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  1. The Explainer
9 November 2021

What is the new University of Austin for?

A new university founded by Bari Weiss, Steven Pinker and others offers itself as the antidote to “cancel culture”.

By Emily Tamkin

What is the University of Austin?

It is a recently opened university in the city of Austin, Texas. It is not to be confused with the University of Texas – Austin. Its founders say it is dedicated “to the fearless pursuit of truth”.

Who launched it?

Panos Kanelos left his post as the president of St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland to help set it up. He is a Shakespeare scholar and liberal arts activist. Other people on its board of advisers include journalist Bari Weiss, who resigned from the New York Times citing an “illiberal environment”, and psychologist Steven Pinker.

Founding faculty fellows include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and critic of Islam, and Kathleen Stock, who recently resigned from the University of Sussex in the UK in a dispute over trans rights and gender theory. At the time of writing, Stock has no plans to move to Texas.

Why did they do this?

Per Kanelos’s opening announcement, “Our democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal and is producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance.” I am paraphrasing, but basically he says that universities today are too censorious and unwilling to hear dissent, and that, since legacy institutions aren’t righting this wrong, this group will take on that task.

How can this be situated more broadly in the American political context?

There is, in the US today, a strain of thinking that says that the illiberal left has become overly emboldened and too quick to silence or punish anyone who challenges the mainstream. This is sometimes referred to as “cancel culture”. The criticism of this argument is that, actually, people in positions of relative power (like prominent columnists and professors) are simply being held to account in ways that they weren’t before by more – and different types of – people than they were before.

We saw this debate play out in the summer of 2020, when over 150 people (including Weiss and Pinker) signed an open letter in Harper’s, which argued we were becoming intolerant of opposing views. And then there was a response letter, which said that the Harper’s signatories “have no intention of sharing that space or acknowledging their role in perpetuating a culture of fear and silence among writers who, for the most part, do not look like the majority of the signatories. When they demand debates, it is on their terms, on their turf.”

That was more than a year ago. This is still being debated?

Yes.

How does this relate to free speech?

As I wrote last year, in the US political context, free speech is the right to criticise the government. Under the constitution, Congress is prohibited from making and passing laws that restrict freedom of speech. That does not mean that you’re free from criticism or consequences for expressing an opinion.

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Can we get back to the new university? I have a few more questions.

Go for it.

Is it accredited?

Not yet, no.

Does it offer degrees?

Not right now, no.

Who would pay for it?

The university is inviting “top students from other universities to join us for a spirited discussion about the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities”.

Should I pay for it?

I cannot tell you how to spend your money.