University of Austin shared a worldview, but does it have a business plan?

Plans to create a University of Austin in Texas quickly became a lightning rod after its founders cast the move as a reaction to campuses that have turned toward illiberalism instead of freedom of inquiry and civil discourse.

Higher education experts will be watching to see if the university really can stand for “the fearless pursuit of truth,” as its organizers say — or whether it is destined to become another battleground in the culture wars on campus. But they are also keenly interested in whether an entirely new institution conceived of as a private nonprofit organization not bound by legacy structures and costs can become sustainable in today’s fiercely competitive higher ed environment.

“It’s just really hard to do it,” said Charles Clotfelter, the author of “Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity” and a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University. “Universities, most of them got created on the third day, and I imagine that was it.”

The list of people involved in the University of Austin’s founding includes its fair share of provocateurs, iconoclasts and controversial figures. But it also packs big names in academia and higher ed administration, including West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee and former Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Pano Kanelos, who stepped down in June as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, is the University of Austin’s founding president.

Many universities have no incentive to create an environment protecting intellectual dissent, Kanelos wrote in announcing the college’s formation on a Substack newsletter run by former New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss, who is on the University of Austin’s board of advisors. He argued that prestigious institutions serve as finishing schools for “the national and global elite” and other institutions attempt to avoid financial collapse in the face of a shrinking number of students who can pay for tuition.

“The warped incentives of higher education — prestige or survival — mean that an increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction,” Kanelos wrote. “Universities now aim to attract and retain students through client-driven ‘student experiences’ — from trivial entertainment to emotional support to luxury amenities. In fact, many universities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need. Everything, that is, except intellectual grit.”

A new model?

The University of Austin’s website sketches out some details on how it is intended to be different from the picture of contemporary education its founders paint. Some details are very much pulled from the liberal arts playbook. Others appear to borrow from different areas, like workforce development’s badging movement.

Classes will be almost entirely in person because the university’s founders believe face-to-face communities are closely tied to effective education. It will not “arbitrarily factor in race, gender, class or any other form of identity” in admissions decisions.

It will seek accreditation so graduates can move on to postgraduate degrees at professional and medical schools. But college leaders do not plan to accept public funding.

“We’re all, I think, going to be interested to see how this develops in three factors: the business model, the mission and the institutional culture that evolves.”

Marjorie Hass

President of the Council of Independent Colleges

A timeline for standing up operations starts with a summer program in 2022 called “Forbidden Courses.” Then comes a graduate program in entrepreneurship and leadership that same year and, in 2023, additional graduate programming in politics and applied history, as well as in education and public service. In 2024, plans call for an undergraduate college.

In their first two years, undergraduates will follow a core liberal arts path. Then in their third and fourth years, they’ll join academic centers, take competency-based courses and graduate with transcripts that describe skills they picked up during their studies. 

The idea is to combine a liberal arts education with research centers “more akin to interdisciplinary think tanks than traditional ‘departments,'” according to the website. Eventually, the university will add more graduate programs, Ph.D. programs and possibly a law school.

The site argues that starting a new university will allow its founders to reexamine legacy costs and practices affecting existing institutions.

“UATX is developing a new model that reverses higher ed’s lopsided priorities of building up a bureaucracy at the cost of instruction,” it says. “Our university operations put intellectual development and scholarly achievement at the center. Student affairs, athletics, and extraneous services will be outsourced or streamlined whenever possible to keep costs down.”

The goal is low tuition with a “significant proportion of students” funded by scholarships to make the institution accessible to as many people as possible.

“They say they want to keep tuition low. How do you do that without federal dollars?”

Jonathan Zimmerman

Professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania

Backers are aiming to raise $250 million to grow into a comprehensive university. The university has raised $10 million in two months, Kanelos told The Chronicle of Higher Education. He did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The university is seeking tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3). It’s affiliated with Cicero Research, a nonprofit in which one of the university’s advisers, venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, is a member. Cicero did not report any revenue, expenses or net assets in the year ending in 2020, according to its initial federal tax filing.

“By getting the values, incentives, and interdisciplinary structure right from the beginning, we can restore the classically liberal university and the enlightenment values that made our civilization what it is,” Lonsdale wrote of the university’s founding in the New York Post. “We can show off something so compelling that it inspires a revival of the values of free inquiry and pluralism, not just in one new university, but in hundreds of universities. And when we do, we can reclaim the civilizational achievements that come from the open competition of ideas.”

Ideological and business questions remain

Kanelos told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the goal is not to create a conservative institution. But the University of Austin couldn’t avoid politically framed reactions. 

One writer for New York Magazine called it “a Bible college for libertarians.” Media coverage often highlighted some of its advisers who left colleges amid scandals.

“I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken.”

E. Gordon Gee

President of West Virginia University and member of the University of Austin board of advisors

Gee, the West Virginia University president on the University of Austin’s board of advisors, issued a statement saying he is committed to the university he leads and stating his commitment to an inclusive education environment.

“Serving in an advisory capacity does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisors may share,” Gee wrote. “I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken. I do not believe that to be the case at West Virginia University.”

Other higher ed experts had questions about the University of Austin’s business model and operating plans. Marjorie Hass is the president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a trade group for private nonprofit institutions. She was formerly president at Rhodes College in Tennessee and at Austin College in Texas.

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