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Greek-American Pano Kanelos on Starting a New University in Austin, TX

November 9, 2021

AUSTIN, TX – Panayiotis (Pano) Kanelos was named president of St John’s College in Annapolis, MD, in 2017. Prior to that, Kanelos had served as dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University. According to his biography, his parents were in the restaurant business, first in Chicago, then in Arizona, and he was the first in his family to go to college. Kanelos announced in a post on Common Sense with Bari Weiss on Substack on November 8 that he is leaving his post at St. John’s College “to build a university in Austin dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.”

In the post titled “We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves: So We’re Starting a New One,” Kanelos writes that “so much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.”

He continues: “There is a gaping chasm between the promise and the reality of higher education. Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas, light and truth. Harvard proclaims: Veritas. Young men and women of Stanford are told Die Luft der Freiheit weht: The wind of freedom blows.”

“These are soaring words,” Kanelos writes, “but in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth— once the central purpose of a university— remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end— freedom of inquiry and civil discourse— prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?”

“The numbers tell the story as well as any anecdote you’ve read in the headlines or heard within your own circles,” Kanelos notes, adding that “nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences.”

“On our quads, faculty are being treated like thought criminals,” Kanelos points out, mentioning “Dorian Abbot, a University of Chicago scientist who has objected to aspects of affirmative action, was recently disinvited from delivering a prominent public lecture on planetary climate at MIT,” and “Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, finally quit in September after years of harassment by faculty and administrators,” while “Kathleen Stock, a professor at University of Sussex, just resigned after mobs threatened her over her research on sex and gender.”

“We had thought such censoriousness was possible only under oppressive regimes in distant lands,” Kanelos writes, “but it turns out that fear can become endemic in a free society.”

“The reality is that many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized,” he continues, “at our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite. Amidst the brick and ivy, these students entertain ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living.”

“It’s not just that we are failing students as individuals; we are failing the nation,” Kanelos writes, “our democracy is faltering, in significant part, because our educational system has become illiberal and is producing citizens and leaders who are incapable and unwilling to participate in the core activity of democratic governance.”

“Universities are the places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped,” Kanelos continues, “if these institutions are not open and pluralistic, if they chill speech and ostracize those with unpopular viewpoints, if they lead scholars to avoid entire topics out of fear, if they prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth, who will be left to model the discourse necessary to sustain liberty in a self-governing society?”

“At some future point, historians will study how we arrived at this tragic pass,” Kanleos writes, “and perhaps by then we will have reformed our colleges and universities, restoring them as bastions of open inquiry and civil discourse.But we are done waiting. We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew. I mean that quite literally.”

“As I write this, I am sitting in my new office (boxes still waiting to be unpacked) in balmy Austin, Texas, where I moved three months ago from my previous post as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis,” Kanelos writes, adding that “I am not alone.”

“Our project began with a small gathering of those concerned about the state of higher education— Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, Arthur Brooks, and I— and we have since been joined by many others, including the brave professors mentioned above, Kathleen Stock, Dorian Abbot and Peter Boghossian,” Kanelos continues, adding that “we count among our numbers university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt,  Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen.

“We are also joined by journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.”

Kanelos writes that “the intrepid pursuit of truth—has been at the heart of education since Plato founded his Academy in 387 BC. Reviving it would produce a resilient (or ‘antifragile’) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively. Such graduates will be the future leaders best prepared to address humanity’s challenges.”

He continues: “An education rooted in the pursuit of truth is the antidote to the kind of ignorance and incivility that is everywhere around us. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed: ‘Education… means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.’”

More information about the University of Austin is available online: https://www.uaustin.org/.

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