It is important to note, up here at the beginning, that the University of Austin is not a real college. It exists on its own website, and also in a mission statement written by the (why not) university’s new president, former St. John’s College president Pano Kanelos, that ran in Bari Weiss’s Substack newsletter, which I believe is called You Wouldn’t Believe What They’re Doing At Skylar’s School. The University of Austin has a mailing address, which is indeed in Austin, Texas, but the (sure) school shares that address with the offices of an oil and gas law firm called RashChapman. The school is funded by a nonprofit that can, inevitably, be traced back to one of the regnant Stanford-adjacent adult libertarians of Silicon Valley; in this case, it is Palantir co-founder and paternity-leave agnostic Joe Lonsdale.
In the 39-second promotional video posted on social media, the credits introducing the roster of blue-chip free-thinkers associated with the institution is very nearly a blur—was that “Tilda Swinton From Michael Clayton” in there, and what kind of class is Cobra Commander going to be teaching? That list of names will be meaningless to most people, although observers of the legacy-media-ragequit-to-Substack pipeline will recognize some familiar players, and people who pay attention to controversies in which personally unpleasant tenured academics huffily work themselves into uncomfortable professional spots because they can’t stop being upset about gender will recognize some others. The name of Leon Kass, an octogenarian University of Chicago type, rang a bell for me for reasons I couldn’t quite pin down; it turned out I remembered him because, during his time on George W. Bush’s bioethics council, it emerged that he had written disapprovingly about people eating ice cream in public, “a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.”
This is who and what we’re dealing with, here—the greasy grievance goblins that Weiss associates with professionally, and the grouchy sawdust-brained establishment types likely to be impressed or amused by people like that, all working to service the specific involuted gripes of the type of rich cretin that all of the aforementioned live to serve. There is a whole parallel discourse of this shit. It is outwardly sophisticated in an antique way, but always as vapid and predictable as the broader reactionary outrage marketplace of which it is the most upscale part; its leading figures invoke Plato and Cicero much more often in getting upset about whatever lower-brow conservative media types are getting upset about that day, but also get exactly as upset about exactly the same garbage in effectively the same ways.
Whatever it winds up being, though, the University of Austin promises to be an institution dedicated to litigating the same hoary “forbidden questions” about race and gender and The West that have been beguiling stupid people for generations, and to creating some institutional credibility around the small, wrong answers those people want those questions to have; it will be, as Sarah Jones put it, “a Bible college for libertarians.” Or anyway it might be, if it becomes something more than what it is now, which is nothing. If everything goes right for the University of Austin, this movement—dusty Koch Brothers cynicism re-skinned as a bold and dangerous exercise in intellectual insurgency—may someday have a diploma-granting institution dedicated to institutionalizing that grandiose and curdled worldview. If not, maybe we’ll get a version of Prager University with an actual physical plant. Or maybe not.
But right now the University of Austin is not accredited or even aligned with an accrediting organization recognized by the state of Texas, and also is not accepting applications, and also will not begin offering its “flagship summer program” Forbidden Courses until summer of 2022 and its master’s program in “entrepreneurship and leadership” until fall of that year. To the extent that the institution exists at all, it is in opposition to every other institution; a fantasy university that will be beholden not to The Woke Dogma Of Academia but to its absolute strident opposite, staffed by a faculty of rebels who have all quite by accident dedicated their professional lives to explaining how and why whatever prevailing status-quo ugliness currently is, is right.
Kanelos writes darkly of professors who have “objected to aspects of affirmative action” being treated as “thought criminals,” or being hounded out of their positions by co-workers who couldn’t abide working with them, or students who didn’t want to learn from them. “We had thought such censoriousness was possible only under oppressive regimes in distant lands,” he writes, in a sentence that is from its presumptuous initial “we” on down an absolutely crystalline expression of what kind of preposterously soft-batch grandiosity is in play here. West Virginia University president Gordon Gee, who is credited as an advisor on the University of Austin’s website, has already rushed to disassociate himself with Kanelos’s claim that higher educational institutions are No Longer Seeking The Truth.
Anyway that is what the University of Austin is. Now I would like to talk to you about how I plan to build a winning basketball program there.
I want to be clear that this will not be easy. The undergraduate student body will not exist as anything but a concept until fall of 2024, per the school’s stated timeline. The absence of other students, and any kind of universityesque physical presence vis-a-vis buildings and the like, will not help with recruiting. On the other hand, it is hard to see how that student body, if and when it arrives on the campus at such time as that campus exists, will help very much with recruiting, either. It is one thing to say that the school will be “kids who are too doctrinaire to fit in at Notre Dame” or “not up to Stanford’s standards for being normal,” but it is quite another to put together a successful basketball team from that group of people. But I believe it can be done—I believe that the University of Austin Fighting Meritocrats can and will be able to compete with the best and best-resourced programs in Conference USA. (I also think they should play in Conference USA.) I am under no illusions about the difficulties of this task.
So how do we do this? We begin with the simple home truths of winning basketball, albeit from a perspective grounded in a free-market and inquiry-forward approach to the game that rejects the cringing “correctness” that holds back ostensibly enlightened CUSA programs like Rice and Florida Atlantic. My Meritocrats will talk on defense, but not about defense—by engaging opponents on more important questions, we will leverage our program’s discursive advantages. The goal is to be an exhausting and infuriating opponent, and I believe we will achieve this in year one.
More broadly, though, the Meritocrats will win by leaning into the institution’s core values. Where those teams try and fail to implement top-down “team-first” concepts, the Meritocrats will compete, not just with their opponents but with each other. We begin with first principles: Why should a player “pass” to another, if that so-called teammate will simply utilize that opportunity to their own individual advantage? From the crucible of this competition for possession of the basketball, something powerful and true is sure to emerge; that is simply how competition works, and what it does.
This kind of competition will not be for everyone. But at an institution grounded in debate that is relentless and robust, while also civil and respectful, while also open to the possibility that every roundly disproven scientistic 19th-century essentialism is in fact secretly correct, we could not really play any other way. By relentlessly attempting to best each other, these Meritocrats will in turn better themselves and expose their opponents. At the risk of being cocky, it is hard to imagine that UAB or Marshall, held fast as they are by institutional snares and a stifling identity-driven conformity that all involved can barely even see at this point, will have ever encountered anything like it. Also the university’s advisory board has assured me that final scores can be adjusted after the fact without explanation due to a clause in Palantir’s contract with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Of course, a smug and empty argumentativeness haphazardly marshaled in the service of an unjust and untenable status quo can only take a basketball team so far. The Meritocrats will have to be willing to look in places that other teams don’t, or can’t, to find something extra; I’m not sure what this would be yet, but I’m assuming if I say some shit about A.I. and machine learning while kind of implying that I am open to certain basic phrenological concepts it will be enough to get me the job and then I can just figure it out once I’m hired. If they want me to pass up free throws because “eventually you run out of other people’s points” or whatever, I’ll do it. I am not going back to Cal State Northridge.
More than that, and more importantly, I can promise this: My Meritocrats simply will not quit. An exception to that promise, though, would be if like an opportunity to leverage quitting in the service of some sort of broader point arose—say, one about how unfair the institution of college basketball in general and the quisling grandees of Conference USA in particular are to free thinkers, and how afraid they are of Difficult Questions—such that quitting might confer some professional gain. In that case the team will definitely quit, heatedly and publicly, by deploying a strategy that I call The Open Letter. It’s when you write a long open letter about how disappointing, if not surprising, you have found it to be held accountable for the things you think and the way you are by the people you work with, and how you have decided that everyone but you is wrong. This approach is admittedly not pretty to behold, but it wins more often than you’d expect.