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Jessica Mathews

Bari Weiss, Joe Lonsdale, and Niall Ferguson have dreams of building a free speech school in Texas. Emails from a regulator reveal they aren’t authorized to call it a ‘college’

Photo illustration of college pennant torn with UATX logo. (Credit: Photo Illustration by Fortune; Getty Images)

Less than a year since its inception, the freedom-of-speech-focused University of Austin (UATX) had already gone live with a big splash of media attention, a team of heavy-hitting academic and tech executive partners, and a bullish timeline and plan to raise $250 million to rethink higher education.

“It is time to restore the meaning to those old school mottos. Light. Truth. The wind of freedom. You will find all three at our new university in Austin,” read the initial announcement, written by president Pano Kanelos and published in journalist Bari Weiss’s Substack in Nov. 2021, approximately six months after Weiss, Kanelos, venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, and the Hoover Institution’s Niall Ferguson got together to make plans for a new institution.

But there was a problem with the announcement: The terms “university” or “college” are protected in the state of Texas, and the new school wasn’t authorized to use them. In fact, UATX’s early usage of its very name, “University of Austin,” appears to have been in violation of Texas code.

That’s why, in March 2022—approximately four months after the school launched and fundraising began—a representative of Texas’ university regulatory agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), told UATX via email that it needed to stop calling itself a university.

“You also cannot use a protected term, such as ‘college’ or ‘university’ without prior approval to offer degrees in Texas,” a THECB staffer wrote to UATX in an email that is considered a public record and was obtained by Fortune. “Thank you for your commitment to documenting that the organizers of the University of Austin will take down all websites or advertising using a protected term, such as ‘university,’ until a Certificate of Authority is approved.” (“I have been assured by the IT staff at UATX... that all references to 'The University of Austin' will be removed from all web pages and digital media by early Monday morning,” a UATX consultant would write a few days later via email, and UATX has since removed most usage of the word “university” from its website, including the formal name of the school in the top left corner, and incorporated a banner on the website that it is still seeking authorization to offer degrees. Representatives for UATX, Lonsdale, Ferguson, and Brooks did not return multiple requests for comment. Weiss declined to comment.)

As UATX delves into the centuries-old, bureaucratic system of higher education, it is doing so with aggressive timelines and some initial missteps that seem more akin to a venture-backed startup than an academic institution, according to a review of more than a dozen emails obtained by Fortune as well as interviews with two people who have consulted universities through the accreditation process. 

UATX’s move-fast-and-break-things methods are a testament to the school’s very roots, as UATX’s prominent founder (and funder) is a venture capitalist and startup veteran. Lonsdale—who runs the multibillion-dollar venture firm 8VC and cofounded the data analytics company Palantir as well as the wealth management software startup Addepar—is the main financial supporter of the university, according to the Wall Street Journal, and he is chairman of UATX’s Board, according to the institution’s nonprofit registration documents. The very origins of the school itself came together at Lonsdale’s 11-bedroom home on the west side of Austin, as Fortune reported. 

The question is whether some of the school’s initial mistakes or key personnel changes will put off regulators and ultimately delay its path to legitimacy.

“They're adding up on mistakes—and what that means is everything is going to get scrutiny,” says Dr. Jennifer Wunder, a retired associate professor and associate dean who helped build Georgia Gwinnett College as a brand-new public college more than 15 years ago. 

‘Fast-moving start-up’

About a week into its launch in Nov. 2021, UATX published a note in which it described itself as a “fast-moving start-up” and acknowledged there had already been some missteps, as its website had conflated advisors, who were “not necessarily in agreement with all [of UATX’s] actions and statements,” with its founding trustees, who had created the school. 

“This led to unnecessary complications for several members of the advisory board, including Robert Zimmer and Steven Pinker, for which we are deeply sorry,” UATX said. “We fully understand their decisions to step down as advisors.”

Other departures have followed, according to changes made on the UATX website over the last year and a half—mostly from its advisory board. Photos of Vickie Sullivan of Tufts University and Lex Fridman, an A.I. researcher and podcaster, have been taken down from the UATX website (however, some new photos had been added as of mid-June). Zimmer and Pinker have previously published statements regarding their departures. Sullivan and Fridman didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

University of Chicago’s Geoffrey Stone stepped off the advisory board in October, he told Fortune in an email. “After a number of email exchanges with fellow Board members, I came to the conclusion that the University was founded with a particular ideological vision in mind. Because I firmly believe that universities should be non-ideological, I concluded that this wasn’t a good fit for me,” he wrote in the email, declining to comment further.

The most notable departure, however, has been that of evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, who was one of the school’s initial six cofounders and who had been a member of its board of directors. She resigned a few months ago over UATX's “arms-length treatment of science,” according to a letter she published in which she said someone had joked that she was the “token liberal” on the first day in May 2021—“A year and a half on, I think it an unfortunately profound observation,” she wrote. Heying submitted her resignation on Dec. 2, the same day Kanelos and Lonsdale signed UATX’s application to the THECB. (Heying did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.)

Advisors cutting ties with UATX may not make any kind of difference. But once UATX applies for accreditation, subsequent turnover at the senior administration level is something that will be monitored and could ultimately impact the timeline, according to Dr. Marty Smith Sharpe, who had worked in administration at Old Dominion University and has now served as an accreditation consultant for 11 years.

“If there’s a lot of turnover there, or if there are people that it’s not apparent [have] the qualifications, that’s a standard—that can be problematic,” she says.

But there would have to be “significant upheaval” for turnover at the board level to impact accreditation, says someone who asked not to be identified, who reviews new applications for accreditation at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), an accrediting agency for Southern states including Texas.

“Many institutions experience turnover in board membership,” they said. “If there were significant turnover in the bylaws, the structure of the board—we would certainly want to know that. It might or might not have any bearing as we move through the process itself. It depends on what kind of turnover.”

‘In the news for months already’

Four months after its public launch, emails show, an accreditation consultant for UATX met with THECB staffers and began going through the process to secure approval for UATX to offer degrees in Texas (UATX's current programs are free and not for credit or certificate, the school assured). Back-and-forth correspondence between the consultant and THECB staffers laid out steps UATX would need to take, and thanked the consultant for "continuing to point the applicant back to the rules as you consult with them to develop the application."

In one email, a THECB staffer highlighted in yellow one sentence about how schools with a limited operating history cannot initially offer a graduate degree and would have to limit programs to one area of study—restrictions that seem to conflict with early projections UATX made on its website about launching M.A. programs in 2022. The school had also said it was fundraising for graduate student scholarships on its website at the time, and it stated in 2021 nonprofit documentation reviewed by Fortune that it would award between 10 and 50 tuition scholarships for graduate studies each year.

In separate correspondence in April 2022, the consultant asked THECB staffers whether UATX's curriculum strategy would be compliant with their agency after it had already been marketing that strategy on its website.

“Is it acceptable to the Coordinating Board if a charter degree program is a single degree, with an identifiable CIP code, but which offers students multiple areas of concentration, or focus, within that single degree?” the consultant asked. “This is the thinking behind organizing UATX into several ‘Centers of Inquiry’ rather than discrete departments, schools or units.”

A separate email showed a THECB employee combating UATX’s suggestion that UATX was navigating through the “final phase of the process,” according to a Nov. 16 email seen by Fortune

“Not sure I would consider application as the final phase. Nonetheless, I am glad we are receiving an update,” a THECB staffer wrote to another THECB employee after a UATX email was forwarded to them. The staffer then noted that they should ensure leadership at the agency was aware of each step of the process as UATX had “been in the news for months already.”

After UATX submitted its application in December—an approximately 889-page document outlining its structure, policies, governance, and curriculum, among other details (a redacted copy was obtained by Fortune)—there would still be 11 subsequent steps before THECB would approve the University of Austin to start offering degrees, including a site visit, a site review report, and a recommendation from a committee that meets quarterly called the Certification Advisory Council, according to THECB policies. It’s unclear where UATX is now in the course of the process, although a THECB email indicated it would likely not be approved until the certification advisory council meeting in July 2023.

Once UATX is granted a Certificate of Authority from the THECB, it can then begin the path to accreditation, which is a required predecessor to students being able to get federal financial aid. It’s a lengthy and painstaking multi-step process where an accrediting agency evaluates everything from administration and faculty qualifications to parking spaces. 

“It's a complicated process, and it's not an easy process,” says the person who reviews applications with SACSCOC. “Documenting compliance for all of those requirements in the principles of accreditation is sort of a daunting task, particularly for institutions that have not been accredited before—that are not familiar with the process of accreditation. But with some assistance and forbearance, most of them can get there if they are persistent."

In an interview with Fortune in May, UATX president Kanelos was very upfront about the difficulties and long time frames to ultimately get accredited. “It takes about six to seven years until you get your final accreditation,” he said at the time. “You have a kind of a provisional status while you're working towards that. And this is just—this is how the system is set up. There's no way to start a new university and accelerate this process.”

The good news for UATX is that initial missteps during its certification process with the THECB probably won’t come back to bite it during the accreditation process. “We don't go into the certification process or application in Texas,” says the person who reviews applications for SACSCOC.  

Wunder, who has been closely following along as UATX undergoes the process, is skeptical of timelines that have been publicly furnished.

“Can they get the Certificate of Authority, authorizing them to operate in the state of Texas, and then enroll the students and move forward on a timeline that gets them accredited sometime between 2028 and 2029? It is possible. Yes—we did it. It can be done,” Wunder says. “I have not yet seen signs from the founders that they have the commitment to do it and do it properly.”

As Sharpe puts it: “I hope they make it through, because I think it could be the beginning of a new way to look at higher education. But they’ve got a lot of stuff they need to do to get it there.”

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