Earlier this week, a group of conservative and contrarian academics and journalists announced they were launching a new venture called the “University of Austin.” The “school” purports to teach to students “unthinkable” ideas that the founders say they are currently being persecuted for espousing in traditional academia.
But the supposed university is unaccredited — and it doesn’t offer any degrees. Instead, it appears to be the latest, and largest, in a long line of cancel culture-related grifts.
Backed by an endless slew of articles from outlets as varied as The Atlantic magazine, various right wing publications and The New York Times, so-called cancel culture has embedded itself into the American psyche. Polls have revealed that an increasing number of people are afraid of being “canceled” over their opinions. And what sprang up in response was an ever-increasing network of resources designed to garner support for celebrities, academics and journalists who’ve been canceled.
When LucasFilm fired “Mandalorian” star Gina Carrano for offensive social media posts, she found a soft landing spot with the entertainment branch of the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro’s news site, The Daily Wire. When comedian Dave Chappelle was “canceled” over unfunny jokes about trans people, he portrayed himself both as a tough guy unafraid to say “the truth” and as a victim. He repeatedly joked afterward about how great being canceled was, given his lucrative Netflix deal and sold-out shows.
On my podcast, Cancel Me Daddy, we call this the “cancel culture grift economy.” The general idea is that there are certain social rewards that come with being canceled. So-called controversial or forbidden ideas have a veneer of guilty pleasure. Things that are illegal or taboo have always been attractive to people, like having your first drink of alcohol when you’re a teenager.
It’s this attractiveness that helps cancel culture grifts pay off. There’s no universally agreed upon definition of “getting canceled” and it’s claimed for a wide variety of consequences for terrible speech or actions, from losing a job to getting doxxed to mild intellectual disagreement.
This open-ended definition allows nearly anyone to claim canceled status and subsequently rake in the increased attention and financial rewards that now come with that status.
Seeing what their celebrity counterparts were able to put together for themselves, it appears that a group of self-described “heterodox” academics and journalists (who all happen to have the same opinions on the the two topics they collectively discuss most often, trans rights and racism) want in on the action.
The list of founders and those listed in the university’s initial launch announcement reads like a who’s-who of contrarian personalities, including: former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who appeared to spearhead the organizing; British academic and gender critical former professor Kathleen Stock, who recently resigned from the University of Sussex, first claiming she was driven out by protesting students before shifting the blame onto another professor she says had a disagreement with; and journalist Caitlin Flanagan, who always seems to be in the middle of these discussions.
But there appears to be no substance behind the allegedly academic effort. None of the instructors are expected to produce research in their field; none of the programs provide credits that could be accepted at actual colleges. Instead, the University of Austin appears to be a clearinghouse for online videos or classes, where people like Stock can say whatever she wants about trans people or columnist Andrew Sullivan can lecture about racial IQ without official consequences. And students will presumably be paying money to access this material, of course.
The university is backed by Cisero Research, which is run by Joe Lansdale, a venture capitalist who co-founded Palantir with fellow conservative techbro Peter Thiel. Lansdale has a history of criticizing “woke ideology.” And in 2015, he was sued for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman, allegedly telling her “that it was women’s nature to enjoy being raped, especially if they are raped by a man with greater means.”
The lawsuit was later dropped by the plaintiff, along with a countersuit from Lonsdale. But one wonders what self-proclaimed radical feminist Kathleen Stock might think about Lonsdale’s alleged thoughts on “women’s nature.”
As New York Magazine’s Sarah Jones noted, the University of Austin’s founding ideal is nothing new. But the grift at play here is clear. The University of Austin isn’t designed to benefit its students. It’s meant to be a soft landing spot for formerly disgraced academics, or controversial journalists, who it should be noted, mostly have no experience in academia. And while the instructors rake in cash from the aggrieved masses, the only value the school will deliver to students is an ability to indulge in the guilty pleasures of racism and transphobia.