The tweet this week announcing the startup of a new university in Texas caused a stir in West Virginia. The University of Austin (UATX) listed Gordon Gee’s name in the tweet without a further explanation of his role.
The cryptic announcement prompted questions: What is this new “university?” Is Gee going to work there? If not, why is he promoting another school when he’s the president of WVU? And isn’t this new school loading up on right wingers?
As UATX explained in the tweet, it is “A new university dedicated to the pursuit of truth.” The tweet goes on to say, “We’re done waiting for America’s universities to fix themselves, so we’re starting a new one.”
Incoming president Pano Kanelos is quoted in the Austin American-Statesman as saying the school will value and promote dissent and voices that are being canceled on many college campuses.
“The reality is that many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized,” Kanelos said.
So, it will be a higher ed pushback to the campus cancel culture.
Gee quickly explained to WVU students, faculty, staff and alumni in a letter that he is not going anywhere. “Let me state unequivocally that I am fully committed to West Virginia University.” However, he is serving in an advisory capacity to the new school.
”I have shared my insights on why I believe higher education must change,” Gee wrote. “And I have provided examples of how we are working to change higher education at West Virginia University and within the state of West Virginia.”
Perhaps what inspired Kanelos to try to draw upon Gee’s expertise is that he is among the most seasoned and recognizable college presidents in the country. He is also an advocate for the free and protected exchange of disparate ideas on campus at a time when many schools are wallowing in wokeism.
“I have always strongly felt that every campus must be a haven where all ideas can be exchanged freely in a civil and thoughtful manner,” Gee wrote. “This is the very tenet of academic freedom. I have spoken to this point frequently and remain committed to this ideal.”
Gee added that he knows “some are disappointed that I have served in this role of advisor.” Why would that be?
It is not as though WVU and the University of Austin are going to compete against each other for students. Maybe it is because Gee dares to associate himself with a startup school specifically tailored to countering the trend on college campuses to cancel speech that is unpopular or potentially offensive.
College campuses should be marketplaces of ideas, the ultimate safe space for freewheeling speech, a stage for intellectual debate and rigor. That cannot happen if faculty and students must constantly worry that they will be canceled or forced to self-censor.
Gee has never been afraid to insert himself in controversial issues, sometimes to his own detriment. Higher ed needs more respected academics in positions of power and influence to advocate on behalf of academic and intellectual freedom on college campuses.