Newly Announced University of Austin Struggles to Make the Grade

School sheds founding board members, reports seven-figure donations


The Cicero Institute’s property at 2112 Rio Grande is currently being renovated to provide offices for 12 or so UATX staff members (Photo by John Anderson)

Fed up with California's bureaucratic restrictions on everything from his business to his backyard, Joe Lonsdale uprooted his family and took his talents to Austin amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lonsdale, who co-founded Palantir Technologies with Trumpish tech goon Peter Thiel, told right-wing media mini-mogul Ben Shapiro last year that Texas offered a haven for "builders" like himself: "Why am I in [the Bay Area], where everyone hates the people who are creating things and where our city's so dysfunctional? We're building in Texas and it's really easy to do it."

“The new university made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views.” – University of Chicago Chancellor Robert Zimmer in a statement announcing his resignation from the UATX board

So easy, it appears, that one can simply make up a university on the spot. Last week, Lonsdale signed on as a founding trustee of the University of Austin, which is not the University of Texas at Austin but instead bills itself as a remedy to the "culture of censorship" on college campuses. Why Austin? As the "UATX" declared on its new website, "If it's good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it's good enough for us."

The nascent university says it is simultaneously seeking accreditation through both the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Higher Learning Com­mis­sion, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. In an interview with the Austin American-States­man earlier this week, UATX President Pano Kanelos said he hopes to create both a graduate program and an undergraduate college with between 3,000 and 4,000 students by 2024.

When it launched last week, UATX listed 31 members on its board of advisors; as the Chronicle went to press, that list now stands at 24. Notably, University of Chicago Chan­cel­lor Robert Zimmer on Monday announced that he had resigned from the board: "The new university made a number of statements about higher education in general, largely quite critical, that diverged very significantly from my own views," he said in a statement. Meanwhile, culture warriors like advisory board member and Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan joked about students sleeping with their professors.

Like the majority of colleges, the Uni­ver­sity of Austin intends to organize itself as a not-for-profit institution, to which donors can make tax-exempt contributions. While it awaits a determination from the IRS, UATX is relying on Lonsdale's think-tank the Cicero Institute, which identifies itself as a mostly nonpartisan champion of the free market, to be its fiscal sponsor. Cicero's building at 2112 Rio Grande is currently being renovated to provide offices for 12 or so staff members. According to Judge Glock, the institute's senior director of policy and research, Cicero's role in running UATX is minimal: "We don't touch that or get involved with that ... we have no hand in the management or the rollout." In addition to funding from Lonsdale himself, Hillel Ofek, UATX's vice president of communications, told Salon that the school had already received more than 600 donations, including several seven-figure sums.

Andrew Gillen, a higher education expert at the Austin-based conservative Texas Pub­lic Policy Foundation, said UATX appears to be capitalizing on a market opportunity. "Not every university has turned, for lack of a better word, ambivalent, if not outright hostile toward dissenting voices on campus, but a lot of them have." But he, too, cautioned against getting too excited. "It's one thing to say you're gonna do that stuff. It's another to actually do it."

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