At COSM 2021 yesterday, prominent historian Niall Ferguson talked about his decision to sign up with the new University of Austin, founded in explicit opposition to rampant political correctness and censorship on university campuses, which is beginning to affect quality scholarship.
In response to a question from the floor, Ferguson, author of Doom: The politics of catastrophe (2021), outlined the seriousness of the problem:
Well, it’s just been announced this week that we’re trying to create a new university, University of Austin, committed to the fundamental principles of, of academic freedom of free inquiry. And the reason we have to do this is that we see so many limitations on free inquiry and academic freedom at the established universities.
Not only do 66 percent of students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus, that result is up four percentage points from last year.
Another key finding is that nearly one in four students say it’s acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech — up 5 percent over last year’s survey — with some elite colleges bringing that figure to as high as one in three students accepting of such violence.Katelynn Richardson – UNLV, “Overwhelming majority of college students say shouting down a speaker is acceptable: survey” at The College Fix (September 23, 2021)
The problem may have worsened during the COVID lockdown (the psychology of which, ironically, was Ferguson’s slated topic).
He has few illusions about the difficulty he and a disparate group of Cancelled or embattled professors, media figures, and university presidents who have expressed a degree of commitment to the idea face. These figures include Bari Weiss, Panos Kanelos, Arthur Brooks, Sohrab Ahmari, Andrew Sullivan, Heather Heying, Geoffrey Stone, Peter Boghossian, Kathleen Stock, Joe Lonsdale, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ferguson told COSM 2021,
It’s very difficult to do a startup in academia. I mean, I’ve been involved in different forms of startup. Normally when you start a business, people just leave you to it and they pay attention If it’s worth $1 billion one day. But if you start anything in academia, the hate begins immediately because you have to kill it in the cradle, just in case it works.
So, he explained, “We’ve spent the last 48 hours dealing with the tidal wave of Twitter hate. As I said, in a piece that I published on Monday, we must be above the target because that’s when you get the most flak:
According to a nationwide survey of a thousand undergraduates by the Challey Institute for Global Innovation, 85% of self-described liberal students would report a professor to the university if the professor said something that they found offensive, while 76% would report another student.Niall Ferguson, “I’m Helping to Start a New College Because Higher Ed Is Broken” at Bloomberg (November 8, 2021)
He warned the attendees at COSM that people not associated with universities today may underestimate the seriousness of the situation:
There’s a tendency for people outside it to think back to their college days and say, what are they on about the chilling of academic freedom in the last five or so years in the major campuses is a deeply shocking thing. There is a kind of totalitarianism light going on in our universities where so-called, uh, cancel culture has created a pervasive climate of fear where people do not, students do not speak their minds. Professors do not speak their minds.
Of the students, he said, “They’re so poorly educated that they don’t feel the kind of moral revulsion, but one should feel when tempted to inform on a colleague or on a, on a professor.
He hopes that Austin University will be able to collaborate with the tech sector:
Austin, Texas is quite good from that point of view and where we’ll be able to collaborate with the tech sector because the killer combination — the thing that can give this country an absolutely bright and dazzling future — is the combination of that ancient wisdom that we trace back beyond the Enlightenment, beyond the origins of the country, the ancient wisdom that we need to keep communicating to our young people — and the wonders of science and technology.
The University of Austin would, of course, still face the hurdle of accreditation in a hostile environment and, quite possibly, the refusal to publish the academic research of anyone associated with it. That could prove more significant in the long run than the hatestorms on Twitter. Austin may need Big Tech allies.
You may also wish to read: In Big Tech World: the journalist as censor, hit man, and snitch. Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in media toward misrepresentation as well as censorship.