A sampling of the nation’s most intolerable contrarian columnists, right-wing pundits, and other stuffed shirts is launching their own university in a bid to challenge the supposedly woke academic status quo—courtesy of funding from an obscure libertarian nonprofit linked to Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale.
The University of Austin or UATX, which is absolutely not to be confused with the University of Texas at Austin, a real school, aims to offer “forbidden courses” that will spark students to ask “provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” It boasts a bevy of headache-inducing personalities on its Board of Advisors, which consists largely of the type of people who have branded themselves as the last defenders of liberalism (against the tide of woke liberals).
Those personalities include Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion editor who has spent most of her professional energy yelping about left-wing Twitter mobs; conservative British historian Niall Ferguson, who left Stanford after leaked emails showed him encouraging campus Republicans to do “opposition research” on a left-wing student; former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who has somehow tried to make the “wokeness” of central bankers a culture-war issue; amateur race scientist and self-declared ethnic penis size expert Andrew Sullivan; scorched-earth culture warrior Sohrab Ahmari; and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, an identity politics alarmist who is popular with the neoliberal crowd. One of its “founding faculty fellows” is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Hoover Institution scholar who believes Islam is inherently violent and has more recently begun parroting the line that “wokeism” is just like white supremacy.
The effort will be headed up by inaugural president Pano Kanelos, the former president of St. John’s College (Annapolis) who is also another culture-war obsessive who believes academic freedom is being derailed by leftists. Alongside them will be fellow traveler and venture capitalist Lonsdale, one of the tech billionaires known for complaining about the supposedly stifling political culture of Silicon Valley.
UATX—which as of right now, is not accredited in anything but giving people aneurysms—says on its website it is “fiscally sponsored” by Cicero Research, which is affiliated with Lonsdale’s libertarian Cicero Institute. Lonsdale is best known for partnering with right-wing venture capitalist Peter Thiel to found Palantir, the big data analysis firm infamous for courting contracts with federal immigration agencies and the military. (Disclosure: Thiel bankrolled a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.) Lonsdale and his firm 8VC moved to Austin from San Francisco last year, citing the location as conveniently closer to companies he backs across the country and a way to escape California tax rates—Texas has no income tax.
According to the Daily Beast, public filings show Lonsdale listed as a member of Cicero Research. Beyond potentially being UATX’s financial benefactor and a member of its board of advisers, it’s not clear how big a role Lonsdale will play in the project: a spokesperson for the school told the Beast only that “We’re very proud to have Joe Lonsdale both on our board and as one of our financial supporters.” The Beast noted that UATX says it already has seed funding and is looking for $250 million more in investment.
UATX does not yet offer degrees but is seeking accreditation from the Texas Higher Education Board and initial accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission to offer master’s degrees in fall 2022 and undergraduate degrees in 2024. In an FAQ, it explains the choice of location in Austin with “If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us,” adding that the city is experiencing a “historic boom in talent and capital.”
For a taste of Lonsdale’s political leanings, refer to a recent tweet in which he responded to a tweet about Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg by claiming that men who take half a year of paternity leave are “losers” failing to take “the correct masculine response” of the “old days”. That remark didn’t go down particularly well with Initialized Capital founders Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan, who shot back that their company offers four months of paid paternity leave. Buttigieg’s spouse, Chasten Buttigieg, subsequently stated that their baby had serious health issues and spent three weeks in the hospital, including a “terrifying week” on a ventilator. Lonsdale also totally denies accusations of rape from a female Stanford student he mentored.
As New York Mag argued, the concept behind UATX isn’t exactly new: conservatives have tried to build their own academic safe spaces free from dissenting voices for decades, like Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Liberty University, Republican candidate factory Patrick Henry College, and MAGA-friendly Hillsdale College. The magazine also noted that many of the individuals associated with UATX aren’t exactly known for their embrace of the spirit of open debate, like Bari Weiss, who as a student at Columbia University developed a reputation for targeting Arab professors as Israel-haters, or the anti-trans scholar Kathleen Stock, who quit the University of Sussex after students protested her transphobic views. If history is any example, UATX will be more of a cancel culture-obsessed hivemind than a beacon of debate.
UATX didn’t immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment on this story, but we’ll update if we hear back.