free speech

Who’s Afraid of Higher Education?

The school promises “forbidden courses” to students. Photo: PBS/YouTube

In 1971, the televangelist Jerry Falwell embarked on an ambitious new venture. With the help of Elmer Towns, a Christian academic, he founded a new institution of higher education: Liberty University. Falwell had grand dreams for his new school, as his official biography on Liberty’s website makes clear: Not only would it function as an ideological factory for churning out new conservative activists, it would do so on a grand scale. Falwell wanted the school to grow to 50,000 students, a goal the school says it has now achieved. Liberty wasn’t Falwell’s first educational experiment, either. He’d previously founded a K-12 school as a segregation academy. Before “wokeness” entered the right-wing’s lexicon, desegregation was the enemy of the hour.

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: She, too, is starting a university with some help from her friends. The unaccredited University of Austin is “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” proclaims a post on Weiss’s Substack. “Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences,” wrote the university’s new president, Pano Kanelos, citing the controversial academic Eric Kaufmann.

Kanelos is half-right. There is a free-speech crisis in higher education, but it exists on campuses like Liberty’s, where students and faculty have long complained of censorship from zealous administrators. My alma mater, a Christian university much like Liberty, actively restricted the content we could publish in our student newspaper; a trustee once complained that I had used the phrase “reproductive rights” in an article. Years later the school confiscated copies of an independent student publication. Nevertheless, Kanelos ignores these examples to single out Yale and Stanford and Harvard. In these “top schools,” he queried, “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?” Kanelos implies the existence of a past where the university was once free of donor pressure or administrative cowardice or, more to the point, pesky student activism. But this history only exists in his imagination. Universities have always been fraught places, where the free exchange of ideas often results in intellectual turbulence.

It’s precisely that intellectual turbulence that Kanelos, Weiss, and their comrades seek to escape, much as Jerry Falwell did in the 1970s. Falwell was no outlier. The right has long dreamed of alternatives to traditional higher education. The televangelist Pat Robertson founded Regent University for similar reasons. Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to shelter homeschool graduates and funnel them into Republican politics. Hillsdale College has assumed a sharply right-wing political identity over time, and rejects federal funding “as a matter of principle.” (A Hillsdale professor sits on the University of Austin’s board of advisers.) These schools exist as laboratories for right-wing thought; they are committed not to free expression but to indoctrination. The University of Austin will be no different.

Consider the parties involved. As a student at Columbia University, Weiss developed a censorious reputation of her own. A campus organization Weiss co-founded “did demand that the administration change the department’s curriculum and make it easier to file complaints against professors, measures that would have affected certain scholars’ responsibilities and duties, as well as their future job prospects,” the writers Mari Cohen and Joshua Leifer observed in Jewish Currents. Weiss and her fellow activists targeted Arab professors for speech they deemed hostile to Israel, efforts she’s since downplayed to better portray herself as a campaigner for free expression. A University of Austin “founding faculty fellow” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has called Islam “a nihilstic cult of death” and has claimed that violence is inherent to the religion, which bodes ill for any Muslim who might wish to attend the new university. The new university’s positions on sex and gender aren’t hard to guess, either. Another fellow, the anti-trans academic Kathleen Stock, voluntarily resigned her position at the University of Sussex, claiming that student protests curtailed her own academic freedom. Put another way, Stock found free expression a bit too lively to tolerate.

Others linked to the university stand accused of crossing professional lines with female students. One, Joshua Katz, received a year-long suspension from Princeton University over an inappropriate relationship with an undergraduate woman. Another, Joe Lonsdale, has been accused of raping a woman he mentored, an allegation he vehemently denies. Lonsdale’s nonprofit, Cicero Research, is “fiscally sponsoring” the new institution.

So what rights will a University of Austin student actually possess? They can’t count on a right to free expression, that much is clear. The presence of Lonsdale and Katz raises further questions about the university’s position on due process for survivors of sexual misconduct. Students won’t even benefit from an intellectually diverse faculty. Survey the school’s website, and you won’t find a single leftist scholar. Nor should we expect to find one. Lonsdale’s nonprofit, Cicero, says it’s committed to “free-market based solutions to public policy issues.” And as a private institution, the University of Austin will retain the broad freedom to censor students and faculty as it sees fit — as does Liberty and my alma mater. What we’ve got, then, is a Bible college for libertarians. Those disturbed by progress will find shelter on campus. Pledging freedom from wokeness, the University of Austin actually seeks freedom from free exchange. There is a soupçon of social liberalism, which extends no further than equality for LGB people and not to trans people and which is too inadequate to greatly distinguish the school from other conservative institutions. In this university, Falwell would see kindred minds. There’s nothing new here.

Bari Weiss’s University of Austin Is Nothing New