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Now higher ed may be seeing the same pattern play out. On November 8, Pano Kanelos, a former St. John’s College president, announced the founding of the new University of Austin, of which he will be the inaugural president. The announcement, like the Substack exodus, stressed the political monoculture of legacy organizations. And indeed, the University of Austin website lists among its founding trustees and advisers some of the same cast of characters as the Substack boom, including the former New York Times editor Bari Weiss and the former New York columnist Andrew Sullivan.
Reactions to the announcement followed along predictable lines. Well-worn criticisms of figures like Weiss and Sullivan were repurposed against the new project they had attached their names to. Perhaps the most common line of attack is to accuse the latter of “grifting” — once a term for old-time con artistry, but lately a common Twitter insult for the contrarians thriving on Substack.
The “grifter” accusation hints at a crucial backdrop of these ongoing ideological battles: the dismal and worsening career paths in both academe and journalism, both of which have become increasingly precarious industries in recent decades. As the aspirants and incumbents in these fields confront waning prospects, it is not surprising to see them organize informal guilds dedicated to protecting their interests. This, in any case, is one way to understand the tendency of journalists and academics on Twitter to line up in lock step behind certain orthodoxies and denounce dissenters as “grifters” and worse.
These sorts of collective action might be understood to proceed from rational self-interest. The enforcement of ideological shibboleths serves as a form of gatekeeping that limits the pool of competitors for limited positions. As skeptics of the notion of “cancel culture” often observe, the supposedly “canceled” often seem to have had no trouble reaching large audiences. But what if the real aim is to prevent the adherents of some views from having jobs in certain professions, and thereby to free up a few positions in the relevant industries? By that measure, cancelation has enjoyed some small success. The accusation of “grift” attempts to reinforce the guild’s monopoly by reminding us that those excluded from it lack the patina of institutional legitimacy.
The problem is that the expulsion of dissenters also accelerates the decline in stature of the legacy institutions themselves, which look less and less like neutral arbiters of truth and more and more like another set of self-interested competitors. This process is self-reinforcing: As establishment insiders are forced to compete with upstarts and outsiders, they also come to resemble them. The grifter accusation, then, is a convenient way to avoid asking why those who remain in legacy organizations have lost the trust of the public.
The accusation of “grift” attempts to reinforce the guild’s monopoly.
Likewise, assertions from academics and journalists that the University of Austin is a “grift” distract from a more concerning question: Even if it is a scam — Trump University redux, as some have alleged — how much would that set it apart from much of what occurs in the more respectable realms of higher education? Many critiqued the first degree to be offered at UATX, an “Entrepreneurship and Leadership M.A.” But if that sounds vague and slapdash, it is of a piece with an array of overpriced master’s degrees of dubious value, cash cows that keep the nation’s prestigious universities in business.
Various other lines of attack likewise ignore the crises and scandals afflicting the industry as a whole. UATX detractors make the point that it lacks accreditation. This may be premature, given that it has no enrolled students or degree programs at this point, but it points to a genuine hurdle the new institution will face. A more troubling question, though, is to what extent accreditation should still be treated as a measure of quality, given the system’s repeated failures to uphold meaningful standards.
On another front, naysayers have cited the former UATX adviser Steven Pinker’s association with the late Jeffrey Epstein as a discrediting detail — without recalling that Epstein himself had extensive affiliations with the most elite universities in the nation. (Pinker pulled out of his advisory role a week after Kanelos’s announcement.)
The standard criticisms of the University of Austin, then, could be leveled against many or most already existing universities, including those that top the national and international rankings (themselves one of the biggest scams of all). If all of this is damning for an institution that still has no students or faculty as of yet, it is all the more so for the industry to which it claims to offer an alternative.
The question worth asking is whether it has any prospect of doing so.
This second emphasis reflects the influence of UATX’s main financial backer, the venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale. Lonsdale is a key figure in the “Thielverse”: the constellation of technologists and investors grouped around Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, investor, and Silicon Valley kingmaker. Since his student days at Stanford, Thiel has been a critic of campus political correctness. He is also a proponent of the view that American higher ed, with its high costs, indebted students, and questionable value proposition, is a bubble waiting to burst.
A decade ago, Thiel announced his own very different effort to “disrupt” higher ed: the Thiel Fellowship. This program selects an annual cohort of young people to receive funding and mentorship on the condition that they drop out of school and build start-ups. The thinking behind this venture, shaped by the prominence of dropouts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg in the Silicon Valley pantheon, was that many ambitious students no longer saw undergraduate education as a necessary rite of passage. Also implicit was Thiel’s conviction that the main function of universities was to instill ideological conformity. By creating his own program for shaping bright young minds, Thiel could expand his network of like-minded power players.
The University of Austin springs out of the Thielverse agenda, but it’s a far more (small “c”) conservative enterprise. Insofar as UATX’s leaders intend to receive accreditation and attract employees and undergraduate students, they will need to accept many of the values guiding the university system as a whole, including the assumption that a degree should continue to be a necessary marker of intellectual caliber. This is precisely the assumption that critics of credentialism on both right and left have lately disputed.
The UATX strategy, in this sense, seems to hover somewhere between the two poles identified by the political scientist Albert O. Hirschman as “voice” and “exit.” “Voice” refers to any attempt to bring about internal institutional change through open contestation. “Exit,” in contrast, simply means unilateral departure from the institution. Exit can also bring about change within the institution that is abandoned. For instance, if students transfer out en masse from a college, it will need to change to survive.
In recent decades, the most vocal advocates of “exit” as a political strategy have been libertarians who see it as a means of bringing competitive pressures to bear on sclerotic organizations. The University of Austin also frames its strategy as a sort of exit. After all, unlike campus organizations advocating viewpoint diversity and free speech, like Heterodox Academy, it does not aim to reform existing colleges directly. But a comparison with the Thiel Fellowship, which attempts to galvanize an exodus from the credential-oriented university system, makes clear that this remains an effort at internal reform. UATX’s apparent plan to hire scholars driven out of other institutions would, after all, have the effect of keeping them within the university system.
There is a risk here of simultaneously going too far and not far enough. Kanelos was right to expect he and his allies would “face significant resistance.” By taking up the cause of people and ideas that have become anathema to the academic and journalistic consensus, the University of Austin ensures that it will remain in the crosshairs of establishment gatekeepers, who will continue to subject it to the derision that has been on display since its founding was announced. On the other hand, if it is to function as a degree-granting university and compete with established institutions for students and faculty members, it must also play by the rules and pursue at least a basic level of acceptance from the industry it aims to challenge.
Commentators have compared the new initiative to conservative religious colleges, which have long been the main ideological outliers in liberal-dominated American higher education. Many colleges of this description were also founded to provide an alternative to students alienated by the political consensus of academe. But unlike most of these institutions, UATX does not have a sectarian affiliation as an alternative guarantor of legitimacy. On the contrary, Kanelos claims that the new institution will uphold the values once promulgated and later abandoned by elite universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. He embraces the language of the mottos that emblazon their seals: “Light. Truth. The wind of freedom.”
Powerful forces are reshaping both media and education, our main ideologically formative institutions. On one hand, a tendency toward conglomeration is visible in everything from the outsized global brands of a handful of elite colleges to the massive reach of a few media corporations. On the other hand, as the Substack exodus exemplifies, various sorts of disaggregation and disintermediation are also underway: The internet is enabling the multiple functions of legacy institutions to be unbundled and offered directly to the public.
Under these conditions, experimentation with new models is sure to continue. Meanwhile, gatekeepers will continue to protect the interests of their beleaguered guilds, even as incumbents also reintegrate successful experimental ventures into their own orbit. We saw an earlier phase of this with the absorption of the 2000s blogosphere back into larger media outlets, and with attempts by elite universities to deploy massive open online courses in response to the rise of Khan Academy and the like. Substack has enabled a disaggregation of content that major media outlets will need to respond to in order to survive. In contrast, despite its hostile reception by the establishment and affiliation with the tech industry’s “disruptive” agenda, UATX looks less like a radical challenge to elite higher education than a last-ditch effort to rescue an idealized image of its past.