auras over many generations. The question everyone associated with UATX ought to be asking themselves is whether they would have attended such a school had it been available to them—and if not, why not? The answer, if they’re honest with themselves, is that elite credentials have always been precisely the point of higher education for them. Besides, what’s the fun in being a right-wing provocateur at a university founded entirely by and for right-wing provocateurs?
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect that Irving Kristol was not among the neoconservative figures who had achieved professional success primarily as an academic.