Exactly a week after former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss unveiled the creation of a hypothetical new “university” stacked with advisers united by “a common dismay at the state of academic and a recognition that we can no longer wait for the cavalry,” two riders in that brave regiment have resigned their commissions.
Robert J. Zimmer, the chancellor of the University of Chicago, and Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, quit the University of Austin’s advisory board on Monday.
“As is often the case with fast-moving start-ups,” a statement from the University of Austin said, “there were some missteps.” It noted that its website “initially failed to make clear the distinctions between the Founding Trustees and the Advisory Board.”
While advisers were “aligned in general” with the project without necessarily endorsing everything the University of Austin says or does, the trustees “bear responsibility for those things.” This, the statement claimed without elaboration, “led to unnecessary complications” for advisers like Zimmer and Pinker.
“We fully understand their decisions to step down,” the statement read.
Zimmer said in a statement posted to a UChicago news site that he’d resigned from his advisory role on Thursday. He wrote that while he valued the “new organization” and its commitment to freedom of expression, it “made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views.”
The chancellor added that he would remain focused on the University of Chicago, where he would “continue to work on and speak about the issue of free expression on campuses.” He then wished the University of Austin well in its future endeavors.
Pinker made public his resignation on Twitter, writing that he would be stepping down “by mutual & amicable agreement.” He added that he would be concentrating on his book, his BBC radio and podcast series, and wouldn’t “be speaking on this further.”
The University of Austin, which is unaccredited and has yet to break ground on a physical campus, was launched last Monday and is “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” according to a triumphant post to Weiss’ Substack. The announcement, penned by the university’s sparkling-new president, Pano Kanelos, noted that “on our quads, faculty are being treated like thought criminals.”
Courses at the University of Austin, he promised, would instead ask “provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities.” A rollout plan indicated its hope to launch master’s degree programs in the fall of 2022, and an undergraduate program two years later.
Kanelos’ post said that a number of “those concerned about the state of higher education” would be coming along for the academic joyride. Its founding trustees (now distinguished from its advisers) include historian Niall Ferguson, evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, and Palantir co-founder John Lonsdale.
The initial roster of advisers Kanelo crowed over included Zimmer, Pinker, playwright David Mamet, The Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, Brown economist Glenn Loury, and former Harvard president Larry Summers.
“So much is broken in America,” Kanelos wrote. “But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.”
In Monday’s statement on the resignations, the University of Austin concluded on an upbeat note: “We look forward to sharing new developments soon, as we transition from planning to building.”