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Harvard Affiliates Help Found New University In Response To Free Speech Concerns in Higher Ed

Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers will serve as an advisor at a new university founded to protect free speech.
Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers will serve as an advisor at a new university founded to protect free speech. By Madeline R. Lear

Several current and former Harvard professors are helping establish the University of Austin, a private liberal arts school in Texas launched in response to what some of its founders see as a culture of censorship within higher education.

Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, Kennedy School professor Arthur C. Brooks, Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker and former Economics Professor Glenn C. Loury, who currently teaches at Brown University, serve on the University of Austin’s board of advisors, according to its website.

Former St. John’s College president Panayiotis “Pano” Kanelos, who helped found the University of Austin and serves as its first president, wrote in an online article announcing the new school that “higher education might be the most fractured institution” in America.

“The reality is that many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized,” Kanelos wrote.

“We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew,” he added.

In an interview with The Crimson, Pinker lauded the effort, saying “it’s good to have some alternative models for higher education.”

“Too many of the country’s universities are stuck in the same rut, and that rut includes exorbitant tuition, a mushrooming bureaucracy, a bizarre set of admissions criteria, and increasing political homogeneity, including repression of speech and ideas,” Pinker said.

“All institutions profit when there’s competition. Otherwise, they get complacent,” Pinker said.

According to its website, the University of Austin will not consider race, gender, class, or “or any other form of identity” in admission decisions because it “stands firmly against that sort of discrimination.”

In his announcement, Kanelos charged that prestigious universities operate as a “finishing school for the national and global elite.”

“Harvard proclaims: Veritas,” Kanelos wrote. “These are soaring words. But in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue?”

Brooks, however, said he is confident in Harvard's commitment to scholarly truth.

“I definitely think Harvard is fulfilling our mission of Veritas, and am very optimistic about our future,” Brooks wrote in an emailed statement. “I love teaching here because of the students and faculty, and consider it a privilege to be able to help other organizations seeking truth in different and interesting ways.”

Brooks wrote he does not plan to teach at the University of Austin “or have any fiduciary relationship.” Rather, he will counsel “primarily on fundraising” for the new institution.

“I think the role of start-ups in higher ed is entirely complementary to places like Harvard,” Brooks wrote. “We should welcome this and many other kinds of experiments.”

The FAQ on the school’s site says it will be located in Austin because “if it's good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it's good enough for us.”

Earlier this year, a handful of Harvard affiliated faculty — including Pinker — helped found a separate nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to defend academics’ freedom of expression by issuing statements, offering legal assistance, or providing financial support.

The University of Austin will offer its first course this upcoming summer, a program for college students called “Forbidden Courses,” which will aim to discuss the “most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.”

In a February meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said Harvard must guarantee academic freedom and free speech for all of its affiliates, including by inviting speakers of all backgrounds and perspectives to campus.

“The defense of free and honest inquiry in the unfettered pursuit of truth is our shared responsibility—and among our most sacred commitments,” Bacow said.

The University of Austin has not yet received accreditation and does not plan to offer undergraduate degrees until 2024.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com.

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CollegeHigher EducationAcademicsLarry Summers

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