'Higher education is too important to surrender': President Pano Kanelos in New York
Why UATX
May 19, 2024

'Higher education is too important to surrender': President Pano Kanelos in New York

‘We are probably the only secular institution in the world that is committed to the possibility of transcendence,’ President Pano Kanelos said

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly
University of Austin

The University of Austin organized a salon in New York City featuring music and musings on the fearless pursuit of truth in higher education.

On a mild spring evening, in the main hall of Maxwell Social, a club in downtown Manhattan, UATX Polaris Fellow Eliana Yang and classmates from the Juilliard School offered their interpretation of Mendelssohn String Quartet No.1, Op.12 to an audience of parents, students, staff and local friends of UATX. 

UATX Polaris Fellow Eliana Yang (right) and classmates perform a Mendelssohn string quartet at Maxwell Social in New York

Following their performance, University of Austin President Pano Kanelos led a lively discussion on the university's vocation. 

“I couldn’t ask for a better introduction to what we represent,” President Kanelos began. “We as a university are trying to do what they’re trying to do as musicians: we’re trying to introduce beauty to save the world.”

“We have an obligation to be creators of beauty and to bring our students into that, not just to be passive consumers,” he said.

Even more, “our mission is to revive in our students, in our faculty, in the culture at large, the desire, the passion, for the pursuit of truth,” he said.

President Kanelos described the University of Austin’s response to a prevailing “ambient nihilism."

“What do you do in a culture where things are falling apart?” he said. “There’s only one response, and that is to build anew. The world needs a university that points us toward the North Star of seeking truth.”

“We started this journey less than three years ago when we made an announcement publicly to the world,” he said. “We promised at that time in the fall of 2021 that within three years, we would bring in our first freshman class of students.”

“I am proud to say that in the fall of 2024, we will welcome our first freshman class.”

“The students that we’re attracting are remarkable,” he continued. “They are builders, creators, innovators. These are the students who are going to renew the culture that we live in.”

“Our job as an institution is to hand off the baton to young people who will carry on the traditions of culture, carry on the pursuit of truth, heal all the things that have been torn apart.”

UATX students will ‘study works of literature and philosophy and art, the fundamentals of mathematics, and the deep knowledge that underlies the sciences’

University of Austin Director of Special Programs and Associate Director of Admissions Ben Crocker offered the evening’s first question.

“The 20th century was defined by remarkable achievements in professional education—Project Apollo, the nuclear bomb—extraordinary advances in technology,” he began.

“So why a liberal arts education? Why does UATX pursue that above other alternatives?”

Ben Crocker asks why UATX pursues the liberal arts over professional or technical education 

President Kanelos responded:

“The liberal in ‘liberal’ or ‘liberal arts education’ is intended to refer to the education of a free person, or even an education that frees human beings.”

“Frees us from biases, frees us from ignorance, frees us to have true agency and to pursue the best possible choices.”

“In a world that is increasingly driven by technology, the power that human beings have to shape not only human culture but the planet itself is immense,” he continued. “A true liberal education teaches us how to exert our agency in a responsible, ethical way. It helps us discern the better from the worse, right from wrong, and good from bad."

“At the University of Austin, our students will begin with a deep dive into our Intellectual Foundations Program,” he said. 

“For two years, they’re going to study works of literature and philosophy and art, the fundamentals of mathematics, and the deep knowledge that underlies the sciences—so that we can come to understand together the components that make up human knowledge and experience.”

Addressing the students in the room, the president continued: “Once you’ve had that experience, then we’ll turn you into an engineer, or a computer scientist, or a politician, or a poet.”

 “That grounding will make sure that as you become that person that you are meant to be, that you know how to make better choices and distinguish right from wrong,” he said.

Another salon guest asked President Kanelos how the University of Austin would know when its model had prevailed.

“Ten years, twenty years, thirty years from now: how will you know you have succeeded?” he said. “How will the world be different?”

“By being the first new universities of our stature to be founded in nearly a century, we are already seeing an impact,” the president responded. 

“We are approached frequently by people in other states, even in other countries, saying: ‘We want to start a new university, how do we do this? You guys are lighting that way.’”

“One of the ways I think we’ll know that we are successful is that we have a heck of a lot of competition,” he went on.

“The other part of our success is the success of our graduates,” he said. “Five years out, ten years out, twenty years out, how has the education they received impacted their flourishing as human beings?”

‘Universities are the keystones of civilization,’ President Kanelos said. ‘Higher education is so important that we want to transform them, we want to renew them.’

Podcaster and author Scott Newman asked why UATX aims to build a university rather than an institute or a private company. Why deal with the regulatory hurdles and restrictions?

“I love that question,” President Kanelos responded. “The truth is that higher education is simply too important to surrender.”

“Universities are the keystones of civilization. Higher education is so important that we want to transform them, we want to renew them.”

“We have to build a place that can provide an immersive, transformative experience for young people,” he went on. “I think you can only do that over an extended period of time in an intensive learning community.”

“We also have to provide an opportunity for faculty to do research, produce art, write wonderful things, and be part of a full, complex intellectual ecosystem.”

Another guest brought up ideological polarization's chilling effect on campus culture.

“How do you undo that?” President Kanelos asked. “You have to actively cultivate a community where thinking differently is a virtue, not a vice.”

“You create that by bringing in the faculty, bringing in the students who evince a commitment to those principles.”

“You create a governance structure,” he continued. “We have a Constitution that clearly defines and protects our mission: to ensure open inquiry, civil discourse, and freedom of conscience remain the heart of what we do.” 

“You create a culture that tells students and faculty from the beginning that their purpose is to exchange ideas, that the fundamental truth is that two different opinions coming together shouldn’t leave us with two opinions, but with better opinions.”

“It’s eminently doable,” he said. “And if you do it at universities, it will spread elsewhere.”

''You have to actively cultivate a community where thinking differently is a virtue, not a vice.'

‘At the heart of critical theory is a very simple mistake,’ President Kanelos said

Another guest asked simply: What went wrong at other universities? Why the need to build anew?

“One thing that I think went wrong both in universities and in the culture at large—that is the rise in universities of what we can call ‘critical theory,’” President Kanelos answered. 

“At the heart of critical theory is a very simple mistake,” he said. “That is the assumption that all human relationships are relationships of power. That every human relationship is about domination and submission, and the whole history of civilization is a struggle between those who dominate and those who submit.”

“That’s simply not true,” President Kanelos said. “Of course power is important. Sometimes relations are ones of domination and submission, power and powerlessness. But sometimes two people have a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Sometimes two people have relationships that are mutually destructive. And in some relationships, we have this amazing phenomenon called human sacrifice.” 

“A very narrow view of what it means to be a human being has become a central feature of most academic disciplines and departments,” he said. “And that has led to a lot of the problems we have today.”

“So how do we unwind that? We look at the human experience more expansively. We look at the great human questions as complexly as we can.”

That means an openness to a transcendent reality beyond what we can measure with our senses.

'Making sure our students are fluent in the traditions of the great religious' is a necessity: President Kanelos

‘We believe that to understand the human experience, you have to experience intensely the varieties of religious experience.’

“We are a resolutely secular institution, but we are probably the only secular institution in the world that is committed to the possibility of transcendence,” President Kanelos said. 

“What is religion? Religion is the presence of the transcendent in the immanent. We believe that to understand the human experience, you have to experience intensely the varieties of religious experience. So our Intellectual Foundations Program is run through with the theology and the sacred texts of all different traditions.”

“How can you aim to understand what it means to be a human being and not understand one of the most important parts of the human experience—that is, the drive towards religiosity, towards belief, towards what is higher?”

“We’re not saying that any particular belief is endorsed by the institution. But we believe strongly that every member of our community has to look at religious faith as an essential, maybe even the essential component of the human experience. Making sure our students are fluent in the traditions of the great religions is essential to what we do.”

“And making sure that our students who have come to us with faith traditions can live them out fully and robustly on our campuses—we are fully committed to that.”

“And at the University of Austin, the blue-haired atheist—I don’t know why atheists are always blue-haired—and the committed Muslim student will sit down and talk about Aristotle together,” President Kanelos said. 

“And that to me is a vision of paradise.”

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