On resigning from the Board of the University of Austin
More substantive change is needed in academia
Last week, I resigned from the Board of the University of Austin (UATX). It was a difficult decision, but a necessary one, and a long time coming.
What follows is, first, my resignation letter, barely edited to obscure personal details. After that, I include some of what I removed from the resignation letter, a little of which will be slightly cryptic for those not in possession of the many hundreds of pages of documents that members of the Board reviewed the previous week.
December 2, 2022
Dear fellow Board members,
I am resigning from the Board of the University of Austin.
I sincerely hope that the University of Austin succeeds. If I had to place a bet right now, I’d bet that it will. Many of you and the others leading the charge are uniquely qualified to bring such an institution to fruition. It is thus with a heavy heart that I have come to this decision.
I am not compelled that the vision you are pursuing is sufficiently revolutionary. To fix higher ed, UATX would need to address the root causes of academic fragility, not just treat the symptoms that threaten its vitality in the present. That, in turn, would require an embrace of the counterintuitive, and tolerance for a great deal more risk than I think there is appetite for in this group.
If I might offer you one piece of advice as I bid you a heartfelt farewell: Should you ever wish to retrace your steps to determine where the founders misstepped—should you want to know how the University of Austin ended up trapped in the next academic quagmire, the answer is in the arms-length treatment of science. Science is not an ingredient that can be added to taste in such an endeavor. It is a reliable North Star, structurally indifferent to the ebb and flow of belief that drives great institutions off the road. The casual approach to science in the formulation of UATX is both cause and effect in this story. The only process powerful enough to protect an institution from madness, not just woke madness, but every version of lunacy, is science, properly practiced. But to build that into this new institution, you would have to rescue this ancient tool from the corruptions of the modern R1 universe.
On our very first day, in May of 2021, someone joked that I was the token liberal in attendance. A year and a half on, I think it an unfortunately profound observation. It seems that others on the Board have trust in existing elite institutions, except for the relatively new and remarkably widespread problems that we can all see—the abandonment of free speech, the rise of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Diversity Equity and Inclusion offices, the abandonment of due process, the ascendancy of institutionally sanctioned bigotries, the bloating of administrations and staffing of them with ideologues to achieve political goals. These are serious threats. This is a genuine crisis. But these are symptoms, not etiology. The symptoms can be treated, but if the causal pathology is not addressed, the fix is assuredly temporary.
Our universities will not be effective truth-seeking institutions if we simply scrape the woke off the top. The rot is far deeper, the product of a kind of analytical immuno-deficiency: terrible ideas took over a system in which new ideas, and the discussion thereof, were increasingly rare. Higher ed needs a fundamental framework of truth-seeking, with the built-in error correction that scientific inquiry provides, if it is to evade this fate in the future.
Nearly everything from early 21st century universities could be reimagined to good effect. The two most pressing issues that I see are the need for science (for everyone, not just those who think of themselves as scientists), and for new thinking on curriculum and pedagogy (in part to help realize the potential of the vast number of brilliant students who are ill-served by traditional academic settings, but also to better educate everyone, especially in science, which is particularly enfeebled by standard approaches). I have spent decades enmeshed in these topics, including dedicated focus for a year shortly before UATX was formed, on the Beringia Project. Along with Bret Weinstein, the other co-founder of that project, we made considerable progress identifying additional deep flaws that would need to be addressed to reach the next phase of higher ed. A full restructuring of the modern university would include but not be limited to reconfiguring faculty hiring and firing, treatment and role of adjuncts, faculty autonomy, governance, administrative structure, admissions, residential life, tuition, grades, accreditation, academic departments, majors, library, and study abroad. Unfortunately, between that model and the one being planned for UATX lies too substantial a valley to be crossed. And that is why, despite believing that UATX will be a better school than most or all of what currently exist, I must leave the project.
I hoped, back in May of 2021, when the University of Austin was but a glimmer in a few people’s eyes, that it could be revolutionary, that it could successfully take on the problems facing modern universities, and therefore the world. After a year and a half of pushing unsuccessfully in that direction, I am throwing in the towel. It is better to separate myself from the University, than to have my name be attached to an institution that does not represent my scientific and pedagogical values.
I truly do hope that you succeed in creating this new university, one that attracts faculty, staff, and students alike, one in which discussion is not tamped down by censorship, explicit or otherwise, and one in which the excesses and confusions of the “Diversity Inclusion and Equity” movement are shut down. These things need to happen. But they are far from sufficient.
Additional Context – Some of What I Removed from the Resignation Letter
The ability to think scientifically is critical for individuals, and for an educated populace. By this I do not mean that everyone needs to know how to run a PCR, or even what PCR is, or its limitations, or its implications. Rather, the scientific thinking that is critical for educated people to engage in includes observation, pattern recognition, recognition of bias and assumption, hypothesis generation, and experimental design, even if just at the theoretical level.
Every educated person needs to be able to take an idea that they think is true, identify what would constitute evidence that it’s not, and figure out how they would go about attempting to falsify it. Epistemology—the study of how it is that we make claims of truth, and what constitutes evidence for and against them—should be a core pursuit in a university that claims to be about the pursuit of truth. Every scientific endeavor, and therefore a great number of human endeavors, should begin with: How do I know what is true, and how will I assess claims of truth going forward?
In part because math and science are generally taught badly in the K-12 system, by people who don’t understand the creativity and joy to be had in those topics, most smart children end up believing themselves to be bad at math or science, and therefore most smart adults believe the same thing about themselves. This is largely an effect of the educational system; it is not intrinsic to the children. College is not too late to reinvigorate scientific thinking. Scientific thinking awakens in us a sense of wonder and of awe, of discovery and of exploration. There are still many things new under the sun to discover. Scientific thinking lights in us a sense of the possible. What if?
But in institutions of higher ed, the sciences are effectively Balkanized—the students who aren’t “studying science” don’t learn the fundamental power of scientific thinking, and the science faculty are ever more remote from the rest of the professoriate, in part because they are given release time from teaching and governance as they bring in more and more federal grant dollars. In an era when interdisciplinarity is a buzzword that resonates for nearly everyone, and generalists, not specialists, will be the key to solving most of the problems that now seem intractable, we instead have the rise of the specialist. Scientists are doing ever-less science-y things—following protocols and algorithms, leading with data rather than hypothesis—yet still have the imprimatur of science. Sometimes they are trotted out with the trappings of science—a lab coat! A relevant PhD! Fancy instrumentation and jargon and math-heavy visuals!—to make pronouncements. And most of the non-science-types believe that they have no choice but to receive the wisdom of the scientific authorities. They’re doing science, after all. What could go wrong?
The last three years have revealed example after example of what could go wrong when credentialed authorities are blindly trusted, but the rot is far older than that. I worked in the academic grants office on a University of California campus for a year in the early ‘90s, between receiving my BA in Anthropology and beginning my PhD in Biology. Even then, the ability of federal agencies to direct what research was funded, and therefore what questions were asked, and even what answers were publicized or even arrived at, was evident. The problem has only gotten worse. Scraping the woke off the top of a standard issue research university’s tenets and systems addresses but a tiny fraction of what needs to be fixed.
The censorship pervading campuses which everyone involved in the University of Austin can see, is nothing compared with the censorship within disciplines, and between academics, which serves to maintain the status quo, and restrict or utterly stop progress.
Another deep and abiding problem that needs to be fixed in higher ed is pedagogy. Both “sage on the stage” lectures from on high, and seminar-style discussions, leave many students in the dust. And even for those students for whom these traditional modes of instruction appear to function, those students rarely end up educated through these means.
To be educated requires more than that you have read books and responded to them. Education requires doing actual things in the physical universe; attempting to solve problems that appear intractable, or for which you do not feel that you have the right tools; becoming the kind of person who is independent and self-sufficient, and also capable of collaboration when that is called for.
The world’s elite schools are producing graduates who don’t know how to think, can’t solve problems, and have not done anything outside of narrow, academically prescribed “work” that is the very definition of make-work. Having students stew in their own uncertainty, their own confusion, their own dashed assumptions, forces awareness and capability in nearly all of them.
The rigorous, difficult and uncomfortable, and also joyous, exploratory, and serendipitous, education of undergraduates, is possible. I did it for a long time. To accomplish that, you need professors who know something real, and believe in the humanity of their students. And you need a curricular structure that provides time, space, and freedom.
Time with the students. Optimally, this mean full-time programs, where the faculty actually come to know real things about their students: what drives them, how they think, where they refuse to think, what their assumptions are. Time to put an idea in their heads one day, and return to it the next, and the next. Time spent informally, getting to know one another—breaking bread together, sitting around campfires together. Time to develop ideas, to go down wrong paths, to discover their errors and yours, time to return to the last place where you stood on firm analytical ground and investigate anew.
Space to explore—pedagogically, analytically, geographically. Here are some examples:
Have students “learn a skill” over the course of a quarter, in which the primary goal is not that they learn the skill, but that they learn how to learn, and learn what their own developmental and motivational barriers to success are. Repeat.
Do the unexpectedly relevant: In a program on human behavior and evolution, have weekly physical computing labs. Discuss.
Drop students alone in the forest for two hours and ask them to write down every question that occurs to them; return to those questions soon thereafter, and have them generate hypotheses from them, predictions, tests. Some of those will then turn into research projects that those same students do, from start to finish.
Provide detailed hypothetical scenarios, and have students predict what else will be true in those systems, backing up their thinking with theory and published empirical research.
Present to the student an assumption in a system. Ask them: What happens if it isn’t true? What else collapses? What other possibilities open up? Repeat with all of the assumptions, across many systems.
Take the students elsewhere, outside of the classroom, as much as possible. Do this early in knowing them. Go on a field trip somewhere without internet or cell service (it is still possible), and pose questions there, where nobody can google the answer. It is much more difficult to deny reality—to be in the throes of the woke—when in the Columbia River Gorge, than in a comfortable classroom. It is even more difficult to deny reality in the Amazon.
Freedom to do so. Freedom of speech is a given, but freedom to think and to teach—to teach how and what is best suited to the material and the faculty and the students—is also necessary. Faculty autonomy is critical in a functioning university. Have faculty yahoos too often take over faculty Senates and university administrations and changed universities for the worse, spreading a thick layer of woke on everything? Yes they have. The solution to that is not to remove autonomy from yet-to-be-hired faculty at a brand-new institution. The solution is not to hire yahoo faculty in the first place—and when they show up despite the best efforts of the hiring authorities, to fire them quickly.
The censorship that is highly visible to many, due to its cartoonish and public explosions, is but one manifestation of censorship in academia, one that goes far deeper, one that stops progress in its tracks, and is always interested in the status quo. We need to escape from the networks of influence that drive most modern academia. Again: scraping the woke off the top won’t be sufficient.
I have written more extensively about higher ed here (Higher Ed needs a Reboot), as well as here (The Twin Virtues of Trust and Uncertainty), and, with Bret, in the “School” chapter of A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century.
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“Unpopular” scientific results don’t create well-funded research programs, and without a well-funded research program, most academic science careers are dead in the water.
Those unfamiliar with this phrase—sage-on-the-stage—will immediately understand it at one level, but the implications are deep: It implies an infallibility of the professor, an authority granted by their degree and their placement at the front of the room, rather than by whether or not they actually know anything that is true, and can communicate it effectively to the students. I imagine featherless baby birds, open-mouthed, beaks to the sky, in a nest, waiting eagerly for the placement of perfect and nutritious nuggets from their parents. This is not a model that serves any student best, although it does serve some faculty best, if their goal is to spend as little time as possible navigating the actual classroom in which they have landed, rather than a hypothetical group of undergraduates who could be swapped for any other.
I think that UATX looks too much like "revenge of the canceled" as opposed to an attempt to build an exemplary educational experience. We need to try new ideas and discover which ones work best. You have some promising ideas. I have some promising ideas. Others have promising ideas. I agree that UATX is missing the opportunity to be a bold experiment and instead seems to be building something adjacent to what already exists.
I know this might sound implausible, but my cadet experience at a service academy (West Point) in the 2000s was almost exactly what you’ve described as ideal.
We were at all times rooted in reality due to the grounding effect of the nature of warfare, we were required to study both the hard sciences (almost exclusively the first two years) and the liberal arts extensively in order to graduate, there was at all times a spirit of intellectual inquiry, cadets were encouraged to lead and debate in classroom discussions and to present and counter opinions using logic, and the cadet culture was self-policing against being easily offended and emotional arguments and reactions.
I know that many people think that “military = group think”, but that was my exact opposite experience at West Point. In fact, at the height of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I wrote vehemently anti-war papers and received As. It wasn’t what my opinion was that mattered in my classes, it was how sound my argument was and how well I presented that argument both in written papers and oral presentations. Our liberal arts curriculum included mandatory anti-war books and we heavily debated just war theory in our mandatory classes. The curriculum goal was to educate cadets to be officers who made sound and ethical decisions both in combat and in garrison while concurrently teaching the real effects of war both on the military and the civilian population, a mission that the academic departments took seriously and prompted them to include all perspectives on their material—even if they didn’t personally agree with them. In fact, my first exposure to the idea of the military industrial complex was at a mandatory briefing in which a West Point grad from the 1980s presented his scathing movie on the military industrial complex. Here was a guy criticizing every single person that was in the military (and in the audience) and the way in which the military operated unethically, and he was presented to us with open arms and applauded afterwards. People didn’t necessarily agree with him, but people didn’t have to agree in order to respect the argument.
While West Point is heavily skewed towards studying warfare and ethics, which civilians might not need to study specifically as intensely, the experience can be adjusted to fit what you’ve described here. It was a phenomenal education that has been critical to me at every point in my life. Lol I should note that there were no curves going on either, much to our chagrin. If you failed to master the material, you failed the course. If you failed the course, you retook the course. If you failed again, you were kicked out. There were high standards and high expectations, but also a culture of resilience, hard work, and objective standards. Neither failure nor fear of failure was allowed at school, because there would be no allowances for that in war.
I should note that the professors were not nearly as powerful and omnipresent at West Point as they were at my civilian graduate school. They made the curriculum, presented the material to the classroom (but we had the Thayer Method so we were expected to have already approached the material for the class before the actual class began), ensured that the classroom discussion kept moving, gave us our assignments, and then graded them. There was no cult of personality, no professor worship, and minimal personal opinion from the professors. This was the exact opposite of what I observed in grad school, which was for computer science and should have been very straightforward and objective.
Maybe part of the problem is that academics are trying to create academic institutions that still maintain their power and importance, instead of serving as facilitators and letting the academic material and the intellectual debates and thoughts of the students themselves be most important? Expecting academia to fix academia could be like asking the financial institutions to regulate themselves after 2008.
Edit: Perhaps there is an additional challenge of replicating the grounding effect of war, which tethered cadets to biology, nature, and the pre-industrial era human experiences. With technology, our current entire society is susceptible to living entirely untethered from any of those grounding effects. How do you get civilian students and their academic culture to ground itself in human reality when their human reality has been an anomaly and entirely technologically-based/arguably fabricated? Maybe this is a societal problem that runs deeper than academics and academic institutions.