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The University of Austin Champions Grifting Over Free Speech

By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Austin just got a new university — on paper, at least. The University of Austin, or UATX for short, will open its doors next summer. Though it will not yet confer degrees, UATX aims to offer an alternative to what its supporters perceive as the “the illiberalism and censoriousness prevalent in America's most prestigious universities”.

It’s worth prefacing our view on UATX’s founding with the caveat that we struggle to take the project seriously at all. It is, after all, a not-yet-accredited institution that has been bleeding supporters since week one; one that explains its Austin location with the unwittingly self-deprecating concession that “if it's good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan” it's apparently good enough for the University too.

Setting aside this bizarre posturing, we are concerned about the seriousness of the project and the implications that has for those who become entangled in it. Prioritizing a flashy launch over even the most basic university-building signals the founders’ focus on grandstanding over actual education; the apparent lack of legitimate accreditations or an internal admissions committee is an alarming sign of under-preparedness. We are worried, in short, that UATX will end up scamming its students.

Beyond the obvious execution and organizational issues, we are deeply doubtful of the sincerity of the project’s stated goals. We agree there’s potential value in shaking up the American higher education scene, and have repeatedly written in support of broad, sensible free speech guidelines. Yet we are skeptical that those involved in the university’s conception are staunch, honest allies of either cause.

UATX’s rollout hasn’t seemed to have much to do with identifying and resisting censorship in American society. Doing so would mean wrestling with actual legislative restrictions on free speech, like the dozens of state-level anti-BDS bills that punish companies that participate in the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement; or the increasing number of states, including UATX’s native Texas that ban the teaching of anything that mildly resembles the boogeyman of “critical race theory” (Texas’s bill has put teachers in the ludicrous position of having to teach an “opposing” perspective of the Holocaust). It would mean embracing banned texts, like the Pulitzer prize-winning 1619 project, in their inaugural Forbidden Courses program, instead of (as seems likely) taking the intellectually shallow route of only teaching the controversial work they favor. It would entail actually confronting the main forces behind creeping American authoritarianism, arguably the same ones that led to a violent attack on our nation’s capital earlier this year, or fighting against innovative approaches to intimidate academics, like Florida’s Public Universities’ new “viewpoint diversity” survey, which will assess, and potentially penalize, schools based on the views represented on their campus.

Instead, UATX is sharply focused on the presumed “censorship” taking place within a handful of elite institutions. Their thinly veiled commitment to litigating cultural grievances is only made more glaringly by their almost boastful opposition to affirmative action, a policy they condemn and discard on their website lacking many other basic details.

Let’s be blunt: At its core, UATX doesn’t seem to care about free speech. Rather, it represents a twisted attempt by a select group of aggrieved people to force their orthodoxy onto others through sheer spectacle. A look at the organization’s leadership suggests as much. There’s Bari Weiss, a founding trustee and former New York Times writer who first rose to prominence for allegedly seeking to “vilify and ruin the careers of several Arab and Muslim professors” for criticism of Israel while a student at Columbia University. There’s former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, whose declaration that women are just more inept in the sciences than men and farcical advocacy for dumping toxic waste in poor countries got him in hot water during his brief presidential tenure. Niall Fergusson, a Stanford historian perhaps fired for blatantly trying to dig up dirt on a progressive undergraduate, is also in the unsavory mix.

Their collective blindspots are as astonishing as concerning. More crucially, their commitment to the first amendment appears secondary to their commitment to petty, pseudo ideological infighting. We are concerned their reactionary, selective promotion of free speech will inform the university’s curriculum.

Free speech is a cornerstone of liberal education, democracy, and civil society. It is a deeply held value we cherish as a journalistic institution. It is not, however, a cheap marketing ploy to be hollowly used to court support and controversy. Should an institution genuinely committed to promoting free speech appear in the future, we would welcome it with open arms. But the circus forming in Austin leaves us holding our breath.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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