campus beat

An interview with the University of Austin’s founding president

‘We don't want to create controversy just to create controversy,’ said Pano Kanelos of the new liberal arts college

Screenshot/YouTube/The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation

Pano Kanelos

Buzz tends to follow Bari Weiss, the former New York Times writer who now writes a popular Substack newsletter called “Common Sense.” So when her subscribers received an email last week announcing a new private university Weiss had a hand in creating, the social media snark began immediately: comparisons to the fraudulent Trump University, accusations of “monetizing moral politics,” an assertion that the enterprise is a “Boss Level grift operation.” 

Her newsletter was heralding the creation of a new, as-yet-unaccredited liberal arts college called the University of Austin. The college will be helmed by Pano Kanelos, who until last summer was the president of St. John’s College, a liberal arts school in Annapolis, Md., with just a few hundred undergraduates that is best known for its Great Books program of classic works from the Western canon. 

In his essay about the new university, Kanelos bemoaned that “illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life,” and wrote about a desire to restore “open inquiry and civil discourse” in education at a time of “censoriousness.” Rather than “waiting for the legacy universities” — schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford — “to right themselves,” Kanelos writes, he and a host of other academics and public intellectuals are instead creating a new one. 

Contrary to the claims of some critics, Kanelos said the goal is not to create a safe space for conservative thinkers. 

“If everybody at University of Austin, or most people, are on the right or on either end of the political spectrum, if it’s so dominated in one way or the other, we will have failed,” Kanelos told Jewish Insider in an interview Friday from his home in Austin, where he moved this summer. 

The university’s founding trustees include Weiss; the historian Niall Ferguson; Heather Heying, an evolutionary biologist who has garnered attention recently for remaining unvaccinated against COVID-19; and Joe Lonsdale, a co-founder of Palantir and managing partner at the venture capital fund 8VC and the university’s main financial supporter. Its board of advisors includes some conservative figures, such as Harvard professor and former American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks and the activist and researcher Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but other notable members include former ACLU President Nadine Strossen and former Harvard President Larry Summers. 

The University of Austin will begin teaching master’s students next fall, and it hopes to enroll undergraduates — eventually serving 4,000 undergraduate students at a time — in 2024. (Critics have pointed out that the university is not yet accredited, but its website says the school is undergoing that process.) 

“My dream would be that we could become, like, the Stanford to [the University of Texas at Austin’s] Berkeley,” said Kanelos. “There’s a world-class public institution here, and if we can have a complimentary world class private institution, I think that would be wonderful.”

In a wide-ranging interview with JI, Kanelos spoke about how the University of Austin will approach critical race theory, why a culture of “grace and forgiveness” is necessary for a university to succeed and where the university will draw the line when it comes to the most repugnant political views. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Gabby Deutch: Why did you leave St. John’s? It seems to have similar goals to the University of Austin.

Paul Kanelos: I think St. John’s is one of the finest institutions in the country, one of the most rigorous educations; it’s kind of like the platonic ideal of a liberal arts school. But St. John’s is very particular in its mission. It has a single curriculum, a single reading list. What I wanted to do was take the spirit of St. John’s and the deep commitment to liberal arts education, and expand it to a full comprehensive university. St. John’s only ever intends to be a small place. What would it look like if we could take that spirit, that approach, and enjoin it to a university that has programs in tech and entrepreneurship, where you can have a school of education and study politics?

GD: When thinking about the future size of the University of Austin and the ideal number of students, is there another school that you could point to where you could say, we want to be that size or have that many programs?

PK: The target size we have right now is probably about 4,000 undergraduates, and maybe 1000 graduate students. You want a university that’s going to be large enough to have a broad range of resources, programs, different types of scholars, and students doing lots of different things. But we don’t want to get so big that people are strangers to each other. Because one of the things that we’re trying to achieve is to create an environment where we can all ask and answer life’s big questions together. And to do that, you have to have a degree of trust with people. And trust comes from interpersonal relationships and human contact. So trying to find that balance point between what it means to be as expansive an institution as you can be, but still remain human-scaled. If we’re growing, and we find that the human-centered community is being stretched too thin, then we will stop growing. Our North Star is to create a place where we can bring people together and promote open inquiry and civil discourse and do that in a context where students and faculty are leading an exciting life of the mind.

GD: To that point about free inquiry — in the letter announcing the school, you talk about “thinking the unthinkable” and “challenging the unchallengeable.” Do you and the other folks who are involved with the University of Austin intend to solicit perspectives that perhaps make you uncomfortable? Things, for instance, like critical race theory, which I know many of the people in this project have been critical of?

PK: Yeah, of course. Absolutely. We would only be replicating the problem; if one of the things we’re identifying is that universities — some universities, not all — are not allowing the broadest range of perspectives on campus, then if we were to do the same thing, we’re missing the point. I completely expect discussions of critical race theory, serious ones, reading the original texts, discussing the ideas that are out there, because these are ideas that are very impactful right now in our society and having a lot of influence. I think a university has an obligation to try to understand what’s behind them and discuss them openly and see what the merits and faults of any kind of belief system are.

GD: Would there be any steps taken to promote scholars or students who work on those issues, when a lot of the people who are involved with the university are seen as critics? Presumably a lot of the people who are most vocal in support of critical race theory will look at this university and think, “That’s not the place for me.”

PK: I think there’s a difference between institutions trying to understand the ideas that are in the world and promoting those ideas. There’s a dividing line there. I think a university is a place where people explore ideas, it’s not a place where a university takes a stance and promotes particular ideas or ideologies. And the people that I know, even those who are critical of critical race theory, are interested in trying to understand it as part of their critique. If there was somebody who was so exercised by critical race theory that they couldn’t have a rational conversation about it, they’re probably not going to like our institution, because that’s the kind of conversation we want to have. 

GD: What leads you to believe that the University of Austin will be immune to some of these problems that led you to create the school? If there were students at the University of Austin who end up objecting to a speaker or a professor with whom they disagree, how would you handle that situation with those students? Would there be any consequences for them trying to, say, shut down an event?

PK: If they tried to shut down an event, then of course there’d be consequences. I think objecting to and protesting something is totally fine. But there are hard and fast lines. If we’re an institution that stands for civil discourse, anybody who’s acting outside the bounds of civil discourse is transgressing one of our fundamental tenets. We want speech to be as open and expansive and elastic as possible. But you can only have broad-ranging discussions and ideas if you all agree that nobody is allowed to prevent others from expressing their opinions. If students want to protest, if they agitate against somebody, that’s fine. That sort of stuff should happen in all political directions. But if they actually tried to prevent somebody or intimidate somebody, that’s not acceptable. And there would be consequences.

GD: Is there a point at which engagement with controversial issues crosses the line into validating repugnant views? Are there any points at which you would draw a line and say, This person is not welcome on my campus, or this perspective is not welcome?

PK: I don’t think I would draw the line at somebody with ideas that were controversial that wanted to express his ideas, because I think hearing those ideas in debate is an appropriate safety valve for our culture. But if somebody had acted upon their ideas in the public in a way or in any setting that was harmful directly towards other people, or cruel — if this person married those ideals with action that was harmful to other people, that person would not be welcome.

GD: It sounds like, for instance, if you were to take one of the people currently being sued for arranging the violent neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, that would be different from a person who maybe espouses those same white nationalist principles but didn’t march with machine guns in Charlottesville? 

PK: We don’t want to create controversy just to create controversy. We’re not really going to be seeking out people who have opinions that most people find repugnant. But if there’s an occasion to try and provide a forum to have a critical discussion about those things, and I think this is one of the things that I think sometimes people miss about the purpose of universities. The purpose of universities isn’t to provide a platform for free speech. Our whole society is a platform for free speech. The purpose of universities is to provide an opportunity to come to a better understanding about the world and the ideas in this world. So for me difficult ideas that are presented in a way that allows for discussion, debate, critique — that’s within bounds for university. Just to give somebody a soapbox or a platform to say what they want to say, if it’s not conducive to the general purpose of the institution, which is to understand things better, or learn more, then there’s no obligation for that.

GD: So when you and the other people involved with the university talk about some of these unpopular ideas, or some of the topics that might lead to a person being “censored,” what are some of those topics that you would like to explore at the University of Austin that you feel have not been “allowed” to be discussed at other educational institutions?

PK: The most pressing issues that we have in our society, the ones that we’re really wrestling with — it’s the role of universities to provide a way for society to engage and work through those issues. It’s not to want to embrace controversy, or be contrarian. We always talk about dialogue. If we don’t have somewhere where that actually can happen, then we’re at a stalemate. And we see the kind of polarization that we have today. I think issues like gender or race, things that are very much on the forefront of everybody’s mind, can be discussed if we create a culture of trust and a culture of openness and grace and find a way to do that within the Academy. The first thing you have to do is create that culture. You have to create a culture where people will understand that they can speak openly, make mistakes, be wrong — that everybody will be eager to forgive one another when mistakes are made. Because the higher order end is for people who understand the world differently to try and understand each other better.

GD: To that point about understanding people who are coming at things from different perspectives, I think a lot of people are looking at the University of Austin and seeing the backers and thinking, this is just a haven for conservative academics, conservative students, conservative thinkers. Is that a fair assessment of what you’re doing?

PK: A substantial portion of the people involved in the project are not conservative in any identifiable way. I think it’s interesting that if an institution has embraced people who are on the right as part of their constituent population, that it’s characterized as a right-leaning institution. It doesn’t seem to go in the opposite direction. If you look at institutions and 75 to 80% of people are on the left, we don’t say that’s a left-leaning institution. I don’t know how to untangle that knot. I think it’s just a habit of the culture, to assume that if you have people who are on the right gathered in some sort of critical mass that they can only be interested in things that are endorsed by or appealing to the right. I think that’s a false assessment.

GD: You say that people will look at an institution where 70 to 80% of the people are on the political left, and the first thing that people think isn’t necessarily that it’s a left-wing institution. But it seems like that is what you’re saying about institutions like, say, Harvard or Yale — that they are left-leaning, and not open to points of view beyond left-wing orthodoxy. 

PK: I have no interest in identifying an institution as being left or right. There’s institutions on the right that are also very committed to that particular political stance. I think the main issue in higher education is asymmetry. If things are so asymmetrical that you look around, and there’s really only one set or a small set of positions that are represented, I think that limits the possibility of the institution to be truth-seeking, to have enough viewpoints that people can step out of their own viewpoints and better understand themselves in the world. So I don’t necessarily think it’s problematic that the legacy institutions are on the left. I spent my whole career in higher education, and people would have a hard time identifying me politically. I’ve never felt oppressed by left or right. But I think what we’ve seen happen over time — and this is not just in universities, this is a society in general — is a kind of sorting that’s happened that has allowed many institutions to be politically or ideologically asymmetrical. I think we should resist that. I think we should find a way to balance things out. If everybody at University of Austin, or most people, are on the right or on either end of the political spectrum, if it’s so dominated in one way or the other, we will have failed. Our vision will have failed. That is not our vision. Our vision is for there to be — I don’t think proportional equal representation, I think those are quixotic things — but for people to be engaged in university not because of their politics, but almost, I would say, in spite of politics, because they’re actually interested in things that are above and beyond our political designations, things that are generally human.

GD: I’m curious if the current climate on campuses for pro-Israel, Jewish students factored at all into any of the conversations around the university of Austin.

PK: We have had no specific conversations about that.

GD: The reason I ask is because of the association, of course, with Bari Weiss, who as a student at Columbia had been involved in activism around a professor with pro-Palestinian views, who was accused of discriminating against students who had more pro-Israel views. So I’m curious how that issue fits into the commitment to liberalism. Would a professor who doesn’t think that Israel should exist be accepted and welcomed at the university?

PK: It depends on what you mean, ‘not exist.’ If there’s somebody who wants to make a political case about Israel one way or the other, I think these are things that have to be heard. If there’s somebody who thinks that the Jewish people, as a people, don’t have a right to — I think there’s a dividing line there. It would be very difficult for us as an institution that’s dedicated to the broadest possible open inquiry not to allow people to hold perspectives that are in tension with others. As soon as we start to do that, then I think the cards start to fall in general. The core of civil discourse, the absolute centerpiece of civil discourse, is the recognition of the mutual dignity of all human beings. That to me is a non-negotiable. You can’t have civil discourse which then enables free speech or open inquiry if you don’t have at the very center of that the recognition of the absolute and mutual dignity of all human beings, because civil discourse is predicated upon the idea that we’re all rational human beings, and we all share the same value. So that’s nonnegotiable. I mean, if somebody at any point, students, faculty, guests or what, were somehow to impugn the dignity of other human beings. That’s a bridge too far. That’s unacceptable.

GD: I want to talk as well about the other piece that the University of Austin wants to focus on. The website mentions that roughly 40% of the students who want to pursue a college degree aren’t able to attain one. But presumably the reason they’re not graduating from college isn’t because of the political climate or “illiberalism.” It’s because college is expensive, and they have to take care of family or have other responsibilities. And some of the schools you’re critical of — schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford — don’t have those problems around graduation rates. So I’m curious how you reconcile these two sides of your mission. What will the University of Austin do to address that problem of people who want to go to college and aren’t able to finish their degree?

PK: I think you’re right. I think the primary reason that students do not complete is because of financial stress. So solving that piece, making sure that college is affordable, is an important part of that. But the second piece of that is making sure that the outcomes of college make sense. In other words, it’s not enough to say, it’s not very expensive to go to this college, come here and spend four years. The front end is the expense of college, building an institution that is lean and purpose-driven and not given to financial inefficiencies or excesses. You make it affordable. At the back end, you have to make sure you’re providing very clear outcomes and pathways to careers and professional development and further study. If you put those two pieces together, you’ll see that students do much better, because on the one hand, you’re relieving some of the financial distress along the way by making education affordable. And on the other hand, you’re motivating them to push through the challenges of college because the end game is much clearer to them and much more accessible to them.

GD: What does affordable mean to you? Do you have a number in mind for what is considered affordable tuition?

PK: The goal is to have tuition be set at less than half the average of the leading private institutions, and that as a top-end goal. If most private institutions are charging $60,000 a year, our goal would be to charge no more than $30,000, but still try to work downwards from there so that it can be hopefully significantly less than that. 

GD: There are larger policy solutions to the affordability issue that go beyond just creating one new institution — things like free community college or student debt relief. Does the University of Austin intend to take a position on issues like that or otherwise get involved in some of those broader conversations?

PK: We have no intention to be involved in any political issues or take any political stances. Happy to consult on those issues if people wanted to hear from us about what we think the impact would be on issues like that, we would give our perspective on it. But I don’t think we want to take any particular stances.

GD: Why did you make this announcement now, several years before you will accept any undergraduates? 

PK: What happened was, once we decided that we were fully committed to this, and we knew we were building this institution, we wanted to do it publicly and openly. Part of the reason is exactly what’s transpired: We wanted to spark the kind of conversations that are going on about higher education right now. By proposing an institution with the value set that we have, [we want] to enliven the conversation about higher education in general. And the other thing is, we want to be open to ideas as we develop the university. We’re a dedicated crew who are working on this. But there are a lot of really, really insightful, smart, experienced people in the world out there, who we’d like to engage in the conversation as well. 

GD: Who are your initial major financial backers?

PK: The person who’s given us the kind of runway here at the beginning is somebody who’s on our board, Joe Lonsdale. We’re in the process right now with seven or eight other lead donors. But we haven’t made any conclusions yet, so I don’t want to put any names out there. 

GD: Your website mentions “forbidden courses” — what are some of the questions that you intend to ask in those courses? What counts as “forbidden”? 

PK: I think that just sounded like a sexy title. What we really mean is the difficult topics. That’s the less interesting way to put it. The stuff that because it’s difficult doesn’t get discussed enough in other settings, usually at other universities. We’ll take at least two scholars in each class who will team-teach the course, but who bring very different perspectives to the subject at hand. Thinking about things like the question, let’s say, of gender, or questions like, Is empire evil? The idea is to help students learn how to assess, critique, evaluate difficult issues, then come up with their own perspectives, and then figure out how to express those perspectives in a productive way.

GD: In the last year and a half since George Floyd was killed, there have been conversations around race and diversity and broadening what’s taught at universities, as well as students’ legitimate concerns about racism and language that’s used in those courses. How do you address that? Is it important to the University of Austin to include perspectives from underrepresented groups — from people who have felt discriminated against at their institutions of higher education because of, say, their race?

PK: Of course, it is, without a doubt. We’re interested in the entirety of the human experience. How do we address those questions — that’s what the university is trying to solve for. I’ll give you an example. After George Floyd, while I was still at St. John’s, I decided that fall to teach an elective course on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is a really rough novel. It brings up issues of not only race, but violence and sexual exploitation and all these things. There’s a strong voice that’s very critical of the status quo when it comes to race. I’m not gonna lie, it was such a politicized moment, that I was really anxious. everything was so sensitive and challenging. The very first class, I said, Look, guys, this is a tough moment. And these are issues that we’re facing together and individually. If we’re going to be able to talk about things in this novel, which are going to be upsetting to some and challenging and difficult to face, we have to be able to do it together. We have to start with the notion that we need to have an impulse towards grace and forgiveness, because we all understand the world only imperfectly. And we’re gonna bring our imperfect understandings of the world to the table and share those. If somebody says something that is not easy for you to hear or not right, before we get our guard up, let’s just remember that that person is a human being, and may be wrong. Address them with a sense of openness and grace and if somebody does offend you, let’s have our first impulse be to talk about it. This was one of the best classes I ever taught. It was one of the most fraught moments in our country’s history. I picked, maybe foolishly, one of the most difficult novels out there. By approaching it from the kind of, let’s say, human vulnerability, and exposing all of us as being vulnerable and imperfect, we were able to learn together. 

GD: Have you connected at all with the University of Texas? Are there any plans to collaborate with them? 

PK: I have connected with them and with the leadership there. The first thing I said is, don’t worry, we’re not starting a football team. There’s already a lot of crossover in terms of people at the university who are interested in what we’re doing and who have come to events and conversations that have happened. I feel like institutions need to collaborate. My dream would be that we could become, like, the Stanford to UT’s Berkeley. There’s a world-class public institution here, and if we can have a complimentary world-class private institution, I think that would be wonderful.