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UTAX’ Kanelos Strives for Free Speech on Campus

The Heterodox Academy is an educational organization that declares it is “committed to advancing the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.”

Recently, the Academy featured a story about Panayiotis ‘Pano’ Kanelos, Founding President of the University of Austin (UATX). Established in 2021 and based in Texas’ capital city, UATX’ principles firmly square with those of the Academy, as reflected in its mission: “The University of Austin prepares thoughtful and ethical innovators, builders, leaders, public servants, and citizens through open inquiry and civil discourse.”

In an interview with The National Herald, Kanelos further elaborated on UATX’ purpose: “it is about the discovery, transmission, and preservation of knowledge, which is dependent upon “robust conversation about the pursuit of truth and an open exchange of ideas. He noted that “it feels like many institutions are drifting away from those principles.”

Kanelos’ heritage is 100 percent Greek, with roots in Arcadia and Kalavryta on his father’s and mother’s side, respectively. “Maybe it’s because I come from an immigrant family that I had an impulse” to build something that seemed lacking, which may explain Kanelos’ strong motivation to help found UATX, he told TNH.

One way to curb disproportionate ideological bias in the teaching and learning process is to maintain a faculty with diverse points of view, ultimately rendering it just as likely for a student to be exposed to conservative points of view as to progressive ones. Another way is to encourage faculty to serve as moderators, presenting information evenhandedly but without influencing students to take one position versus another. Which is the better approach? Kanelos says they’re both important. Educators’ jobs are “to teach the subject, not their opinions about the subject, and the work of a student is to formulate the best possible way to answer the questions raised in the classroom, not to be given the answers,” he told TNH. “If professors put their thumb on the scale, it undermines the process.”

However, in order for faculty not to cease to be able to see their own blind spots, and for universities to adhere to their mission of pursuing knowledge, there needs to be robust conversation that includes a broad range of viewpoints, Kanelos said. For the intellectual life of a university to flourish, he said he does not believe professors ought to impose their own perspectives, and though he doesn’t necessarily think there needs to be exact balance, there should be “intellectual pluralism” at universities; “a broad range of opinions represented.”

Kanelos elaborated that students should have free range to be risky, and even offensive, so long as they do not intentionally seek to offend. “The mind is a muscle,” he explained, “it needs tension to strengthen.” But Kanelos says such tension ought to come from other students, not by someone in charge of their grade.

“The purpose of teaching is for students to learn and use skills to examine ideas as critically as possible,” and that shouldn’t be influenced by faculty, he said. Anything that interferes with that, anything that compels them to suppress their opinion, is “ethically problematic.”

Kanelos says he’s not so sure that ideological harassment comes from professors anymore as much as it does from other students. He told TNH his sense is that nowadays students fear expressing their opinions more to avoid social media backlash from their peers than bad grades from their professors.

In order to encourage students to have a vigorous intellectual exchange of ideas and not to be afraid to express their true points of view, Kanelos pointed out that UATX uses the Chatham House rule: creating a circle of trust in the classroom but directing that no one attribute outside the classroom any comment specifically to anyone by name. “Some person said such-and-such” is fine, as long as that person isn’t named.

UATX President Pano Kanelos (L) and university deans at an academic panel. (Courtesy, UATX)

And UATX takes it very seriously: “anyone who breaks this circle of trust, we’re going to kick them out of the university. If you don’t create that environment of trust, there’s no way to express deeply-held ideas. Put wrong ideas out there to be tested.”

These days, the vast majority of complaints about ideological indoctrination on college campuses come from conservative parents who think schools are too progressive, not the other way around. For parents who hope that his institution is a “conservative university,” Kanelos responds to them as follows: “UATX is a university that conservatives would be happy to be part of and at home, because they can have meaningful conversations with conservatives as well as non-conservatives.”

Any college whose mindset is: “we’re not interested in your ideas” is a betrayal of students, he added. The answer to correcting ideological asymmetry, he said, is not to create institutions with the opposite bias. It is to transcend politics, “which is why I think university presidents should never comment on contemporary political situations,” he told TNH.

There is no online program at UATX yet, as Kanelos believes undergraduates benefit more from foundational in-person educational experiences. He does think online works well beyond the baccalaureate level, however, and UATX plans to begin offering graduate programs in 2026.

Does Kanelos experience resistance from the educational community for going against the grain in terms of unyieldingly combating suppression of free speech? Surprisingly no, he told TNH. In fact, university presidents invite him to share his ideas and explain UATX’ model, he said.

Kanelos describes UATX as having grown remarkably quickly in its first two years, far more than he anticipated, which he attributes to “the urgency of the times.” He relayed how members of the Jewish community are scarred and terrified over what’s been happening in higher education since the Gaza conflict began in October, and they told him that they’re very grateful for a university such as UATX.

“That makes me want to work even harder,” Kanelos concluded, insofar as building what he described as “not just a university, but a movement.”

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