Back to The Future of a Higher-Minded Austin With a New University Devoted to That Idea

Brett A. Hurt
15 min readApr 2, 2023

I’ll give the benefit of doubt to the new University of Austin (UATX), which can bring together a young MAGA Republican and a student activist in Black Lives Matter and help them listen to one another, politely debate, and even find a bit of common ground.

It’s a hard thing to define, this “Austin ethos”, of culture, music, livability, and a progressive outlook, all coming together for decades to make our city such a unique place. But an even harder challenge, we are discovering, is protecting and nurturing these abstract but very real civic virtues to help us chart the future amid breathtaking change — from the metamorphosing skyline to endless transportation woes to the transformation of the economy.

As a native of this city, I’m proud that we’re a microcosm in many ways of the best of future-focused America. At the same time, I have a growing concern that we also are becoming a microcosm of our nation’s new failings, in particular with the collapse of civility, the instincts of polarization, and the us-versus-them attitudes that frame so many uncompromising debates. I hardly need to mention how this collapse into grievous division is smothering us nationally, or even internationally. While writing this essay, the Wall Street Journal posted a poll finding that just 58% of Americans believe that tolerance for others is very important, down from 80% just four years ago. Sadly, the mood here is similar to this malaise at our doorstep.

Just look at our December mayoral election, which essentially cleaved our city in two over contested visions for the future. Not even a percentage point was left dividing the winner and loser when it was over. And despite the fact that almost everyone I encounter has strong opinions on the future of our city’s direction, just 16.5% of registered voters turned up to vote, leading my favored candidate, now Mayor Kirk Watson, to win by just 942 votes.

So I want to call out a new Austin institution that I believe has the potential to help us bridge the growing perspective gap and turn our ethos of the past toward the task of building the future. This is UATX, a new nonprofit building that will be called “the University of Austin”, dedicated to the pursuit of truth through competing ideas, views, and even ideologies. UATX held its first challenge to academic orthodoxy last summer with an 80-student seminar dubbed the “Forbidden Courses”. More than one of many national headlines has disparaged the project as an “anti-woke university”, a pet project of right-wingers and libertarians. But frankly, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to an endeavor that can bring together a young MAGA Republican and a student activist in Black Lives Matter and behold them listening to one another, politely debating, and even finding some bit of common ground. That’s UATX.

UATX plans to welcome its first full freshman class fall of 2024, in temporary space downtown until they can move to a new campus outside of Austin. With around $100 million raised so far, recruitment of faculty from leagues both Ivy and non-Ivy, as well as top students, UATX is proceeding apace. I’m prompted to share my views on the importance of this new institution after listening to a talk on March 22 by founding President Pano Kanelos.

“This is the time to build,” said Kanelos, explaining their plans to ban tenure, ditch doctoral requirements for professors, offshore most administrative functions to keep the campus focused on academics, and double down on a commitment to free speech. “We’re building an institution that transcends politics.”

More on all of that and transcendence in a moment, but first, I want to offer up a bit of context on the way our “Austin ethos” has uniquely shaped our civic institutions, and how we, in turn, have been shaped by them.

There are many transcendent institutions born of this Austin ethos, and not just the obvious SXSW or Austin City Limits that in so many ways define our global brand. For as important as these are, we are pioneers and innovators in so many more ways, birthing institutions whose presence here is no coincidence. The decision by the founders of a new national education initiative, among them some of the intellectual heavyweights of our time, including former Harvard President Larry Summers, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, The Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, economist and podcaster extraordinaire Tyler Cowen, and former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, is no coincidence either.

To be sure, my many progressive friends may be breathing fire in response to this essay, noting the early financial backer was recent Austin transplant (and also my friend) Joe Lonsdale, the co-founder of Palantir Technologies and the venture investment firm 8VC, someone certainly emblematic of many of the resented newcomers from California. Joe is a recovering Californian and he is on the irascible side of moderate — though he opposed Donald Trump and is a donor to both parties. But the notion that a right-wing cabal has somehow co-opted President Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser, the former head of one of the nation’s oldest civil rights and free speech organizations, and a former top diplomat and civil rights icon who was with Martin Luther King Jr. when assassinated in 1968? Really?

From my perspective as an Austin native, born here in 1972, this is all so normal to me. Welcoming the iconoclast, the questioner, the dissident, even the rebel, is what we do best in Austin!

I think of the Dell Medical School at the venerable University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater), founded just a few years ago, in 2016, as the nation’s first medical school devoted to preventative medicine, which is challenging the very economic model of healthcare in America. It also hosts another pioneering effort, the Center for Psychedelic Research & Therapy, focused on the use of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to help in particular veterans and victims of childhood trauma. The New York Times explored these promising therapies in a recent episode of The Daily podcast.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Dell Medical School and its pioneering efforts would happen at a great public university whose signature slogan is, “What starts here changes the world.” I love the University of Texas at Austin deeply (I also love my other alma mater, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where I earned my MBA). I love UT not only as an alumnus, but also as the grandson of James Mann Hurt, a proud UT Austin professor of advanced mathematics who taught there his entire career (well, with only a one-year diversion as a professor at USC). Books on UT’s role in making Austin Austin could fill a small library. But one chronicle in particular, City in a Garden — Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth Century Austin, Texas, by historian Andrew M. Busch, is a read I highly recommend. It traces the origins of our emergence as a “knowledge city” back far earlier than most accounts, to a 1948 roadmap produced for the city by New York planning consultant Richardson Wood. Wood correctly saw UT as our chief economic asset. With this type of history, I think we can make room for at least one more pioneering institution of higher learning.

A great deal is deservedly made these days of our role as the hub of the nation’s emerging public media ecosystem. At the center of that is the Texas Tribune, founded in 2009 to become the country’s most emulated public journalism project. Out of this grew The 19th. Inspired by the 19th amendment that gave white women the right to vote (there is an asterisk in The 19th’s logo to remind you that it took much longer to enable women of color to win the same), The 19th is dedicated to giving a voice to those underrepresented in mainstream media. I’ve long been a supporter of both publications. But it’s important to recall that neither is our city’s first media rodeo. I would date our role as a trailblazing media hub to 1954, with the founding of the liberal Texas Observer at the height of the McCarthy era, two years before UT admitted its first Black undergraduates. Whatever you might think of its politics, you’ve got to hand it to that feisty little magazine, with a cover story this month on Christian nationalists. (Sadly, as I was writing this essay, word broke that the Texas Observer was closing its doors. But then, in another testament to Austin’s Higher Mind, an active effort to save it happily succeeded three days later.)

These are a few examples of our profound civic ecosystem. Additionally, we’ve become the global hub of the stakeholder-focused Conscious Capitalism movement championed by Whole Foods founder John Mackey. That movement is part and parcel with the explosion of public benefit corporations, or “B Corporations”, that incorporate social responsibility into bylaws and make shareholder and stakeholder values equivalent duties of board governance. My company data.world is a proud Certified B Corp.

Mackey and his supermarket, of course, also brought vegetarianism, health food, and organics into the mainstream; after launching as a scrappy startup 42 years ago, the grocery now owned by eCommerce pioneer Amazon has over 500 stores throughout America, Canada, and the UK.

Our “creation culture”, as mentioned tracing to 1948 and built around UT, is a litany of icons. Electronics maker Tracor was founded here in 1955 by a group of UT professors, and two decades later was the first Austin company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. IBM came here in 1967. Motorola followed in 1974 and three years later, UT founded the IC² Institute to explore the human and technological factors in economic development. The Institute, in turn, founded the Austin Technology Incubator, today the oldest tech incubator in the country, with countless startup successes to its credit.

Dell Inc., founded by Michael Dell in 1984 in his UT dorm room, is not only the $100-plus billion computer maker we’re all familiar with today. Dell also refined and brought to the world the “build-to-order” movement, in which a product is tailor-made after it is ordered by the customer. This has the benefit of a cashflow cycle where you collect a customer’s money upfront, which has obvious financial advantages and led to a historic IPO when Dell went public just four years later in 1988. It’s a practice now common in the manufacturing of many computers, bicycles, EVs like Tesla, and even books, like the one I published last year, The Entrepreneur’s Essentials, available for free online and also via Amazon’s “print-on-demand” technology.

I could go on, of course, to mention so many companies that are tributaries to the river of startups that have made Austin a global technology hub, including Capital Factory, Motive, HomeAway, Bazaarvoice, ZenBusiness, Everly Health, ICON, Colossal Biosciences, WP Engine, Indeed, AlertMedia, Trilogy, Tivoli, and of course my current love, data.world.

Binding this all together, it goes without saying, is our cultural creativity, predicated on a music scene that is itself a fusion of so many diverse elements, from the rock of Janice Joplin who got her start at Threadgills on North Lamar, to musical iconoclasts Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and others who challenged Nashville a half century ago to create what became known as “outlaw country”. All made in Austin.

Now I apologize for belaboring Austin history. But I think this background is important in order to ponder a question that has long bedeviled many a local philosopher: Just how did a blue college town in a red state, far from either of our cosmopolitan coasts, become the progressive, innovative outlier standing against the often mean-spirited politics elsewhere in Texas, the nation’s fastest-growing city, and a music, tech, and now filmmaking mecca? Sadly it’s a question now paired with another question that I implied at the outset: Is this vivid portrait of which we’re all so proud in danger of fading to black?

“Austin forty years ago was like a graduate student with modest tastes and few resources,” wrote longtime resident Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a marvelous and hotly debated account of Austin’s transformation in February’s New Yorker magazine. “Now she’s sporting jewels and flying first class.”

A less reasoned take on the subject — one that I disagree with to be sure — came in the January issue of the Texas Monthly, which coupled an incendiary slam on the state of Austin with the presentation of the magazine’s annual “Bum Steer Award”, given each year to one of “the dopes, villains, and terrible ideas that bedeviled our beloved state over the past twelve months”. In winning, we even edged out runners-up Herschel Walker and Louie Gohmert.

“The city has witnessed a seismic shift not only in its skyline and its population but in its spirit,” the magazine angrily wrote, saying (among other things), that Austin is now little more than a “playground for rich out of towners…”

Such is the new tenor of our civic dialogue. I’ll step into the vortex of the growing “cancel culture” debate in schools on another day. But suffice it to say that the intolerance engulfing universities, a focus of the UATX initiative, is of a piece with all the other cultural battlegrounds we witness today — including the invective-laced arguments about Austin.

This gets to another book, however, which I think sheds light on Austin’s questions past and present, as well as the challenges that Kanelos’ new university, UATX, is attempting to confront: What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies, by Tim Urban. I’ve been waiting for this book ever since Urban discussed his thesis around it years ago (his talk at the All-In Summit is a good place to start). “Trust, the critical currency of a healthy society, is disintegrating. And these trends seem to be happening in lots of societies, not just my own,” Urban writes in this complex but highly accessible book.

His essential argument is that we’re trapped between our biological brains, what he calls our “Primitive Mind”, evolutionarily hardwired for the tribal world of 10,000 years ago, and our evolved and intentional consciousness, our tolerant and creative “Higher Mind”, that we’ve willed into being despite ourselves in the last few hundred years. When we’re operating in our Higher Mind, we’re civil and productive; when stressed, as rapid change and the fear-generating algorithms of social media take over, we’re pulled down into the paleolithic, suspicious mind of old.

“…the Higher Mind’s goal is to get to the truth, while the Primitive Mind’s goal is confirmation of its existing beliefs,” Urban writes. “These two very different types of intellectual motivations exist simultaneously in our heads.”

A further analogy of Urban’s is that the Higher Mind is the realm of the “Idea Lab”, an environment of collaborative and high-rung thinking. “Idea Labs value independent thinking and viewpoint diversity,” Urban argues. This, for me, is a pretty good description of the Austin with which I’ve been familiar for five decades now.

In contrast, Urban ponders, is the domain of the “Echo Chamber”, the realm of group-think and conformity. “In an Echo Chamber, falling in line with the rest of the group is socially rewarded… Express the wrong opinion on God, abortion, patriotism, immigration, race, or capitalism in the wrong group and you may be met with an explosive negative reaction.” This, I’m afraid, is not just a national malady. Austin as Echo Chamber is our true enemy.

Considered in this way, UATX, Kanelos, Austin, and pretty much all of us are trying to crack the same code, and Urban may have indeed cracked it. It was fun to listen to him at TED as well as on Lex Fridman’s podcast (Fridman is, you guessed it, based in Austin now, along with the infamous podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan). A younger, simpler, slower Austin could relish and even cherish differences and diversity, even amid our own unresolved issues of segregation, and even — or perhaps because of — the reality that we live in a state not exactly famous for tolerance.

Our own Willie Nelson may have cracked this code even earlier. In a 2010 interview he reflected on Austin, in a way channeling the future institution and founding of UATX, in well, a more “Willieesque” manner:

“It’s people drinking beer, smoking pot, and finding out that they have things in common and don’t really hate each other. Music gives people a chance to enjoy something together.”

Willie came to mind as I was listening to Kanelos that evening a week and a half ago. If you’re worried about a university being dominated by thinkers on the left, the answer is not to create a university dominated by thinkers on the right, Kanelos said. Rather, the goal should be a forum where all views can be shared and challenged without fear, and without rancor.

This is what his project is all about. All views will be welcome, from both students and faculty. UATX won’t have peer-reviewed tenure, which Kanelos argued does not protect free speech so much as it produces, even inadvertently, intellectual conformity. “Like begets like, faculty hire their own,” he said. Rather, job security and freedom of speech will be accomplished with binding arbitration.

Doctorates for professors won’t be mandatory. A passion for inquiry, however, will be a requirement. The first two years of students’ studies will be focused on a liberal arts curriculum; the final two years on application of that knowledge on a turbo-charged, doubling down in fields such as entrepreneurship, public policy, education, and engineering. And a four-year ambitious project is established at the beginning by entering students, fostering an entrepreneurial, Tikkun Olam spirit (the Judaic goal of repairing and improving the world).

Admissions will not be going the way of many schools today, which are scrapping college boards and academic standards. UATX will want to evaluate your SAT or ACT scores and prides itself on placing merit front and center. UATX is also developing a talent network that connects UATX students, graduates, and faculty with pioneers in key industries around the globe (from tech to the arts). These companies and business leaders will help the school design industry-relevant curricula, and eventually provide internships and jobs to its students and graduates.

Personally, I’m excited to recruit graduates from UATX, as I did from another innovative Austin university, the Acton School of Business. Acton had a very entrepreneurial focused and intense MBA program that was active from 2002–2019. I’ve had Acton Academy graduates work at both Bazaarvoice and data.world and have been impressed with their performance. Debra and I have also backed Acton graduates, including Adelle Archer, co-founder and CEO of Eterneva, the diamonds-from-ashes company that Mark Cuban is also involved in.

UATX is hardly a magic bullet, and our problems are deep. We have a housing shortage here, and we’ll need Jason Ballard and ICON’s challenge to build 3D-printed homes for $99,000. Our city is getting more and more expensive and it’s harder for artists to remain; this is the capital of live music, after all, and I applaud initiatives like the Austin Music Movement, launched by Gary Keller, the iconic founder of Keller Williams Realty. We have a rift in our community on how to achieve better policing for our community, and we are still reeling from the murder of George Floyd. Mayor Watson and Chief of Police Joseph Chacon are striving to find common ground in our rapidly growing city. We have politically-charged policies that are making Capital Factory CEO Josh Baer, myself, and other tech leaders nervous about the future of business here; we launched our “Don’t Mess with Texas’ Innovation” initiative in 2021.

There are many solutions on the horizon, and Austin is always innovating. Venture capital investor Fifth Wall, a fellow B Corp, last year closed on its half billion dollar Climate Fund to decarbonize the real estate industry — producer of 40% of climate change emissions. It may be a drop in the bucket in the face of what is estimated to be an $18 trillion challenge, but it’s the largest private fund yet focused on the building sector. Headed by co-founder Brendan Wallace, who is based here, it’s the latest bold bet in Austin.

So, you made it this far. Why have I spent so much time on UATX when I’m so busy running data.world, our investments, and doing my best to be a good husband and father? Truth be told, I was really inspired by Kanelos’ talk and it seemed all too Austin to me, like a really nice-fitting boot (I’m a fan of Austin-grown newcomer Chisos if you were wondering). If you are in the camp that immediately wrote UATX off as “anti-woke” during its 48-hour Twitter storm, without actually investigating what it was all about, then please check yourself. Give it a chance and be intellectually more curious than that. Go see Kanelos talk and actually listen to his message and values. Look at the diversity and intellectual horsepower of people involved on their Board of Advisors.

Let’s treat derogatory uses of the terms “woke” and “anti-woke” as two sides of the same problem. We need to think about the future with our collective Higher Mind, as Urban would challenge us to foster. I really believe that Austin has always been about the development of the Higher Mind. I’ve seen that spirit since I was born here, and there is a beautiful Austin ethos of building each other up that I’ve both embraced since I can remember, and also benefited from (I was being helped by the 18-year-old programming “elders” back when I was 10-years old and my mom was dropping me off at meet-ups to learn from each other). Perhaps UATX is the intellectually-driven Higher Mind institution that will continue Austin’s advance into a more collaborative future where we seek truth, authenticity, and fearless innovation. I’m willing to give it that chance.

Are you?

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Brett A. Hurt

CEO and Co-founder, data.world; Co-owner, Hurt Family Investments; Founder, Bazaarvoice and Coremetrics; Henry Crown Fellow; TEDster; Dad + Husband