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A new university in Austin that was launched two years ago to combat a perceived waning dedication to free speech and civil discourse at traditional universities is now accepting its first group of applicants to enroll in the fall of 2024.
Founders of the University of Austin announced Wednesday that the state has granted them the authority to award degrees, clearing a major hurdle to opening. School leaders also said they will offer the inaugural 100-student class full scholarships for the entirety of their four-year undergraduate program, using $200 million the school has raised in private donations since leaders announced plans to create the new liberal arts university in the Texas capital.
“This is an opportunity for students to not only go to a university but help us build the university or build the culture of the university, create the institution with us,” UATX President Pano Kanelos told The Texas Tribune. “We thought that there would be a wonderful way to reward them for being part of this project by offering these scholarships.”
Students will be admitted on a rolling basis until the school reaches its first 100 students, Kanelos said.
UATX’s mission is to create a “fiercely independent” school that offers an alternative to what founders see as a rise in “illiberalism” on college campuses.
“We’re done waiting for America’s universities to fix themselves,” stated a promotional video for the school posted on Twitter — now known as X — when leaders announced their intention to start the school in 2021. “So we’re starting a new one.”
The announcement two years ago received national attention due to the school’s board of advisors, which include former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers and playwright David Mamet. Founders include Weiss, Kanelos, historian and Hoover Institution fellow Niall Ferguson and Austin entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale. Critics panned the announcement as a reactionary response by a group of people who had previously been at the center of controversies.
Weiss resigned from the Times in 2020 after stating that the newspaper’s workplace culture was hostile toward anyone whose political views were not left of center. Ferguson resigned from his role as leader of a speakers program at Stanford University in 2018 after he sent conservative student activists emails encouraging them to gather “opposition research” on liberal student leaders. Lonsdale faced scrutiny a few years before for his relationship with a Stanford undergraduate whom he mentored, leading university officials to ban him from campus. The school reversed its decision after new evidence cleared him of wrongdoing.
The new school is now close to achieving many of the goals its founders set in 2021.
They found a location in the Scarborough building on Sixth Street and Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, with plans to build a larger campus in the outskirts of the city in the future. They are also working to establish student housing in downtown Austin. They’ve almost met their initial goal to raise $250 million in a few years. The $200 million raised so far comes from 2,600 individual donors, according to Kanelos. More than 100 funders have given gifts over $100,000, with some gifts in the millions. Kanelos said the university plans to keep tuition around $32,000 a year.
Kanelos also said the university plans to initially partner with Capital Factory — a startup incubator in Austin that takes in early-stage startups and matches them with mentoring to grow their companies — for laboratory space. School leaders plan to hire 15 to 20 faculty members at first, with a goal to maintain a ratio of one professor for every seven students. According to the university, more than 6,000 faculty across the country have reached out about possible teaching opportunities.
When it comes to admissions, the school aims to be highly selective. Kanelos said his team wants to enroll at least 1,000 students in the next few years before reevaluating what their ideal enrollment goal should be. UATX will require standardized test scores for admission. Submitting a test score for admission is optional for many universities, a trend that gained steam during the COVID-19 pandemic when it was harder for many students to access the test. The shift continued as supporters of test-optional policies have argued that scores are not predictive of student performance and are an additional enrollment barrier for low-income students.
UATX’s undergraduate program is the latest offering since the university announced its launch. It started with a non-credit program for the past two summers called Forbidden Courses, which was open to students from other universities to participate in discussions about topics that “often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” Sessions this past summer had titles like “Science and Christianity,” “The Psychology of Morality” and “Writing Sexual Politics.” The school also created a summer program in New York, Austin and San Francisco where high school students can take college-level courses over a three-day period.
Meanwhile, school leaders spent the past year trying to earn state approval to issue degrees. UATX submitted an application with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in December 2022. A group of experts conducted a site evaluation this spring.
Last month, the board gave the school permission to start granting degrees by authorizing a two-year certificate. The board can renew the certificate every two years for an eight-year period while the school seeks accreditation from a national accrediting body. The school’s founders believe the standard accreditation process needs reform but acknowledge oversight is necessary so degrees are considered legitimate. Accreditation is also required for students to receive federal Pell grants to cover tuition and fees.
Kanelos said the application process was intensive and that the school was required to hire staff, such as a librarian and registrar. They had to develop student services plans and a curriculum.
“The good thing about it is that once you’re done with it you’re really ready,” Kanelos said. “You have an operational university.”
The four-year program at UATX will start with two years of general education requirements called the Intellectual Foundations program, which will include classes in philosophy, history and literature. All students will take the courses in the same sequence so they build on one another. Instead of declaring a major, students will become a fellow in a particular area of study during their third and fourth year, during which their learning will revolve around specific projects.
“The first two years are more theoretical, philosophical, contemplative, and then the latter two years are bringing action to thought,” Kanelos said.
Throughout the four years, each student will also pursue a project to solve a major political, social or economic problem with the goal to develop a tangible solution by the time they graduate.
Since UATX founders announced their intention to start the new school, conversations have only intensified about free speech and academic freedom on college campuses, Kanelos said.
“We feel like the kinds of things that were motivating to us, that were sort of principles of ours at the beginning, are coming into alignment with what people understand to be important in higher education,” he said.
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