As someone who has spent most of his life working in American universities, my subsequent writing about it in these pages has been for the most part negative. And not without reason: My on-campus experience, coupled with my research, has led me to agree with the assertion that constitutes the subtitle of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” which is, “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” Through abdicating responsibility to teach civics, through its propagation of mind- and soul-stunting moral relativism, and through its suppression of free inquiry and debate, American higher education has indeed failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. One need only read recent headlines about misdeeds on our campuses to see that these ideas have real-life consequences.
But all this may be changing. This week, a new university, the University of Austin, received authorization from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to begin its undergraduate degree program, with classes starting next fall.
The importance of the creation of the University of Austin cannot be overstated. Public trust in higher education is cratering because too many schools no longer fulfill either of their two primary goals: They (1) No longer contribute to the development of their students’ souls through providing a foundational philosophic, moral, and civic education, and (2) They provide less and less of an ROI regarding workforce outcomes. Hence, immediately after the University of Austin announced in November 2021 its mere intention to form, it was flooded with between 4,000 and 5,000 job applications from professors eager to find an institution that will allow them to do their real jobs, free from ideological interference.
What is the “real job” of a genuine university and its faculty? As you can read on its website, the University of Austin answers that it stands for “the fearless pursuit of truth,” and thus embraces “freedom of inquiry as the precondition for the pursuit of truth.”
Note well the means-end relationship posited above, as it has been the subject of debate recently. Some well-intentioned observers, rightly worried over the decline of free inquiry and debate on our campuses, argue that free speech itself is the core purpose of a genuine university. But this argument deprives free speech of a foundation because it cannot answer the questions, “Why free speech? Why not censorship?” Any attempt to defend free speech logically turns to an explanation of what free speech is good for, meaning, it reveals free speech to be defensible as the needed basis for attaining a still-superior good—increased knowledge of the truth—the search for which requires free inquiry and debate. In short, “freedom unhinged,” that is, as an end in itself, cannot defend itself, and will quickly degenerate into license.
What, then, will education at the University of Austin look like? During students’ first two years (titled “Intellectual Foundations”), they and UA faculty will join in small, discussion-based seminars that will prepare them to ”confront timeless questions from antiquity to the present.” During these first two years, students will receive the foundational philosophic, moral, and civic education needed if they are to become thoughtful citizens and leaders.
During years three and four, students serve as “Junior Fellows,” in which they develop specialized knowledge in one of the University’s interdisciplinary “Academic Centers”: the Center for Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics, the Center for Economics, Politics, & History, and/or the Center for Arts & Letters. As Fellows, students will choose to specialize in one or more areas of study that will prove helpful to their intended careers.
Throughout all four years—and this is another mark of distinction for the University—students will partner, as “Polaris Fellows,” with both academic scholars and business leaders to craft and refine a “project of significant import for the common good. In so doing, students will cultivate skills, discipline, and prudence by overcoming real-world challenges.” That is to say, while a plethora of universities advertise their intention to create “thoughtful doers,” the University of Austin actually has the curriculum, standards, and personnel to accomplish this dual purpose. Polaris Faculty have included the Right Hon. Stephen Harper (former prime minister of Canada), Tyler Cowen (George Mason University), Joe Lonsdale (founder of 8VC), and Arthur Brooks (professor at Harvard University).
As I mentioned at the outset, higher-education analysts such as myself are not used to writing good news stories about American higher education.
Because, up until now, there has been precious little good news to report.
With the University of Austin’s arrival on the scene, all of that may be changing. College-bound students and their parents owe it to themselves to examine seriously this new entrant into higher education.