December 15, 2023 - 10:00am

This hasn’t been a comfortable few weeks for America’s academic establishment. An escalating controversy around antisemitism on campus has already resulted in the resignation of Liz Magill, President of the University of Pennsylvania; and pressure on Claudine Gay, President of Harvard. But just when things can’t get any worse for the ivory tower progressives, it’s reported that that Elon Musk is planning to found his own university in Austin, Texas.

According to Bloomberg, a Musk charity called “The Foundation” has allocated $100 million in funding for a “STEM-focused primary and secondary school” with the aim of eventually expanding into higher education.

Musk is already investing big-time in Austin — for instance he moved Tesla’s headquarters there in 2021. However, there’s more going on here than the building of a company town. Though he hasn’t announced anything directly about the planned university, Musk clearly wants to disrupt the academic establishment. For instance, this week he highlighted a post from his fellow tech lord, Marc Andreessen. It was a list of “Ten books for understanding The Bonfire Of The Universities”.

Writing for UnHerd in 2017, I argued that conservative donors should “never forget that politics is downstream of culture” — and that with “universities across the western world being turned into Leftist madrassas”, new foundations dedicated to academic rigour were desperately needed.

So far, the attempts to challenge the status quo have been rather hit and miss. Peter Thiel, for instance, thinks it better to offer promising young people grants not to go university. Another high profile educational initiative — the Prager University Foundation (PragerU) — isn’t actually a university. As for Trump University, the less said the better. Then there’s the university system in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is using all the powers of his office to push through reform from the top-down.

A more promising bottom-up approach is the University of Austin (UATX), which though not connected with Musk’s embryonic project, appears to share a similar purpose. According to its website, the new university’s mission is to “fearlessly pursue the truth” and “champion academic freedom”. 

Hopefully UATX is the first of many new counter-cultural universities. But while it would be understandable if they defined themselves in opposition to woke academia, they must be bigger than that. That’s because there’s a lot more wrong with the conventional universities than the creeping rot of wokeness. Contemporary higher education — and not just in America — is an economic bubble based on extracting ever-higher fees in return for inflated grades, pointless credentials and activism masquerading as scholarship.

If Musk really wants to disrupt academia then his university shouldn’t solely do away with the bureaucrat-ideologues, but also with unnecessary overheads of every description. He should build the leanest of academic models — and pass-on the savings to the students. Furthermore, he should give them the opportunity to work part-time in his various enterprises.

That way, Musk U could offer a top-class education at a fraction of the usual cost. If the established academic system is indeed a bubble, then his university should be the needle.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.