Table of Contents

So to Speak podcast transcript: University of Austin, a new university devoted to free speech

Pano Kanelos is a Shakespeare scholar and the former president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Hey, everyone. A quick request before we get started with today’s show: If you enjoy this episode, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen to the show. Reviews are the single best thing you can do to support So to Speak, and if you wanna go the extra mile, consider sharing the show on social media or with a friend. Myself and the whole So to Speak team would be immensely grateful. Thank you.

Hello, and welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast where, every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. As always, I’m your host, Nico Perrino. In 2018, my boss, Greg Lukianoff, and his coauthor, Jonathan Haidt, wrote in their bestselling book, The Coddling American Mind, that a school that makes freedom of inquiry an essential part of its identity, selects students who show special promise as seekers of truth, orients and prepares those students for productive disagreement – that would be an inspiring university to join, a joy to attend, and a blessing to society.

Well, our guest on today’s show is answering that call, not by reforming an existing university, but rather by starting his own. Pano Kanelos is a founder of the recently announced University of Austin, and he and his cofounders are rethinking the modern university by building their vision upon a foundation of open inquiry, new financial models, and an innovative curriculum. And, it seeks to slowly roll out its programming over the course of the coming years, culminating with an undergraduate college in 2024.

If ever there was a man to help lead such a daunting effort, it is Pano. He is the former president of St. John’s College, a worldwide leader in curricular innovation, where, during his tenure, he oversaw the most significant tuition reduction of any American college and paired it with a 30 – a $300 million, excuse me – campaign fundraising chops that we will need here for the University of Austin get off the ground. Pano, welcome onto the show, and congratulations.

Pano Kanelos: Well, thank you so much, Nico. It’s such a pleasure to be here and a pleasure to talk about this, especially the quote that you started with that Greg and Jonathan had from their book was one of the points of inspiration for this very university, so the world will be talking with you about it.

Nico: Well, let’s start there. This is a daunting task, right? A lot of the universities that we look up to in America have been around for hundreds of years, they’ve got billions of dollars in endowment money –what makes you think you guys can pull this off, and why did you wanna pull it off?

Pano: Well, first of all, I’d say all of those universities that have been around for hundreds of years with their billions of dollars started at some point in time. There was a call that somebody heard to start those institutions, and in many ways, the United States is the birthplace of colleges and universities.

We have thousands of institutions here that have all emerged in different places in the country at different times to meet different sorts of urgencies, different moments, whether it was educating – in the Northeast, educating the early ministers of the colonies, or whether it was the country’s expanding the need to provide education to people who were in places where the country was growing, land grant universities, research universities, faith-based universities, places that are absolutely committed to technology and science – this is – the heterogeneity of higher education in the United States is one of the glories of our culture. So –

Nico: But, would you say, Pano – would you say, though, that that innovation has started to fade, at least – I’m 31 years old. I don’t hear of new universities being founded very often anymore. Is that because they’ve become so bureaucratized or they’ve become these little city-state fiefdoms that it’s hard to replicate in an innovative way?

Pano: It is very difficult to start an institution of higher learning today. There are issues around accreditation, the money that you need to launch, the funding you need to get started. The fact that there are so many institutions doing so many things, you have to be very convicted about the space that you wanna occupy in higher education. So, there are a lot of barriers, but this is a – there are opportunities that go with those things as well.

One of the great joys of starting a new institution is you can really set aside all legacy practices, and begin from scratch, and retain the things that you think have worked well at institutions, and innovate where you need to, and such is the joy.

Nico: Yeah. When I was sort of thinking through this interview and I was thinking about all those legacy practices – and, if you look at the numbers of administrators who have entered the ranks at any given college, it’s just ballooned, and with them comes new policies or new additions to the student or faculty handbook, and it’s just layer upon layer of new bureaucracy, and I think back, I was like, “Oh, it must be so refreshing to start something new. You don’t have any of that. You can eliminate as much of it as you want.”

And, you get into those years of your development, you’ve been around so – who was it, Justinian during the Roman Empire, who said the law in the Roman Empire had become so bureaucratic that he just needed to start from new? And, I think it was the Justinian Code, but our ancient history scholars will correct me there. But, what’s the - what’s the individual challenge that you guys are – what’s the call that you’re seeking to answer here? Is it a new model that rethinks the university completely, or is there a particular niche that you are seeking to fill that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the country?

Pano: I’m happy to answer that. Before I get to that, I wanna say now that you’ve planted in my mind the image of Justinian, you’ve made this seem even more daunting. But, no, look, let me tell you a little bit about where this started, where the project started, and why we feel like there’s a deep urgency for a new university of the sort that we’re launching.

American universities – the quality of American universities is exceptional. They’ve been phenomenally successful at educating generation after generation of students, both American students, students who come across the world here to seek education. They’re – they’re wonderful places, but something lately has changed tonally at institutions of higher learning.

When you start to see the places where society does its thinking turn in on themselves and become places where people are silenced, where students don’t feel like they can speak openly and freely, where faculty keep to themselves if they have any kind of dissenting opinions, at the very place in society where we should be most bold, and our thinking most open in discussion, and most amenable to hearing opinions different from our own – when that’s no longer what we find at many or most institutions, we have a problem. We have a serious problem.

I’m utterly convinced that the polarization that we have in our society today, broadly construed, has its roots in the culture of universities over the past couple decades, and so, there are a group of us who have been talking about these issues for quite a while, and we became – at first, we were concerned with finding ways to reform institutions from within and focused on that, and then it became evident that that’s probably not the right way to proceed, and so, we had to ask ourselves a question.

Are we simply going to allow higher education to continue down a path that’s harmful both for higher education and for society, or are we gonna try and create a new model? Or, maybe not even a new model. That’s not the right word. Try and renew the model of higher education in a way that circles back around to open inquiry and civil discourse as the foundational principles.

So, that’s what we decided to do. It’s been inspired by people like Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff, and others who have been advocating for this very thing. We thought, what if you start there? What if you start, not with a piece of land, not with a faculty, not with $1 billion, what if you start with principles? You say, how do you begin an institution that’s going to be utterly committed to opening up, utterly committed to civil discourse, and build out from there?

So, you start solving for those problems, and so, you have the academic questions that arise around that, the questions of the financial model of the institution, the cultural questions and that, and so, with that as a starting point, we’ve been constructing a new university.

Nico: And, do you have any ideas regarding the infrastructure you’re gonna put in place to ensure that those principles get upheld? I think that it’s often the case where people have these lofty ideas or lofty goals for themselves or their institutions. Politicians have it all the time, right? They’re elected on a platform that they don’t deliver on. Google’s initial model was “do no evil” or something along those lines. It was gonna be the company that did things differently in the tech world, and now, it is the tech world, and it’s doing a lot of the evil things that its founders promised not to do.

So, what’s the infrastructure that you anticipate building internally to ensure that it doesn’t go off the rails? You were a president of a university, right? I often feel bad for you guys because you have people like us – FIRE or Watchdog – who have a value, have a purpose, and pressure from one side, but you’re getting that pressure from a lot of sides when you’re a president of a university – from students, from faculty, from administrators, all with different values and different concerns, and all of whom – at FIRE, we think this, of course – think their concern is the most important concern, and that anything less than total obedience to that concern is an abdication of duty.

So, how do you ensure that those different pressures don’t deviate you from the goal that you set out here? It sounds like your market niche is going to be free and open inquiry. So, how do we keep that?

Pano: This is an infelicitous analogy, but it’s the one I’m gonna use right now that comes to mind. If you’re building an airport and you’re doing that before 9/11, you build one kind of airport. If you’re building an airport after 9/11 – that is, after you’ve identified what the threats are – you build a different kind of airport. The threats to freedom of thought, conscious – conscience, freedom of speech that have arisen in higher education over the past couple decades kinda creeped up on us, to be honest. I don’t think this was anybody’s long-term plan – at least, not anybody I know about.

Nico: You’ve been in higher ed for a long time. Is this stuff you were thinking about 20 years ago?

Pano: Not really. Not – in retrospect, I see the – where the inklings of all this came from, but at the time – when I started college – I was in college from ’87 to ’91, my undergraduate years. Now, I was a first-generation college kid who came from a Greek family, my dad was an immigrant, my mom was the child of immigrants, and I didn’t really know what to expect when I got to college. It was a kind of wonderland. I showed up – I went to Northwestern University, I met people from all walks of life, from so many different backgrounds, so many ideas that I had never even considered before, where suddenly –

Nico: Did you grow up in the Chicago area?

Pano: Partially in Chicago, and then, partially in Arizona.

Nico: Okay, yeah, I grew up in Elmhurst, which is a western suburb.

Pano: Oh yeah, Elmhurst. So, I got there, and I thought, “Oh my gosh!” I was exposed to things that were just so out of my frame of reference. I remember friends of mine who were just committed feminists and other people who were – everything from Marxist to neo-monarchists, every – the whole spectrum. It was just amazing to be part of that – part of an institution at that time where everybody would bounce ideas off each other, share them – we argued, but we argued, and then we would slap each other on the back and go have a beer or something afterwards.

Nico: You mean, you wouldn’t go to an administrator to help mediate?

Pano: Never crossed my mind. And so, maybe this sounds like a golden age, and maybe I’m remembering it as I wish it was, but I think it’s – I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that when I was in college, 30 years ago, that it felt like a place that you went not to persuade other people that you already had fixed upon ideas, but you were there to discover ideas and be exposed to ideas, and it just seemed to me that that was the whole purpose of being there.

Yet, over the three decades I’ve been in higher education, I’ve seen that – those opportunities slip away, I’ve seen movement in the opposite direction. Rather than have speech that is open and free-form, liberated, you see people feeling like they can’t speak to one another, or if they are speaking to one another, feeling self-conscious about the consequences of that speech, and there’s a culture of fear. There just is, and that’s not acceptable, just not acceptable, that anybody in higher education feels like – that they have to look over their shoulder. I find that just completely untenable.

Nico: Well, you’re expressing a concern about the culture of higher education that, of course, is shared by us within FIRE, but the detractors argue that the cases that we’re talking about are anecdotal, and that colleges – college campuses – there’s really not as much fear as perhaps we at FIRE make there out to be.

But, I think that belies the fact that there – there is a chilling effect that any one case can cast across an entire campus, that you – we don’t see the cases of people who don’t speak out, and we’ve tried to get at this problem by surveying students, and some of those results reveal some troubling trends, but you – it’s hard to actually survey faculty on these issues. There’s no panel out there from UGOV or Harris who will give you a panel of faculty members and tell you how they’re feeling about their teaching. But, you’ve been the president of a university. You’ve been in higher education for decades now. Do faculty come to you and say they self-censor in increasing regularity?

Pano: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Faculty, students, even staff. I’ve been very outspoken about the need for open inquiry and civil discourse, even when I was in St. John’s, and so, I think that encouraged a lot of people to have these conversations with me, even though I was an administrator, and yeah, dozens of people have approached me. And again, it’s the people who aren’t saying things, I think, that I’m even more concerned about.

It just – the work that you guys have done at FIRE and others have done with your surveys and canvassing the culture in higher education, I think, is invaluable. It’s – the data’s there. The data is simply there that a significant portion of students feel that they have to self-censor, a significant portion of faculty feel that they have to watch their back.

And, again, I just – I find that – at universities, at places that are supposed to be the beating heart of a free society. It should be the most tolerant, the most heterogeneous places we can imagine, the place where you can try out ideas without fear of consequences. There should be a place in society where we can be wrong, and be wrong publicly, and with each other, and if we don’t have that space, how are we ever gonna find out what is right?

Nico: So, you were president of St. John’s College, which, in retrospect, being the person who I am now, I would have loved to attended, but I had to pick the college that I went to when I was still 18 years old and in a heavy metal band, and college was – the educational purpose of college was maybe secondary to my considerations about social life and running track, which I also did in college. Are you – can you tell our listeners a little bit about St. John’s, and why it’s different, and if there’s anything from St. John’s that you wanna bring over to the University of Austin?

Pano: Yeah, sure. So, St. John’s is – I think it’s an institution that still does retain, for the most part, a culture of dialogue, discussion, debate, openness, and the reason it’s able to do that is the – it’s a very particular kind of curriculum. The curriculum at St. John’s provides a common intellectual experience for students. So, there are no majors, you have a four-year-long liberal arts curriculum where you essentially follow about 200 great books, loosely chronologically, from the ancient world to the modern world, across all subjects – philosophy, literature, mathematics.

You read books in the science, music, and everything is really discussion-based in terms of the experience. And, what this essentially provides for students is a foundation asking the most important human question, and then thinking about how those questions have been answered over time, looking at some of the most compelling answers, and then trying to come up with our own.

So, at the heart of it, the questions that we all should be thinking about as human beings – what is human nature? What is justice? What is beauty? – these aren’t new questions. They’ve been asked for a very long time. And so, by triangulating, by having students together go through texts that are generally very difficult, very challenging, and trying to parse out what that text or that author was trying to say on these important subjects – that kind of mutual intellectual work creates a culture of trust because you realize none of you really have the best answer at hand. Nobody in the room does.

So, you’re trying to find an answer that’s a little bit better than the one you started with. You’re doing that together. And, to me, that’s the model for civil discourse. Civil discourse we often think of as “I have my opinion and you have your opinion, and we’re gonna talk to each other or at each other for a while, and if we don’t strangle each other, it’s civil discourse,” but that’s not what civil discourse is. Civil discourse is the foundation of a free and democratic society. It’s people coming together and having conversation so that we can create a civil culture that is oriented towards finding the best answers to the most important questions.

So, it’s about adding – one plus one doesn’t equal two in civil discourse, it equals a thousand. You have an exponential effect when you speak constructively with each other and listen to one another. That’s civil discourse. It has an important constructive component to it.

Nico: So, what’s the curriculum gonna look like at University of Austin? Are you working on that currently, and what sort of faculty do you envision hiring, and have you hired any faculty already?

Pano: So, the curriculum – so, in many ways, I want to preserve some of the elements of the St. John’s education, along with – I did my PhD at University of Chicago, I have deep respect for the Chicago tradition, places like Columbia, and their core programs. So, the first couple years in the undergraduate program are going to be built along this common intellectual experience model.

We’re going to divide our courses into three broad areas – humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences – and we’re gonna pose these questions explicitly – the human questions in each of our courses – and then try to come to answers together. So, for example, if you’re thinking about the question of human nature, reading The Iliad gives you a certain perspective, thinking about human biology and reproduction gives you a different perspective, so, allowing those questions to cross-pollinate. And, we are gonna use – let’s call them the great books – or, I prefer just calling them great books because I don’t think you can really delimit them. We’re gonna use great books that have provided compelling answers to these questions over time.

So, that’s gonna be the first two years. And then, after that, undergraduates are going to become junior fellows, and we’re gonna set up a kind of constellation of research centers, institutes, think tanks, where the great questions are now looked at in a particular disciplinary context. So, we’re gonna have a center of education and public service, a center on entrepreneurship and leadership, a center on politics and applied history.

And so, rather than have a major, students will become fellows in these centers, and they will be doing research, they’ll have internships, apprenticeships, they’re gonna be doing a mentored experience, they’re gonna be doing their own bespoke pathway through these institutes as they prepare to graduate. So, there’s sort of two very different pieces here: The traditional liberal arts model that you would find at a place like St. John’s, and then, an innovative model that’s really about self-directed education that forms the latter part of the experience.

Nico: And, you’re still looking to launch in 2024? That’s what I said at the top, but it seems ambitious.

Pano: Oh, we’re even more ambitious than that. We’re actually hoping – planning, I should say – to launch our first master’s program in entrepreneurship and leadership next fall, the fall of ’22, a one-year program, we’re gonna launch a couple more master’s programs the following year, and then, our undergraduate program hopefully will launch in ’24-25. That’s the most complicated piece to put together over time, so we need a little bit of time to do that.

Nico: And so, the University of Austin – why Austin, Texas? Is there gonna be an actual shovel in the ground here at some point, you hope?

Pano: Absolutely. We believe very strongly in in-person education and creating a community of learning. Locke called it the commonwealth of learning, the places across the world where people gathered together to seek truth, so we’re gonna have a campus – physical location – and, why Austin?

Austin really – this institution is an entrepreneurial enterprise. It’s something new being introduced in the world, with strong elements of innovation. That’s the spirit of Austin right now. People are coming here from all over the country, all over the world, to start new things, and it’s not just tech. Tech is one of the most significant areas of entrepreneurship and innovation here, but I met amazing K-12 educators here that are starting projects left and right, these new schools popping up and new ways of thinking about K-12 education.

There’s a lot of energy here in Austin and a lot of people coming together to share ideas, and that’s exactly what we wanna do at this institution. We wanna bring people together from across the country and the world to share their ideas. So, the spirit of this place at this time really feeds into the institution that we wanna become.

Nico: And, I imagine you’ll be bringing some very interesting faculty in as well. Are you able to share who you have involved yet, or do you have any idea of the type of person that you’d like to have involved in the faculty?

Pano: So, at this point, we have already brought on three of what we’re calling founding faculty fellows. So, these are faculty who will teach for us as we get going, help us design curriculum, help us think about the important questions that you mentioned earlier, like how do we preserve the mission of the institution over time?

And, we began thinking about who’s – who will represent the ethos of the place? And so, our first fellows include Peter Boghossian, who recently left Portland State, philosopher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, great public intellectual, feminist –

Nico: Isn’t she at Harvard?

Pano: She has an affiliation with Hoover and Stanford – the Hoover Institute. And then, our third fellow, who we just brought on board, is Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex, a feminist –

Nico: I’m not familiar with her. I am with the other two.

Pano: She’s a feminist author who wrote a book about transgender – transgenderism, and –

Nico: Oh, that’s a third rail if ever there was one. Watch out.

Pano: She was hounded out of her institution by protests, students, threats, as was Peter Boghossian over a longer period of time, and we decided that we would start by hiring people not only because they were bright people who knew a lot of things about important subjects, but people who exemplified a spirit of courage, people who can, in many ways, be a trailblazer to show us how we can move past this period where ideas are being suppressed and people are paying a penalty for being dissidents and move to a better place. So, we wanted to bring the very people on board who have the most immediate experience of this so they can teach us how to be a better institution.

Nico: Well, that’s one way to preserve the mission, is to hire people who were committed to their vision of a university in the most difficult of circumstances, and were willing to leave their university because it didn’t provide this.

Pano: Absolutely, and another way to preserve the mission is you have to be very clear about what the mission is. What is it that you’re offering the world? And so, for us, we are inspired by things like the Chicago statement on academic freedom. We’re gonna be holding our own conference in the spring, and we’re gonna create the Austin statement on academic freedom, inspired by Chicago, where we feel that we should articulate our own principles.

But, the two – like I said, two foundational principles for us that are non-negotiable are open inquiry and civil discourse, and so, bringing members of our community on who abide by those principles is priority one. You could come – you can believe anything you wanna believe. You can be a radical Marxist, you can be a super committed person of faith, you can – I don’t care about your politics, I don’t care about the kind of things that stimulate you intellectually. What I care about primarily are people who understand the value of conversation and dialogue and are gonna create an environment where dialogue can thrive.

Nico: So, this won’t be primarily a research university, then?

Pano: There’s gonna be a significant amount of research. We wanna give people the ability to do their work, and so, we’re gonna be bringing scholars in, we’re gonna give them space to do their work, and it’s a place where they don’t have to look over their shoulder, but they’re gonna have to teach as well, so it’s gonna be a teacher-scholar model of faculty at the university.

Nico: I have to ask – what about tenure? Have you thought about that?

Pano: You know, it’s interesting. Of course, we think about it, and one of the great ironies is that the purpose of tenure was to preserve academic freedom, and now, the system of tenure is, I think, one of the things that’s restricting academic freedom, and let me just say a little bit about that because it might seem counterintuitive.

Nico: Yeah, I was gonna ask.

Pano: It’s not so much that somebody gets a job for life and they’re guaranteed that piece of tenure, I think, that has led to restrictions in academic freedom. It’s the way that those people are hired and then evaluated over time. So, essentially, faculty hire their peers, evaluate those peers, and ultimately decide whether the candidate for tenure is going to get a permanent position at the institution. It has to be run up through the administrative regime, but it’s – 99 percent of the work is done at the faculty level.

And, over time, what’s happened is like hires like, and I don’t think this has been insidious or anybody’s had an agenda or anything. I just think there’s been a natural gravitation towards hiring people who faculty are comfortable with, whose opinions align loosely with their own. And so, over time – the statistics bear this out. We’ve gone from institutions that were, a couple decades ago, minority conservative, maybe 10-20 percent of a department might be conservative, but there was a presence, to institutions where if it's one percent, that’s probably par for the course. And, that kind of iteration over time in that direction, I think, has been really harmful.

And, where the academic freedom piece is problematic is if you’re only hiring people who are roughly going to agree with your perspective and students who are in graduate school know that – the students who have different perspectives now are not going into PhD programs because they understand that they’re not gonna be hired at the end of it, so there’s a kind of triple filtration process.

You have students selecting to go to graduate school, they learn there that the sorts of things they need to focus on, the kind of opinions they need to make public are pretty narrow, they go through graduate school, they get their first job, they have to spend about six years on the tenure clock, that same mindset, they have to continue to toe the line, do things that are in accord with their – the expectations of their colleagues, and then they get tenured, and then, by the time they’re tenured, there aren’t very many people who are gonna have dissenting opinions left.

So, even at that point where they might be able to express those opinions because they have academic freedom – this thing called tenure – there just aren’t that many people who are able to take advantage of the kind of full weight of that academic freedom.

Nico: So, to you, it’s not so much that tenure is the problem, it’s just that the pipeline that is created that leads to tenure ends up filtering out the people who might produce the sort of institutional disconfirmation that you would like to see in your institution.

Pano: Absolutely.

Nico: And, as a result, tenure is almost not even necessary because people aren’t producing dissident or controversial research that might require tenure to protect it, if I’m interpreting it correctly.

Pano: Yeah, that’s a great summary, and I think that’s exactly right, and – so, I think it’s very important that you give your faculty a sense of security, that they have a home, that they feel secure, that their jobs are valued, and that they can be at a place for a very long time. So, I think that’s important so that relationship that they build with the institution, which has come through the tenure process, I think is important. But, the configuration of, let’s say, the hiring and promotion process right now has kind of led us to where we are.

Nico: Isn’t there something to be said, though – just playing with an idea here – some departments built a reputation around a particular approach to their discipline, whether it’s history, or politics, or economics – you think of the Chicago School or what they’re doing over at George Mason – and people gravitate to a particular department because there is a faculty member who looks at things a particular sort of way, and they may agree or disagree, or they just like that approach and they wanna study under that person. So, is there a problem, then, with having departments like that, or is it okay so long as there are other departments across the country that challenge the theses being presented in those departments?

Pano: I think it’s great to have clusters of people who are all working on similar issues in the same direction, who might share a kind of ethos, share ideas. I think that’s just fine. It’s – but, those clusters – there should be a whole galaxy of opportunities for people with different ideas to find places where they can do their work, and I think what we find – we find now at institutions is if you were – if you’re an outlier, you’re somebody who believes in Austrian economics or something, there aren’t many homes left. You’re sort of getting squeezed out, and the opportunity for heterogeneous intellectual pursuit is kind of shriveling up, to be honest.

Nico: You mentioned at the top there are many challenges that go with starting your own university. I imagine accreditation is one of them. When I think of new universities, the only one that comes to mind is Minerva University, which I think is based in San Francisco. It took them, what, nine years to get accredited? So, what’s your – what’s your approach to that? You need accreditation, right, in order for students to get loans, Pell grants, and that sort of thing?

Pano: So, you do need it for those purposes. If you’re gonna access federal funding, you need accreditation. We are going to seek accreditation through traditional routes. We are not planning on seeking federal funding, so that’s not why we’re seeking accreditation. I think the purpose – the reason we’re gonna seek accreditation is to give – you’re a new institution, you need to give students and faculty confidence that there’s oversight, right? Accreditation is really an oversight process, to make quality control, and so, an accreditor provides that function, and I think that’s very important –

Nico: Sometimes.

Pano: Well –

Nico: I say that because we all – almost all accreditors require that their institutions that they accredit promise free speech and academic freedom. We have written to accreditors hundreds of times, maybe, saying, “Look what’s going on at this school. Look what you require by accreditation. Do you wanna get involved here and maybe investigate what’s happening?” It’s never – they’ve never actually gotten involved. The only time they’ve ever gotten involved was this past week with the situation at Florida, and I don’t know if that’s because the politics were right for it or they had the right sort of connection, but I find their enforcement of their accreditation standards to be wanting, to say the least.

Pano: I think that’s right. Accreditors don’t generally intervene directly in real time in institutions. You go through an accreditation process, you have sort of periodic review – And, I think they exercise a kind of – a kind of quiet influence over institutions. You know that – you know what their standards are, and you know that you’re gonna be reviewed, and I think that has a kind of – that influence pervades in institutions, but never perfectly.

Nico: Yeah. Just another note on accreditation because it’ll just get me going – we had – at Yale, there’s a controversy involving a faculty member who allegedly violated the Goldwater rule for psychology, and she filed a lawsuit, and she appealed to Yale’s glowing academic freedom promises – the right to think the unthinkable, mention the unmentionable, challenge the unchallengeable – but in court, Yale’s lawyers said that’s not school policy, so you can’t appeal to that one.

It’s the Woodward report. They have it all over their website, they put it in their alumni documents, everywhere, but when they’re ac – faculty members actually seek to cash in on that promissory note, it’s not actually delivered, and I bring this up because when Yale certifies that it provides academic freedom promises to its accreditor, what they cite is the Woodward report – the right to think the unthinkable, challenge the unchallengeable, and mention the unmentionable – but will the accreditor just look at that and say, “Check,” or will they actually care that it’s – they might say one thing out of one side of their mouth and another thing out of the other side of their mouth. As you can see, I have an axe to grind to accreditors.

Pano: You certainly do, and I’ve had to go through accreditation too, and it also depends on who’s – accreditation’s carried out by an accredit – a team that visits you and reviews things. It depends on who’s on the team sometimes, too, and how much they pay attention to certain things. But, do I think the accreditation system needs to be reformed? Absolutely. But, I can’t reform accreditation and built a university at the same time.

Nico: Why not? Come on!

Pano: Maybe down the road, we’ll see what we can do. I will say that we have started working with an accreditor – a major one – and they’re very attentive and warm to the kind of institution that we’re planning on, so I’m very hopeful that we’ll find – that we’ve found a good partner in that.

Nico: Yeah. Well, what are the next steps, then? I imagine you have some money to raise. How much money are you looking to raise, and how can listeners support your efforts?

Pano: Yeah. So, the next steps – one way to build a new university would be to go out there and find yourself a billion dollars and start there. So, if somebody gives me a billion dollars, that’d be awesome, thank you, and we’ll start there. But, that’s not how we’re starting. We’re starting – we’re gonna be building the university in a phased fashion. We’re starting with a small faculty, small programs, and we’re gonna add programs over time as the resources come in to make that possible.

So, we’re – our hope is that within three to four years, we will have raised enough money to launch the undergraduate program, and we’re pretty confident that we could do that with a few hundred million dollars. We have a – we’re gonna be – we’re gonna have – we’re not gonna have a bloated administration. As you pointed out earlier, one of the great things with starting early is you don’t start with all these – this bloat. We’re gonna have a very lean administration. We’re gonna focus our resources almost exclusively on the classroom and on instruction. We’re not gonna have sports teams, we’re not gonna have the proverbial climbing wall and all that stuff, sushi bars.

So, we’re gonna have a real low-cost delivery model where, rather than spending – as many schools do – 15-20 percent of the tuition that’s collected on the classroom, we’re gonna be – we’re gonna aim for 75-80 percent. So, having a lower-cost model means we have less need for a tremendous amount of seed money to start. So, a few hundred million dollars will get us going just fine. And, as you mentioned earlier, little, tiny St. John’s College with under a thousand students is just about to successfully complete a $300 million campaign in a few years, so I think it’s not unimaginable that we’ll have those resources in time.

Nico: Are students gonna live on campus? Do you anticipate dormitories?

Pano: We’re gonna have – we will have some residence halls, students will also be able to live off campus – I think there’s something to be said, especially for undergraduates, about living in a learning community together and building a culture together. There’s also something we said for young people to be adults in the world and living independently, so I think you wanna start off with residence halls and have students there, but then let them live off campus as they move forward.

Nico: Where can people go to learn more? Do you have a website that people can access?

Pano: Absolutely. It is U, as in the letter U,

Nico: Well, great. Pano, this has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope to be able to check in with you in a year or two, three years, when the resident – when the undergraduate college is up and running, and see how all these ideas that we discussed here just a few days after the launch of your university – how they’ve all hopefully come to fruition and what the challenges have been. You’ve got your work cut out for you ahead, so I commend you, and I wish you all the luck in the world.

Pano: Well, thank you so much. I have to say just – it’s thrilling to be at this moment in time, and to be directly involved in founding a university. The thing that’s buoyed us up more than anything else is the collection of people who have gathered around to help us with this. From the very beginning, we’ve had people such as Niall Ferguson, and Barry Weiss, and Arthur Brooks, and Heather Heying, college presidents like Robert Zimmer from Chicago and Gordon Gee from West Virginia. We’ve had public intellectuals like the playwright David Mamet, or like Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Rauch, Glenn Lowry all joining our board and our advisory board.

Nico: You’re just ticking off past podcasts. If you kept going –

Pano: These are your people, I know that, and the reason that they’re part of our universe is we all believe the same thing. We all believe so deeply in the need for true and frank discussion about the most important things as us human beings, as flawed and often lost as we are, to try to find something called truth, and that’s what our institution is about.

Nico: Well, I have to admit I’m jealous. It’s been a goal of mine for my entire life to build something from the ground up – an institution – so I hope to one day be able to do something like that, but in the meantime, this is right up our alley here on So to Speak, and right up our alley here at FIRE, so any help that we can provide as you get going, but once you get going, we’re the watchdog, so we’re gonna hold you accountable, and hopefully not – not too much because you’re doing everything we love, but –

Pano: Well, the work you do is so critical and inspirational. As I said, it – part of the thing – part of what inspired us to do this is the work that you do at FIRE and other organizations, like Heterodox Academy and that, trying to keep higher education – higher education accountable. And so, we’re all on the same team.

Nico: All right. With that, I’ll let you go. Pano, thanks for coming on the show.

Pano: Thank you so much, Nico. It’s a great pleasure. Thank you.

Nico: That was Pano Kanelos, and he is the founder of the recently announced University of Austin. This podcast is hosted and produced and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. You can learn more about So to Speak by visiting us on Twitter at or liking us on Facebook @sotospeakpodcast. You can also email us feedback at, and, as I said at the top of the show, if you enjoy the show, please leave us a review. It’s the No. 1 thing you can do to help us get more listeners. And, until next time, I thank you all again for listening.

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