The University of Austin: Free Speech Returns to the Academy
Essay by UATX student Max Keating
I am delighted to publish this essay written by Max Keating, a student who attended the Forbidden Courses program at the University of Austin this summer. The program attracted the best and brightest future thought leaders from across the world. Max's reflection on the significance of free speech in academia provides reason for hope.
The University of Austin: Free Speech Returns to the Academy
By Max Keating
Large swathes of American higher education have become deeply unintellectual, self-censorial, and schizophrenic. But after a week at the newly founded University of Austin, I’m cautiously optimistic that new spaces are being created for those who yearn for the unapologetic pursuit of truth that has underpinned higher education at its best since Plato founded his academy in 387 BC.
As a wide-eyed high school senior in 2016 mulling over my next move, the notion of going off to college was compelling. I’d move away from home to figure out who I am and what I believe through open-minded discussion with peers and instructors from around the world.
I was excited to broaden my horizons, and ultimately chose to fly across the country from my buttoned-up New England suburb to the notoriously funky Bay Area and UC Berkeley. While the school’s strong reputation, beautiful campus, and the near-mystical allure of The Golden State all drew me in, what ultimately led me to choose Berkeley was a particular historical tidbit the school stressed on its campus tours.
Berkeley was the home of the 1964 Campus Free Speech Movement, my tour guide repeatedly noted, where activists led by Mario Savio fought back against the McCarthyism of the day that had led administrators to ban student groups from taking part in any form of political activity on or off campus.
The protestors occupied university buildings in defiance of campus speech policies and, fervent in their convictions that they should be able to express themselves freely, refused to stand down in the face of increasingly violent action by police to remove them. Berkeley faculty were moved by the students’ idealism and voted overwhelmingly that “the content of speech or advocacy should not be restricted by the University.” Following Berkeley’s lead, universities nationwide began amending their speech policies, paving the way for many of the infamous Vietnam War and civil rights campus protests in the 1960s and 1970s.
I chose to go to Berkeley because I was convinced that this ethos of free speech absolutism being so deeply ingrained in the school’s history would have carried free inquiry and civil discourse forward as core institutional values to this day. I consider myself to be a centrist, politically, and I understood that Berkeley had a reputation as being a bastion of relatively far-left thought and organization. But I thought that exposure to new and different ideas would be a great opportunity to have my beliefs challenged through respectful debate and that I would emerge a stronger thinker for it.
Of course, all this rested on my assumption that despite the prevailing ideological bent of many students and professors, ideas that challenged this consensus would still be welcomed and debated respectfully. I assumed that the home of the free speech movement still valued free speech.
Reader, I was dead wrong.
The Death of the Academy
After an event by conservative speaker Ben Shapiro that caused the school to go into quasi-lockdown on account of credible threats of violence, I watched as one student blindsided a peer holding a “We ✡ You Ben” sign, whipping her to the ground by her ponytail. I watched as this woman’s head bounced off the pavement, riot police surrounded her and EMTs ultimately whisked her away, all for the thoughtcrime of supporting a fairly mainstream public intellectual from the “wrong” side of the political spectrum.
This was an extreme, but not isolated case. At Berkeley I saw members of the school’s Young Republicans chapter spat on while trying to recruit new members. I overheard discussions of students who saw nothing wrong with banning controversial speakers from campus. And I heard accounts of large lectures disrupted by self-aggrandizing culture warriors that thought the speakers’ ideas or presence were akin to violence, and who thus pulled fire alarms, came in blaring music or harassed the speaker with frantic, nonsensical shrieking through megaphones.
The worst part was that not only were the inmates running the asylum with mobs of students forcing the university’s hands, but in many cases faculty and administrators stood alongside students demanding the suppression of speech they disagree with.
When a right-wing student group planned to host “Free Speech Week” by inviting the controversial Milo Yiannopolous, Steve Bannon, and Ann Coulter to campus, 76 faculty members signed an open letter calling for a complete boycott of classes and campus activities. A New York Times survey from the time found that certain Berkeley faculty members believed violence to be “acceptable” if used to shut down speech when “used against what is perceived as fascist intruders.”
I began paying attention to the issue on a national scale and discovered the censorship of ideas is not restricted to Berkeley. It’s plaguing the American academy writ large.
It seems like every week there’s a story where a preeminent research institution like MIT acquiesces to a mob calling for the disinvitation of a climate scientist for comments he made about affirmative action, where hundreds of law students shout down a bipartisan civil liberties panel, or where a world-renowned classics professor is fired after increasingly sparring with woke administrators and student groups.
Digging deeper, I found that there was more than just anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon. One survey of the top 150 colleges in the U.S. found that two-thirds of students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker in order to stop them from spreading their ideas on campus; nearly 25% of students said it is acceptable to use violence to do so. Almost a quarter of faculty would support the firing of a colleague for disagreement on issues like immigration or affirmative action.
The effects of this close-mindedness on the pursuit of truth are deeply pernicious, particularly so because the intellectual and political unanimity of academia is staggering and the majority of speech suppression on campus thus one-sided. Just 2% of Harvard’s faculty voted for Donald Trump, and nearly 60% of American academics would be “uncomfortable” sitting next to one of his supporters. Even putting aside the Trump phenomenon, 96% of Ivy League professors’ campaign contributions went to Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012.
As a result, thought and speech that does any more than rehash left-wing talking points is not particularly welcomed in the academy, notably in the social sciences. Thirty-eight percent of conservative academics report having been disciplined, or threatened with discipline for their views, six times the level of their peers with leftist views. Fully 68% of conservative students report engaging in self-censorship for fear of repercussions if they say what they think.
There are exceptions. I’ve had genuinely saintly professors from across the political spectrum still committed to cultivating a classroom environment that teaches students how to think, not what to think. But the issue reaches far enough that campus discourse is genuinely stymied. One professor, herself considerably left of center, once confided in me that she often feels as if she’s walking on eggshells in front of lecture halls filled with students chomping at the bit to catch her in a slip of the tongue and rat her out to administrators in the name of social justice. Surely this pervasive fear of saying the wrong thing does not produce an environment conducive to the acquisition of knowledge.
Cause for Hope
Enter: The University of Austin, the new university being built in Texas focused on combating this problem. Announced last November, UATX was created by a group of ideologically diverse public intellectuals to address the “gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education.” I recently returned from the school’s inaugural “Forbidden Courses” program, where some of the world’s preeminent scholars and students from across the country gathered to discuss topics “forbidden” in greater academia. We unobstructedly examined topics like race, gender, ideology, and capitalism from critical and objective perspectives.
I came away with newfound optimism for the future of learning in the United States.
Settling in for a group dinner on the first evening of the program, UATX President Pano Kanelos shared his thoughts on the necessity and historical role of the university. Kanelos stressed that studying alongside others with alternative perspectives pushes one to clarify her own beliefs further than she would have to if alone or operating in a political or intellectual echo chamber. Productive discourse comes not from a place of assuming you’re right and trying to win arguments through intellectual jiu-jitsu or sophistry, Kanelos continued, but rather from suspending one’s certainty in an assertion and treating your interlocutor as a good faith actor. Intellectual humility and honesty are crucial to advancing knowledge.
Whether it be due to a self-selection bias of those attracted to UATX and its mission of “building a liberal arts university committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse,” or expert classroom stewardship by esteemed faculty, the week embodied Kanelos’ stated values.
Each morning I discussed “the opium of ideology” in a small seminar led by Jacob Howland, studying how to balance morality and objective justice with a healthy respect for pluralism. We debated how some things are plain right or wrong, always and everywhere, but that totalitarian ideological and political frameworks have without fail led to bad outcomes.
Other courses probed “free speech, religion, and women’s rights” with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, what makes “free vs. unfree societies” with Niall Ferguson, and the “catastrophe or triumph of capitalism” with Deirdre McCloskey, amongst other ambitious and ever-important topics that thinkers have grappled with for millennia.
In the afternoons, we attended one-off workshops and lectures. The first of these was a lecture delivered by philosopher Peter Boghossian on “street epistemology,” a process of working towards a meeting of the minds in everyday conversation by asking questions like “why do you believe what you believe” and “what would I have to do to convince you to change your mind?”
Another standout was a genuinely fruitful conversation between Kathleen Stock, a feminist who has pushed back against a perceived encroachment of trans women into biological women’s spaces, and Deirdre McCloskey, a trans economist. Their discussion got past the acrimonious name-calling and talking past one another that characterizes this debate elsewhere. Stock said that this was the first time a trans person has ever agreed to debate her in public, and the two ultimately found common ground on a number of issues and drilled into ascertaining the reasons for their points of disagreement where they diverged.
As one can surely tell, topics were diverse and ever-stimulating, but the common theme for the week was to provide students with a toolkit of how to think critically, respect others, and tolerate diverging opinions. Professors cared little for teaching students what to think, but rather focused on the best practices of how to think and avoid falling into logical fallacies. I was exposed to people that looked at the world in different ways from myself and came away with my worldview challenged and more questions than answers––the sign of a positive experience after just a week of intensive study.
Surely, building a university from the ground up is a Herculean endeavor and there will prove to be challenges ahead. One notable one, I believe, will be attracting students from across the political spectrum as “free speech” has bizarrely become a partisan issue. But this is something the founders are attuned to; in the abovementioned speech at the kickoff dinner, President Kanelos noted that the answer to academia going “woke” is not a conservative institution à la Liberty University––it’s a place dedicated uncompromisingly to free inquiry, respect for divergent opinions, and the pursuit of truth.
What would Berkeley’s original “Free Speech Activists” think?
I recently spoke with Jack Radley, one of the leaders of the FSM now enjoying retirement in Oregon. Radley is no conservative firebrand; he was involved with the Communist Party of America, Civil Rights Movement, and remains engaged in left-wing activism to this day. He tells me his belief in free speech remains deep-seated.
Radley remarked that people with vastly different worldviews can find common ground by assuming good faith of those on the other side of the aisle, asking questions like “who are you” and “why are you here?” Surely, he stressed, there are very real reasons to prevent speech that genuinely incites violence against marginalized groups, or anyone for that matter, but as a principle in all other cases “the general answer to ugly, vitriolic, hateful speech is good speech.”
By talking with those across the political aisle, he’s been able to have conversations that have shown both sides that “we socialists aren’t what you think we are if you watch Tucker Carlson, and most MAGA heads aren’t what those who watch Rachel Maddow think either.” Radley argued that it’s a very small and divisive vocal faction within the leftist movement that seeks to bar speech it disagrees with––a contention I’d push back against––but acquiesced that such suppression is deeply harmful where and when it occurs.
His fellow FSM veterans seem to agree; in a 2017 letter to the Daily Californian, Berkeley’s student publication, a number of veterans of the movement wrote that “Yiannopoulos is a bigot who comes to campus spouting vitriol so as to attract attention to himself,” but that “Berkeley’s free speech tradition, won through struggle—suspension, arrest, fines, jail time—by Free Speech Movement activists is far more important than Yiannopoulos, and it is that tradition’s endurance that concerns us.”
Hopefully, with time, legacy universities will come to realize that open debate, intellectual humility, and maturity produce a far richer education than the Calvinist cancellation culture and suppression of dissent today found in academia. But the founders of The University of Austin aren’t keen to wait. Founding faculty member Peter Boghossian has spent the last decade trying to heal academia from the inside. Now, he tells me, “I’m tired of complaining. I want to build something new. And people can choose for themselves where they feel they can learn the most.”
Whether greater academia follows or not, I am happy to report that those inclined to challenge themselves with an open-minded and rigorous education will have one place to do so at UATX.
Max Keating is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Georgetown University. His work has appeared in the Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, and Daily Signal, among others.