In various locations in America, a new type of ‘university’ is being created – a type that spurns typical liberal education in favour of teaching a different type of syllabus. Jemima Kelly’s super interesting long article in the FT says that this new type of university draws inspiration from, “…conservative philosopher Allan Bloom’s 1987 best-seller, which argued “moral relativism’ was spoiling college and continued a long tradition of American conservatives decrying the degenerative effect of academia. Nowadays, the critique tends to go something like this: emotional “safetyism” is being prioritised above proper education; ideological orthodoxy and self-censorship are stifling debate; and diversity and inclusion are overemphasised at the expense of academic rigour. All of which leaves graduates ill-prepared for real life. The liberal “indoctrination” of students has also become an obsession of the political right… Students are encouraged to ask the kind of questions they might be afraid to in other contexts, and “every idea or opinion must be heard”, with the proviso it is backed by evidence.”
Lest you feel like scorning these conservative universities, you should know that serious money and celebrated intellectuals are joining these new centres of learning. At the vanguard is the UATX i.e. the University of Austin, Texas (not be confused with the well known University of Texas, Austin). UATX is not yet officially an ‘university’ because it hasn’t yet had a graduating class but it appears to be on its way:
“UATX was announced in November 2021 as being “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth”, on former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss’s Substack. Weiss, 39, is widely disliked among US liberals…. Pano Kanelos, 53, is the president of a new college called UATX…Kanelos, who grew up in Chicago reading at the back of his parents’ Greek diner, is no culture warrior or free-speech absolutist. He comes across as nuanced, undogmatic. He chose to leave a plum job as president of a respected liberal arts university, St John’s College in Maryland, to co-found UATX. “My motivation here is really simple,” he says. “The world is coming apart at the seams. We live in a time of a kind of ambient nihilism. The only response is to build and create.”…UATX has managed to raise nearly $200mn from more than 2,400 donors. Thirty-two of those gave more than $1mn. That probably has something to do with the people involved. Many trustees and advisers — Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, Arthur Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, Larry Summers — are celebrity academics with large followings. One co-founder is Joe Lonsdale, a venture capitalist and a longtime associate of Peter Thiel’s. Guest lecturers include billionaire Marc Andreessen, who came to speak at Forbidden Courses, UATX’s summer programme.”
Equally well funded is another new conservative college, Ralston College which has been set up by the philosopher Stephen Blackwood: “Blackwood struggled to raise money, until his friend Jordan Peterson got involved….Peterson, a Canadian psychologist, professor and bestselling author, might be the most famous public intellectual in the world…At a London dinner in late 2021 at the Garrick Club, Peterson introduced him to Paul Marshall. The event took place during Peterson’s visit to the UK to give a lecture at Cambridge university at the invitation of divinity professor James Orr, who is also a fellow at Ralston… Paul Marshall eventually became one of Ralston’s main financial backers, but Blackwood declines to tell me how much he has given. Since then, the college has raised about $45mn in all.
In September, I arrive at the headquarters of Marshall Wace, the $63bn hedge fund that Marshall runs from Sloane Street in London….Marshall says of Blackwood. He “had been waiting and waiting, and all he needed was the money”, he adds, settling down on a green velvet sofa. “I get on with him and work with him extremely well and with Jordan extremely well. We completely see . . . the world in the same way.” Peterson is Ralston’s chancellor.”
To be clear, these newly minted conservative campuses have their critics. For example, here is what Steven Pinker has to say, “Although he shares concerns about academic freedom and viewpoint diversity, Pinker felt UATX was too reactionary. “It seemed to be organised not around a coherent vision for higher education, in which you could rethink every detail, but rather as a kind of a politically incorrect university with a faculty of the cancelled,” he says. “Just rounding up people who’ve been persecuted, however unjust it has been to them, that does not yield a coherent curriculum.””
However, in a world with no shortage of conservative billionaires it is a safe bet that conservative campuses in the United States – and perhaps elsewhere – will be well funded for several years to come.
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