This article first appeared in the Washington Post.
Joe Lonsdale, a partner at the venture capital firm 8VC and a founder of Palantir, Epirus, Resilience and other technology companies, is a founding trustee of the University of Austin.
I’ve spent my life building companies to improve industry and society through innovation. Innovators in my position look for “conceptual gaps” between how an industry operates in practice and how it would function with better technology, processes and incentives. There are examples of these gaps everywhere — such as the dysfunctional supply chains that could be fixed with cloud computing, or the cancers that could be detected early with new and inexpensive DNA tests.
But for-profit entrepreneurship alone can’t fix one of our society’s most egregious conceptual gaps: the way we train future generations of leaders how to think. This is why we founded the University of Austin — to cultivate leaders capable of the solutions-based innovation America needs.
Since the Enlightenment, rational inquiry and the competition of ideas have advanced our civilization, even through political upheavals and the violence of the 20th century. But this process depends on leaders who can consider ideas on their merits, regardless of where they come from, and who can put aside tribal instincts to work together.
Unfortunately, today’s culture of “elite” politics, media and business in the United States is not only incurious about new ideas; it is often proudly intolerant of them. Many leaders embrace postmodern mind-sets that reject the pursuit of objectivity and common goals. They prioritize feelings and theories about power instead of rational debate. Only the most courageous leaders challenge the shibboleths of the establishment to advocate new solutions to society’s problems.
Much of the blame for this cultural rot can be laid on our universities, which have chosen ideological “safetyism” and conformity over free discourse. Diverging even slightly from the prevailing orthodoxy can destroy one’s social life and close off career opportunities. Under the threat of shunning, many of the smartest students with unconventional ideas learn that challenging the system just isn’t worth it.
The litany of incidents reflecting this toxic campus culture is now too long to recount. Even in the most sober and empirical areas of academia — the sciences — the new ideologies of intolerance are leaving their mark. Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist, was recently disinvited from a planetary science lecture at MIT and nearly lost his research and teaching privileges at his own university last year. His crime? He defended a college admissions system based purely on academic merit.
This trend would be alarming enough if it were limited to academia. But closed-mindedness is contagious. It is seeded in impressionable students who spend their formative years on these campuses, unleashed when they graduate into the workforce, and spread as they rise into leadership positions where they shape the cultures of the institutions they helm.
We see this at major American companies such as Boeing, where a newly hired executive was forced out by employees’ furor over an article he’d written more than three decades earlier, as a young Navy pilot, arguing women should not serve in combat (a position he later disavowed). At Apple, workers insisted on firing a new employee deemed guilty of wrongthink, and executives quickly joined the scapegoating, all while remaining silent about the company’s use of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region.
These same problems plague the public sector. Why can’t politicians in our major cities move beyond tired ideologies that have wrecked urban centers, increased homelessness and filled prisons? Why do our efforts to build infrastructure employ funding and labor models used in the 1930s — needlessly wasting years of time and billions of dollars? Why does our federal government pay for dozens of job training programs with mostly terrible results? The list goes on.
With a more functional leadership culture, like the culture that fuels entrepreneurship, we can do better. I think of Google, where extremist cadres scuttled projects that would contribute to our national defense as company leaders stood by and watched. This narrow-minded hostility toward the U.S. military, shared by other leading tech firms, left a huge conceptual gap. Broad-minded entrepreneurs capable of seeing national security as an important public service seized the opportunity. Now, military-technology start-ups Epirus and Anduril, where I’m proud to be an investor, have raised hundreds of millions of dollars.
Our hope is that the University of Austin will supply our country with more leaders ideologically open enough to identify and embrace new ways of approaching society’s thorniest problems. Our graduates will go forth from an environment of intellectual honesty and rigorous debate. They’ll be comfortable being uncomfortable, confident speaking their minds and willing to work around divisions.
The hair-on-fire reactions to the announcement of the University of Austin represent the fear within our leadership class of building anything that could jeopardize the status quo. Ironically, in generations past, America’s elite were at the forefront of building: They started universities, religious institutions, social organizations and other associations to fill the gaps in our civil society. We need to rekindle this generative culture among America’s rising leaders — which is exactly why the University of Austin is the innovation this moment demands.