It’s not every day that a brand new university is unveiled in the United States, and — thanks to its backing by an all-star team of politically conservative thought leaders — the Texas-based University of Austin, or UATX, made a giant splash with its debut. A key founder, former New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss, declared: “We got sick of complaining about how broken higher education is. So we decided to do something about it.”
Yes! Finally, I thought, someone agrees that it’s time to deal with the insane tuition bills and the staggering debt-load that comes with higher education and the issues that keep 20-somethings from getting their own places or even getting married. At last ... an attack on a moral decline of American higher education from the optimism of the G.I. Bill and the flourishing state universities of the baby boom era to today’s rigged “meritocracy” that preserves elites while being inaccessible to millions, especially in rural counties that vote for the Republicans favored by UATX’s founders.
But then Weiss and her friends had to spoil it all by announcing that the real reason for creating their new bastion of higher learning is not really any of the above, but rather extreme “wokeness” which they claim is stifling intellectual debate. Wrote one of her allies, the conservative pundit Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “Our education system is failing [today’s students]: rather than being a place of learning, universities have transformed into a place of fear” — citing what she describes as campus obsessions with “microaggressions” around race, gender, or sexuality, the so-called “cancel culture,” or using the right pronouns.
I don’t wholly disagree with Weiss, Ali, and their fellow UATX masterminds. There are serious issues around free speech on campus, but it’s much more nuanced and complicated than they make it out to be in their tweets or their Substack screeds. They should spend a few days at an actual university, instead of just reading about the Breitbart/Fox News cherry-picked “campus snowflake” outrage of the day.
I did spend some time on campus or talking to students or recent grads for my upcoming book on how college — as well as our perceptions of higher education and status in today’s society — is the key driver of America’s increasingly bitter political divide. The students who list pronouns as their biggest concerns aren’t the same as the ones who crowd campus food pantries to get enough calories to study without hunger pangs, or who worry constantly about whether any diploma will be worth debts that sometimes pass $100,000.
Frankly, anyone naming “wokeness” at the major problem for our nation’s troubled young people — when the rigged-faux-meritocracy of modern college is linked to stress and rising suicide rates as well as debts that no honest man or woman can pay — probably isn’t a college or would-be college student. More likely, they’re a politics-obsessed grown-up terrified that liberal education, and frank discussion about topics like racism, is creating a Democratic electorate.
“Nearly three in five college students experience basic needs insecurity related to food or housing. More than one in 10 are homeless,” Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, senior learning specialist at Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, told me. “And that’s just scratching the surface of basic needs issues in higher education: many students are struggling with insufficient access to affordable childcare, mental health services, and reliable transportation. If we’re looking to tackle the issues that prevent students from learning, graduating, making a livable wage, and contributing to a functioning democracy, these are the issues.”
But the University of Austin roll-out is still worthy of debate not just because of what it says about modern conservative thinking about college and intellectual freedom, but because it comes at a time when Republican strategists are hoping to exploit middle-class concerns about education — both in K-12 classrooms and on college campuses — as a wedge issue in a culture war against Democrats who are increasingly the party of those with a diploma.
An ‘education agenda’ minus any education
Virginia was the testing ground for the latest right-wing experiment in class conflict, where Republican governor-elect Glenn Youngkin claimed “education” as his leading issue in winning the most-watched election of 2021. Yet voters heard more about what his agenda wouldn’t do — in banning the kind of anti-racism education the right has falsely branded as “critical race theory” — than what it would do to prepare today’s kids for the future. It’s telling that now some Virginia Republicans who lack Youngkin’s corporate poise are starting to say the quiet parts of this agenda out loud. This week, two Spotsylvania, Va., school board members literally proposed burning any LGBTQ books in their schools’ libraries.
Needless to say, the higher-education agenda of the UATX founders who, like the Columbia-educated Weiss, mostly brandish diplomas from the elite universities they now decry, is more sophisticated. And a lot of liberal or even progressive folks (like me) feel there are indeed extreme cases of “political-correctness-run-amok” or even some bad brands of anti-racism education out there, which hinder actual progress.
But I also think the far greater threat to free speech on college campuses is the same danger that animated the Berkeley Free Speech Movement way back in 1964: a political clampdown on academic freedom and expression from an all-powerful government. It’s telling that Weiss — who can’t find an isolated loopy comment from a teacher at $40,000-a-year-plus private high school like L.A.’s Harvard-Westlake or NYC’s Dalton too small to obsess over — is silent on big-time abuses of power like the University of North Carolina blocking tenure for Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, or University of Florida leaders preventing (until it was publicized) its professors from testifying against the GOP governor in favor of voting rights. This is the real threat to intellectual freedom.
And while these incidents are a serious problem, I wouldn’t put that issue on my Top 5 of what’s wrong with the American Way of College.
It’s even more telling that I’ve failed to notice Weiss, or Ali, or any of UATX’s backers — from a long list including folks like Andrew Sullivan and ex-Harvard president Lawrence Summers — speak out to defend the groundbreaking proposal from President Biden to make two years of community college free for all Americans. That’s a long overdue idea — dating all the way back to the Harry Truman era — that’s fallen by the wayside as U.S. society abandoned the dream of liberal education as a “public good” in favor of the overpriced winner-take-all meritocracy-not-really of the “knowledge economy,” which breeds resentment among the millions locked out. None of the nation’s 50 GOP senators who oppose “wokeness” are supporting expanding college access.
Free community college is a serious idea about that can prepare Americans to become better-informed and give them much-needed skills for today’s job market, without saddling them with massive debt. So are a raft of other ideas — eliminating much if not all of America’s $1.7-trillion-with-a-”T” college debt that falls disproportionately on Black and brown people and women, making public 4-year universities free or close-to-free, greatly expanding trade education for the millions who want careers but not academia, and an 18-year-old “gap year” of universal civilian national service. Like the Youngkin campaign in Virginia, UATX is instead “education reform” that says little or nothing about education.
How does UATX help ‘Trump country’?
Ironically, few young Americans would benefit more from real reforms than those growing up in rural or rust-bitten “Trump country,” the places that keep electing the government officials whose only “education agenda” is echoing the UATX rallying cries about today’s “woke snowflakes.” Studies have shown these GOP-voting counties are hotbeds of “economic fatalism” — the working-class notion that the higher-ed pathway to success is not for them — and, most tragically, rising “deaths of despair” among men in their 20s who lack a college diploma. That the so-called public intellectuals of today’s right care less about this crisis and more about about people asking to be called “they/them” in their Twitter profiles is downright immoral.
True, the UATX founders also claim their tuition will be significantly less than a tradition university, but that may well be because its ridiculously vague blueprint is also a lot less than you’d get from even our chronically underfunded state campuses. For all the hype, the not-yet-accredited school is still looking for a bricks-and-mortar campus, won’t offer undergraduate degrees until 2024 at the earliest, and its first master’s degree in “entrepreneurship and leadership” sounds more like a play for next-Elon-Musk fantasies than a needed career path. It’s not surprising, then, that critics on the left were quick to compare UATX to the ultimate higher-ed scam, Trump University.
But the real problem with the University of Austin isn’t that it’s a get-rich-quick scheme (although with super-wealthy backers like Palantir Technologies founder Joe Lonsdale I’m sure someone is getting paid). No, if there’s the whiff of a scam about UATX, it’s that the real problem the school was created to address isn’t even so much “wokeness” as an awareness that during 75 years of rising college enrollment in America, those who’ve experienced liberal education and exposure to new ideas and a diverse community are much more likely to become Democrats. At the same time, the Republican Party has become the party of the nation’s less educated — and that’s one status quo that Bari Weiss and friends have no interest in challenging.
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