August 2, 2021 - 8:00am

My podcast recommendation of the week is Tyler Cowen’s conversation with historian Niall Ferguson. The whole interview is worth a listen, but the most intriguing bit comes right at the end.

Ferguson is currently promoting his latest book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.  This will be followed by the conclusion to his Henry Kissinger biography. But after that, no more books.

Ferguson tells Cowen that “I’m not sure that anybody really reads books anymore, at least not all the way through.” Trying to change people’s minds with “500-page volumes” is a “fool’s errand” he says.

So, at the grand old age of 57, what does he plan to do instead? The most important thing he can do in the remaining part of his life is what he calls “intellectual succession planning.”

He doesn’t say so directly, but it sounds like he wants to found a new kind of university (or perhaps re-found the old kind). “Academic life,” he says, “has gone off the rails in ways that I never would have imagined in the 1980s when I was starting out.” As a result, he believes that we “urgently need new institutions”.

He’s right. The long march of the woke Left through our legacy institutions, means that we need refuges for free speech and untrammelled thought. New media outlets are an obvious example, but scholarship is as important as journalism. We need new academic institutions too.

Ferguson doesn’t tell us exactly what he has in mind, or who his allies and backers might be, but there’s no doubting the importance of this mission.

Two words of warning though:

Firstly, we don’t need a ‘right-wing university’. Rigorous scholarship and open debate should be the key principles, not ideological conformity. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel here, we just need institutions that respect and uphold basic intellectual freedoms in the manner in which our universities once prided themselves.

Secondly, the goal should be as much to avoid the bloated bureaucracy of modern academia. A new university isn’t just a chance to do without wokeness, but also to strip out the unnecessary costs of the existing system. A challenger institution will need to be lean to survive anyway, but that’s not the only reason why we need to disrupt the economics of the established model.

Institutions that spew out leftwing ideology while loading up their students with enormous debts deserve to be disrupted. If it takes a conservative like Niall Ferguson to teach them a lesson in social justice, then so be it.

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