Academic Freedom Is in Crisis
A New University Is Rising From the Ashes of Wokery
“When all think alike, no one is thinking.”
Pano Kanelos left his post as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis to “build a university in Austin dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.” He travels well, in the company of Bari Weiss, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and Kathleen Stock among many others, he is described by the Daily Mail as the “Who's Who of ‘cancelled’ academics, journalists and entrepreneurs are teaming up to change the oppressive ‘wokeness’ on college campuses.” It is hoped that the University of Austin will open in the summer of 2022 and welcome undergraduates by 2024.
Writing on 8 November 2021, Kanelos explains in more detail what has brought this project to life: growing concern about the commodification of higher education and the encouragement of a culture where truth becomes subservient to feeling:
In Heterodox Academy’s 2020 Campus Expression Survey, 62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe. Nearly 70% of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports at least 491 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Roughly half were successful.
As we could see from the posters spread about the Sussex University campus demanding that Professor Stock be fired, the rationale was that the students should not have to pay to listen to opinions that they found unpalatable. They wish to reward with their money only those institutions which support their point of view, and a challenge to this point of view then becomes reframed as a personal attack, rather than the necessary process of education. Perhaps some of this current problem can be traced to the two different Latin roots of the English word "education." Educare means "to train or mould” while educere means "to lead out.” We seem to have lost sight of the second–and I would argue—the more valuable aspiration.
As Kanelos notes:
The warped incentives of higher education—prestige or survival—mean that an increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction. 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.
It seems that encouraging students to think of themselves primarily as consumers, hence “the customer is always right,” is a significant part of the problem. The other is the policies of “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” (EDI) which have taken root in so many institutions.
In the domestic arena, we have a clearly articulated account of the dangers in the Reindorf Review of “no-platforming” at Essex University in May 2021, summarised by Cloisters Chambers here. Universities have additional obligations to promote freedom of speech and they fell far short of these duties in their decision to “no-platform” two female academics on account of their “gender-critical views”:
The report concludes that the University breached the Professors’ rights to freedom of expression because of preconceptions about their views on trans rights and gender identity. The University was in breach of its statutory duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for visiting speakers (s.43 of the Education Act (No. 2) 1986 s.43(1)), its own Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom policy, its regulatory obligations, its duties under charity law and potentially the Public Sector Equality Duty.
The review recognises the clear dangers of basing EDI policies around the advice of aggressively political lobbying groups such as Stonewall:
The report recommends that the University publish open apologies to both Professors and takes a number of other steps to ensure that it complies with its legal and regulatory duties in relation to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Further the report recommends that the University’s equality and diversity policies and its policy on supporting trans and nonbinary staff should be reviewed and amended to accurately state the law. It is recommended that a Working Group be set up to devise and implement a strategy for repairing relationships between trans and nonbinary University members and those with gender critical views, in particular women.
To show how difficult the current situation is for academics, Professor Jo Phoenix, one of those “no-platformed” by Essex, has felt compelled to take action against her own institution, the Open University, for its harassment of her for gender-critical views. So far she has raised just under £86K and in a pleasing irony will seek to instruct Akua Reindorf to represent her.
I had to battle for a year to make my regulator understand that “gender identity” was not yet the law and it was an odd way to promote “inclusion” in EDI surveys by making me feel very excluded indeed. I wanted recognition of my sex—and I got it. But I am a grizzled veteran of the debating stage, for over 40 years now. I got my degree for free in an atmosphere where dissent and challenge were not merely permitted but actively encouraged, to the ultimate benefit of us all. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are noble goals indeed and I support them. But not if it means setting up temples to “pluralistic ignorance” rather than education.
At the moment it seems that “EDI” is shorthand for the elevation and celebration of just one particular ideology, to the detriment and exclusion of all those who are not signed up. And if we lose our universities as protected spaces of free discussion and research, that price is far, far too high to pay.
It’s often instructive to see what critics of the University of Austin are saying. Sarah Jones of Intelligencer is highly critical, likening this project to earlier and failed attempts by right-wing evangelicals to brainwash students: “Decades later, the right remains fixated on education, agitating over the alleged prevalence of critical race theory in public schools and the hysterical excesses of college liberals. Race and gender are still animating concerns. Enter Bari Weiss, a self-styled tribune of the people, with an announcement that parallels Falwell’s earlier foray into higher education…”
To declare that this is “nothing new” and simply another place for right-wing transphobes or racists to gather misses the point on a grand scale. It is for the citizens of the USA to grapple with what is happening to their democracy and what happens when its citizens seek to reject the worst examples of “wokery” as we saw recently in Virginia. But what is happening in higher education now across the world is new and if left unchallenged will have serious consequences for us all.
I wish the University of Austin well and I hope others will follow where this leads.