Complaining about the erosion of free speech on college campuses has become so ubiquitous it’s almost dull. I can’t count how many articles I’ve read chronicling this demise. It’s as if we’ve all learned to grudgingly accept this new reality where feelings come before truth; where the wrong opinion can get you canceled; where faculty must show compliance to the new religion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI); where walking on eggshells has become a regular activity; where students look for microaggressions rather than big ideas; and where conforming to the prevailing progressive dogma is now embraced as the safe career choice.
In a recent essay in The Jewish Journal on the changing face of academia, Karen Lehrman Bloch spoke with Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, who had the courage to tell her:
“Universities are repressing differences of opinion, like the inquisitions and purges of centuries past. It has been stoked by viral videos of professors being mobbed, cursed, heckled into silence and sometimes assaulted.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), arguably the most prominent group championing free speech, summarized the state of affairs as follows:
“Free speech on campus is under continuous threat at many of America’s colleges, pushed aside in favor of politics, comfort, or simply a desire to avoid controversy. As a result, speech codes dictating what may or may not be said, ‘free speech zones’ confining college free speech to tiny areas of campus, and administrative attempts to punish or repress campus free speech on a case-by-case basis are common today in academia.”
In a way, we shouldn’t be that surprised. Free speech has always been that most vulnerable of freedoms, the easiest one, perhaps, to take down. After all, who wants an environment where people are free to offend? Isn’t it more proper and decent to prevent such offense in the first place?
Yes, if you’re running a donut shop and you need speech boundaries to keep the peace. But a university? That bastion of free and open inquiry? That one place where we’re supposed to discover new ideas, especially those that make us uncomfortable? Where vigorous, even fiery debate should be the norm?
It’s painful to admit that much of academia has set the venerable ideals of free speech and academic freedom as secondary priorities. We should be grateful, then, that a nascent backlash has begun, and not a moment too soon. At Harvard, for example, 120 faculty members banded together to form the Council on Academic Freedom.
“Truth is Harvard’s brand, and it is a noble one,” a council press release states. “But the pursuit of truth will falter without a commitment to academic freedom.”
Meanwhile, among other similar initiatives covered on the FIRE website, a group of faculty in the California State University system is offering students, staff and alumni the opportunity to sign a statement in support of free speech and academic freedom.
But for all these valiant if scattered efforts to revive academia’s true purpose within entrenched DEI bureaucracies, you can’t beat the real thing: building a new university from scratch.
This is what a group of free speech warriors decided to do in 2021, when they announced the creation of the University of Austin (UATX) dedicated to, yes, the fearless pursuit of truth.
This commitment, as it says on its website, arises from its “confidence that the nature of reality can be discerned, albeit incompletely, by those who seek to understand it, and from our belief that the quest to know, though unending, is an ennobling, liberating, and productive endeavor.” UATX also promises it “will remain independent of any political, religious, or other external interest groups.”
How did this “too good to be true” university come to be?
Let’s go back to May 2021, when an influential group that included Niall Ferguson, Pano Kanelos, Joe Lonsdale and Bari Weiss conceived the idea. At the time, it was just an exciting idea. But when it went public with the initiative six months later, UATX received over a thousand inquiries from students, parents and professors within 24 hours.
This surge of interest gave the project momentum, and 2022 was marked by a First Principles summit, the hiring of four academic directors, the launch of “The Forbidden Courses” and application for state certification.
The momentum has continued in 2023 with a second First Principles summit, a first-ever high school program, a partnership for a graduate symposium on “Reason in Crisis,” and, crucially, the opening of applications for UATX’s first-ever undergraduate degree program. Next Fall, the university plans to welcome its first undergraduates to campus.
UATX is now in the process of developing its urban campus in downtown Austin, including academic and administrative facilities and nearby student residential housing. According to its website, they’re also planning to develop a residential campus in the greater Austin area and have begun the master-planning process.
In other words, this thing is real.
So, when UATX says it is building “a university that prepares through thoughtful and ethical innovators, builders, leaders, and citizens through fair-minded open inquiry and sustained civil discourse,” people are taking them seriously.
Its founders take their mission to heart. Among them is Bari Weiss, founder and editor of The Free Press and former New York Times writer and opinion editor who left the paper because, among other things, it acted as if “truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
Many of those associated with UATX had come to see college campuses in the same way. DEI, they believed, had hijacked legitimate concerns about fairness and civil rights to replace discourse with dogma, and the idea of truth as a process with truth as a pre-packaged product.
UATX’s approach has attracted hundreds of applicants from Ivy League schools and around the world even though the newly established university has yet to receive accreditation.
In Jewish parlance, UATX’s bold move is akin to what we call a “breakaway minyan,” when a group of dissatisfied congregants decide they could do better and leave to start their own synagogue. There may be some friction during the break-up, but in the end, this freedom to challenge, innovate and renew has long been a vital component of Jewish continuity.
UATX is a breakaway university in the grand American tradition of trailblazers, those fearless innovators who have taken advantage of America’s “corrective mechanism” to fix things they don’t like.
But if it remains a needle in a haystack, a shining beacon of academic freedom in a college culture that values constrained speech over the messiness of free speech, it will be a major missed opportunity. UATX can’t remain a breakaway. It would bode well for the future of our students, our schools, our media and our nation if UATX’s passion for free expression and the fearless pursuit of truth became a national standard of aspiration.
UATX can only control its own destiny, and it’s likely to experience some growing pains as it aims to resuscitate the ideals of academia. It will have to deal, for example, with any incidents of hate speech— including speech that qualifies as antisemitism—in a way that won’t undermine its commitment to free speech. This will take sensitivity and wisdom. But if the dedication of its leadership and supporters remains steadfast, there’s no reason to believe it won’t succeed as a dynamic educational space. The key question will be: Who will follow?
We shouldn’t underestimate the obstacles. Prime among them is the proliferation of DEI, which has become a central pillar of higher education. What makes DEI such a vexing issue is that, on the surface, it sounds so noble— a true sign of progress.
Consider, for example, how the University of Michigan frames DEI:
“At the University of Michigan, our dedication to academic excellence for the public good is inseparable from our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. It is central to our mission as an educational institution to ensure that each member of our community has full opportunity to thrive in our environment, for we believe that diversity is key to individual flourishing, educational excellence and the advancement of knowledge.”
That sounds wonderful, until you realize that when colleges today talk about diversity, they rarely include the most important diversity: diversity of thought, of political views and opinions. That would mean embracing voices that might challenge the progressive DEI dogma that permeates academia. When John Sailer wrote earlier this year in The Free Press that “DEI is supplanting truth as the mission of American universities,” and that “an obsession with DEI threatens students, professors, and the very credibility of higher education in the U.S.,” he wasn’t exaggerating.
In a sense, UATX is confronting human nature. Pleasant-sounding notions like diversity, equity and inclusion appeal to our sense of justice as well as our sense of comfort. How could those soothing moral expressions not be more enticing than an unpredictable free-for-all where a cacophony of views are allowed to clash and possibly give us migraine headaches?
Indeed, the DEI view of diversity is soothing precisely because its focus is on easy morality rather than the more challenging diversity of ideology. It’s a short hop from easily morality to intolerance.
As Pamela Paresky wrote in an essay for FIRE: “The more firmly we believe something to be morally ‘true,’ the less willing we are to permit any discussion that contradicts that ‘truth,’ the less willing we are to engage with anyone who doesn’t share our view, and the more likely we are to feel ‘unsafe’ in the presence of dissenters—whom, in a culture of safetyism, we must see as dangerous and threatening.”
Moral conceit, then, may turn out to be the most serious enemy of free speech. Those who feel morally superior are so far up on their high horse it’s hard for them to see any pedestrian on the street, let alone hear anyone yell, “What about free speech?”
The fragile, entitled and morally superior are threatened by free speech because they know it’s not free. It comes with a price, and more and more people, especially on college campuses, are refusing to pay any price. They refuse to be offended, ever.
When Dave Chappelle used his free speech to poke fun at Jews, I was offended. But so what? As far as I know, there’s no such thing as a right to not be offended. I tolerated Chapelle’s offense because it was the price to pay for the greatest human right ever invented: the freedom to think and speak freely, offend, speak truth to power, all without fear of being censored or pursued by the law. For that freedom, being offended by a comic is a steal.
Yes, in my everyday life, as a Jew who loves his tradition, I have my own take on speech. I may have the right to offend, but I have the obligation to guard my tongue and not say hurtful things. This obligation, however, is personal—it has nothing to do with the constitutional task of establishing liberty for a whole nation around freedom of expression.
In a culture where feelings dominate, the unpleasant side effects of this liberty have fueled the DEI locomotive. But there’s a classic riposte to this unpleasantness: it came 97 years ago, when Justice Louis D. Brandeis, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, famously wrote that the remedy to bad speech is “more speech,” not “enforced silence.”
To put such trust in “more speech” in today’s climate takes courage. In the case of UATX, it means creating a vibrant oasis of learning where some students may feel it’s more a place of stress than an oasis. It also means having faith that most students will appreciate the value of free expression rather than moan over its side effects. It means, in short, treating college students like grown-ups, not fragile and delicate souls.
“We need more places where young people are encouraged to be bold and courageous, to think for themselves and challenge the orthodoxy,” Chairman Joe Lonsdale told me. “UATX is on track to partner with a lot of top talent to fight for the soul of our free society.”
Universities that have bent over backwards in recent years to create “safe spaces” for their students shouldn’t get too smug. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff posted recently on X, referring to workplaces, “’Psychological safety’ at work means the freedom to experiment with ideas, be creative, disagree, take risks & challenge orthodoxies, without fear that doing so will get you fired. Pretty much the opposite of a safe space.” If that is true for a workplace, how much more so for a university.
The free speech warriors at UATX are placing a big bet on the more sophisticated definitions of diversity and safety. They’re banking that it’s not too late to make the case, on behalf of a nation’s future, for the fearless and civil pursuit of truth. If they succeed and others follow, historians may look back on their initiative as the moment American universities returned not just to their senses, but to their true mission.
In the meantime, we can expect some lively and very interesting students to come out of Austin over the next few years.
Originally published by the Jewish Journal.