By Lynda Goetz
Photo: Leon Wu
News from the US this week is that, in a desperate attempt to get away from woke culture, a new university has been founded in which free speech will be ‘de rigueur’. The new University of Austin, Texas (UATX) has been set up by a group of fed-up academics backed by some entrepreneurs who have likewise had enough of cancel culture and are prepared to put their money where their mouths are. The British professor, Kathleen Stock, hounded out of the University of Sussex for her views on biological sex and gender, which did not accord with some fellow academics and their student supporters, is amongst their first appointees. Dr Stock, is of course delighted to make this move after a number of years of persecution for her unacceptable anti-woke views.
A number of questions spring to mind at this news. What courses is this new university going to offer? Who is likely to attend this university and will its degrees be recognised? Is there enough initial funding to enable it to get off the ground? Surely there are enough universities already in existence and shouldn’t the aim be to ensure free speech at all universities?
The answers to the first three questions at least are available on its website. It seems that initially there will be no undergraduate courses, only postgraduate. Next summer, Austin will be officially launched with a series of “Forbidden Courses” which will be non-accredited. These will be designed to attract students from other universities to discuss “the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities”. The University says it will start offering master’s programmes in the autumn of 2022 and an undergraduate college is planned for 2024, although whether or not it will have gained accreditation by then is uncertain.
Unlike this country, where most universities are regarded as state or public institutions (although as the website Apply to Uni points out boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred), the US has a large number of private universities. Many of the highly regarded top universities in the States are private: this includes famous names like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale. Most of these are non-profit-making, but there are also nearly 700 profit-making universities, (according to online US News), although the numbers of these have been falling. However, as in this country, many of the well-known and top universities have been succumbing to left-wing academic views and woke agendas. Is the setting up of the University of Austin the beginning of the backlash?
The founding members of the University of Austin include British celebrity historian Niall Fergusson, evolutionary biologist, Heather Heying, the anti-woke Zionist media star, Bari Weiss, musician, sociologist and writer, Arthur Brooks and crucially, the young, dynamic venture capitalist, Joe Lonsdale. The founding president, Pano Kanelos made his announcement on Bari Weiss’s substack, of itself a somewhat unconventional way of announcing the founding of a university. Kanelos claims he has since been inundated by thousands of enquiries from academics and up to seven times more from American families concerned about the current state of university education in America.
So, should we be considering such a step here in the UK? In a letter to the Telegraph last week, Professor James Tooley, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the first modern private university in this country, opened in 1976, pointed out that we already have a university where free speech is encouraged and discussion of ideas is at the heart of the university’s philosophy, namely the University of Buckingham. Given that this university was one of the backers of the Battle of Ideas Festival, held in London at the beginning of October, and partnered with the Academy of Ideas when holding its own Festival at the university in July, Professor Tooley’s claim is no idle one. Is his however a lone voice in the current world of higher education?
The situation in the UK may not be quite as dire as it is in the US, but given the increasing number of stories in the press over the last few years of trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, decolonising of curriculums, toppling of statues and cancelling of speakers, there seems little doubt that the illiberal left is increasingly in charge. The evident hypocrisy in Oxford University’s stance regarding their acceptance of money from the Mosley family, whilst effectively erasing historical figures for behaviours and views which don’t conform to modern thinking, may perhaps mark the beginning of the end of the rise of ‘wokedom’. In the meantime the climate of fear and self-censorship is unlikely to disappear overnight. As Niall Fergusson points out in discussion with Zoe Strimpel in her article in the Daily Telegraph, attempts to get established institutions to change direction had failed. The realisation was that new institutions were needed that fully commit to academic freedom, the pursuit of truth and the ideal of the university.
Celia Walden in her latest column for the Daily Telegraph entitled Are we finally seeing an Establishment ‘wokelash’? concluded that the pendulum might be swinging back. Following a number of recent events, including Fran Unsworth (retiring head of BBC news) giving a leaving lecture to LGBT staff on Zoom in which she told them that “You’ll hear things you don’t personally like and see things you don’t like, that’s what the BBC is, and you have to get used to that. These are the stories we tell.”, Ms Walden felt there was room for optimism. Even if she is right, how much more damage is going to be done in the meantime? Not all academics hounded out of their universities can become fellows, founding or otherwise at UATX. The University of Buckingham is currently advertising eight job vacancies of which five close in the course of the next month; so that is not going to meet any huge demand from academics desperate to leave behind the climate of fear in their current institutions. What is needed, both here and in the US are more people prepared to stand up for what they believe and to discuss, defend and detail the reasons for those beliefs, not self-censor. Those who wish to stuff their fingers in their ears and stonewall the viewpoints of others are unworthy of their positions in establishments of higher education or indeed anywhere else. Let the ‘wokelash’ begin!