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Cancel culture

The “anti-woke” university

Kathleen Stock, left, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali will teach at the University of Austin. Getty Images

Today’s academics are hounded mercilessly by woke mobs, says Pano Kanelos in Bari Weiss’s Substack newsletter, Common Sense. That’s why we’re starting the University of Austin in Texas – under the banner of free inquiry and “the fearless pursuit of truth”. We’ll have an undergraduate college by 2024, annual fees of less than $30,000 and “brave professors” such as Kathleen Stock, who resigned from the University of Sussex after she was threatened on campus over her research on sex and gender. She’ll be joined by historian Niall Ferguson; Steven Pinker, a Harvard linguist and psychologist; playwright David Mamet; and Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown. “We are done waiting for universities to fix themselves.”

I’m afraid the entire project is “thin soup”, says Alex Shephard in New Republic. The as yet unaccredited “college” doesn’t have any land yet, but is hoping to raise $25m-$100m: much of that is being pumped in by the Cicero Institute, a libertarian think tank linked to the secretive Silicon Valley surveillance giant Palantir. Frankly, the university seems to be set up for “owning the libs”. What the Forbidden Courses summer programme will teach young minds is anybody’s guess. Two of the three founding faculty members, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Kathleen Stock, have been criticised for Islamophobia and transphobia respectively. Jokes like “at the University of Austin, all the final grades are just skull measurements” are already doing the rounds.

Let them snigger, says Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg. “Something is rotten in the state of academia.” Grade inflation. Spiralling costs. Junk content like “grievance studies”. Career-ending “cancellations”. The benefits of free inquiry defy quantification. Would the democracies have won the world wars and the Cold War without the contributions of their universities? Think of Bletchley Park and the Manhattan Project. On the other hand, we historians see something deeply unpleasant about today’s cancellations, snitching and slogans. “Any student of the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th century recognises all this with astonishment.”

And for all the criticism, you can’t say this isn’t welcome, says Ross Douthat in The New York Times. America just doesn’t do new institutions. We may be the richest country on the planet, but we’re staggeringly selfish with that wealth. “It’s a little peculiar that you don’t see the new super-rich trying to put their stamp on the meritocracy – that we don’t yet have the Gates University or the Bezos Collegium.” The absence of such true experiments in philanthropy confirms one of my working theories of our era: that for all the talk of roiling crisis and radical transformation, we’re stagnant. “The elite-college landscape looks more like a cartel than a zone of thriving innovation.” Let’s hear it for the iconoclasts.