A new university reminds us to beware the concentration of power
The arrival of UATX illustrates a timeless truth
America’s getting a new “anti-woke” university, the University of Austin at Texas. Announcing its arrival and arguing for its necessity, the incoming university president of UATX opened with, “So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.” New Zealand’s often a price-taker of US cultural trends, so perhaps on some level this development has some relevance for higher education here. But in the announcement and the inevitable controversy that greeted it is a more fundamental lesson that applies much more widely than the universities. It’s a lesson about the dangers of concentrated power.
The problem, according to the founders of UATX, is that US universities are hyper-elite, entrenching division, and captured by a strong moral ideology that brooks no dissent. Pano Kanelos, the incoming president of UATX, says “illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life”. The critics believe this illiberalism is exemplified by the modern university commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). To take a recent example, the University of Chicago academic Dorian Abbot was disinvited from delivering a prestigious scientific lecture at MIT thanks to his unrelated critique of DEI policy. The Princeton professor Robert George, a noted supporter of academic freedom, offered to host the lecture at his institution instead. The webinar was attended by 3,000 people, presumably illustrating not just interest in Abbot’s scientific theories but in the issue of cancellation.
To examples like this, the critics add statistics. Jonathan Haidt, a professor and a member of UATX’s advisory board, has pointed out that universities depend on “viewpoint diversity” among scholars to overcome confirmation bias, but that the left/right ratio among US professors was an average of five to one by 2011, well short of the two or three to one ratio needed to combat bias. Kanelos argued that:
Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars…
The broader issue is that universities’ position atop a pinnacle of American cultural life generates a particular kind of concentrated power which is open to abuse. Power grants control; control can be misused; the greater the power, the greater the temptation to misuse. Again, these are US examples and not New Zealand ones; I’m not suggesting that our universities are captured and polarised in the same way as their elite American counterparts (though to take one local example, the University of Auckland, features a prominent commitment to being “safe, inclusive, and equitable”). But the examples given by the UATX founders illustrate the dangers of power. So what could be done about it?
The solution to concentration is dilution—in other words, when power is concentrated and captured, it needs to be diluted and dispersed. Sticking with the example of US universities, here are three illustrations of how others have sought to solve that problem. First, conservatives like Ross Douthat and R.R. Reno have argued for a tax on the endowments of the richest colleges, like Yale and Harvard, to clip their wings. (A friend once described Harvard to me as, “A hedge fund with a university attached.”) Second, increased funding for public universities and other forms of higher education would help level the playing field. Douthat’s argued for new federally funded universities, “under bipartisan supervision and with a mandate to cultivate ideological diversity.” Reno’s argued that the proceeds of his proposed endowment tax should be used, “to help all Americans afford some form of post-high school education.” Third, there’s the possibility of starting up a disruptive competitor to the status quo, the path illustrated by UATX.
The dangers of concentrated power can be seen in every sphere of life—not just in universities, but in business, technology, and government. For example, Amazon’s reach extends to the farthest corners of the globe, even to the bottom of the South Pacific, decimating retailers along the way. Facebook and Google are virtual leviathans that wield real power over what we know and therefore believe while Microsoft and Apple, their hardware counterparts, supply the tech tools we use and thus shape what we create. States fighting COVID-19 impose sweeping restrictions; extraordinary measures and in many cases necessary ones, but vivid reminders of the authority and reach of government.
The problem isn’t just that concentrated power can control us, but also that we can become dependent on it even when it fails. I hosted Professor George when he delivered the 2012 Sir John Graham Lecture in New Zealand, where he was asked whether it was right to bail out banks in the GFC and whether this shows that private companies can pose a threat to the common good by creating poverty and deprivation. Yes, he said, of course private companies can threaten public well-being. He went on:
I will up the ante: I don’t see any reason not to break up the banks. If they’re too big to fail, then we can’t afford them. It’s not because we want to ruin the market; rather, it’s because we want a true market.
These days, concern has largely moved on from banks and their bail-outs and it’s increasingly focused elsewhere. Godzone might not need a new university, but we’re living in the same world where power is wielded by “Big Tech,” big business, big government, and what we might now call “Big Education.” UATX’s arrival is a timely reminder of a timeless truth: beware the concentration of power.