Philanthropy Roundtable’s Free to Give campaign elevates the voices of everyday Americans who have dedicated their careers to supporting those in need. Their work is made possible by the freedom of all Americans to give to the causes and communities they care about most.
The Roundtable recently sat down with Pano Kanelos, founding president of the University of Austin (UATX), and Chad Thevenot, the university’s vice president of advancement. The conversation centered around the university’s mission to create a higher education system that values and promotes freedom of speech and civil discourse at a time when universities are increasingly accused of censorship on campuses.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell us about the University of Austin and the mission behind it.
Kanelos: The University of Austin is a newly founded private, nonprofit university, and our intention is to become a top-tier research university in the country. We will begin undergraduate programs in the fall of 2024 and build out from there. Our mission is simple: to renew higher education by addressing several of the interwoven crises the sector is currently facing.
The first is a crisis of principle. We see constant infighting and hateful rhetoric on campuses across America simply for having differing opinions. At UATX, we affirm the purpose of higher education is about the advancement, transmission and preservation of knowledge. Our preconditions for fulfilling this mission are open inquiry, freedom of consciousness and civil discourse. We believe universities need to commit to freely circulating ideas to create a community of open conversation. Our free society depends upon the discussion and debate of important topics so that we can be well-informed, and thus, universities should be a model of that.
The second crisis is the financial model of higher education. We are all aware the price of higher education has risen precipitously, outpacing not only inflation, but also the ability of families to pay for that education. We’re seeing the problems of massive student loan debt as well. At the same time, a significant number of universities are financially unstable, unable to carry out their own missions because they’re on the brink of financial failure. At UATX, we are rethinking the entire financial structure of higher education; how universities do what they do, in the most cost-effective manner possible, while still delivering a first-class education.
Lastly, we’re facing a curricular crisis. Older universities haven’t changed their curricula in well over a century, since we saw the rise of research models in higher education. The founding of schools like the University of Chicago, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University, led to current templates for higher education, including the idea that you must have major apartment complexes and scholarly research facilities. We think it’s time to challenge those dynamics, and to reflect upon the fast-changing world we’re living in today to ensure we’re preparing the next generation for success.
Q: For donors who want to get more involved with higher education, what distinguishes UATX from others?
Kanelos: One of the great strengths of the United States has always been our entrepreneurialism, our ability to innovate and to create new institutions. Higher education is in dire need of innovation. It is unbelievably difficult to start a new university, from getting authorization from the state, to being accredited, to bringing in the money necessary to launch it. Despite these challenges, the University of Austin is showing we can create competitive new institutions, and it’s my hope that other new institutions will follow in our wake. The advent of new institutions created with different missions, all approaching higher education from different directions, will strengthen the system. For donors, their gifts will mean more than those to legacy institutions who are incapable of creating models that will challenge and enrich the system. We have a great opportunity here at UATX with the creation of a new, innovative university dedicated to graduating top-tier educated students.
Q: What type of impact do you foresee your university making in the future?
Kanelos: I’ve spent my entire career in higher education, and I’ve witnessed time and time again much room for improvement. Our achievements will be the model example of institution building. It will be a huge sign of success for us when, decades from now, we look around and we have dozens of competitors. Our country and our society need individuals who build new organizations, found exemplary businesses and innovate in technology and the arts. As an institution that is dedicated to helping higher education evolve, we are dedicated to graduating thousands of people who have the ambition to change the world. I strongly believe that ripple of change will have a huge impact on our society for the better.
Q: How can donors give to the University of Austin?
Thevenot: It’s completely up to the donor. As a university, there are a multitude of ways folks can give. Many of our donors have a specific interest in where they want their money going: from student scholarships to faculty life, to general operating funding, as well as planned gifts, so there’s a wide range of giving options available.
Q: There are policymakers in Washington, D.C., who are trying to limit the tools donors can utilize to give freely. Does this concern you?
Kanelos: We recently had an experience regarding the freedom to give with one of our donors, in fact. We have a significant donor who lives in the Netherlands and who has graciously supported us from day one. Recently, the Netherlands changed its laws around philanthropy to limit the amount of money any foundation or individual can give to an organization to roughly $250,000 USD per year. That limitation makes it much more difficult for Dutch charitable organizations to operate on any viable scale. It’s a direct overreach of government that has essentially caused the entire system of private philanthropy to collapse in the Netherlands. Fortunately, I don’t foresee anything that extreme in the United States, though it does demonstrate the system can be vulnerable to federal government intervention and overreach. We must be mindful of the consequences that would occur should further regulations be placed on the charitable sector.
Q: Do you believe new restrictions on giving vehicles like donor-advised funds (DAFs) would impact charitable donations to the University of Austin? Would some people be less likely to give if they were not able to do so anonymously?
Thevenot: Absolutely. Many of our donors utilize DAFs, and national data shows more and more people are choosing them as their preferred vehicle of giving. The National Philanthropic Trust came out with a 2022 report that shows the number of DAF accounts rose from less than half a million in 2017 to almost 1.3 million in 2021. I strongly believe donor privacy reasons were a major factor. So, there’s absolutely no question that additional restrictions would hinder charitable giving across the board. It’s simple: limit the privacy donors have, and you’ll see fewer donors over time.
Q: Why is donor privacy important to your mission and do you foresee any remaining threats following the Supreme Court’s decision in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v Bonta?
Kanelos: The Supreme Court ruling was very encouraging, not only for the sake of donors, but for the communities that nonprofit organizations are uplifting with their support. This was a huge win for charitable organizations and American philanthropy. After all, there is certainly no constitutional reason to limit the privacy of charitable donors. With that, I don’t necessarily foresee any significant legislative threats coming anytime soon, though if there are any, this ruling clearly sets precedent for that.
Q: We have talked about the importance of philanthropic freedom for donors, but as a new organization, what sort of regulatory hurdles did you or do you face that have made it difficult to establish UATX?
Kanelos: The primary regulatory hurdle of universities is accreditation. This system is designed to take a very long time, typically six to eight years, for a new university to be fully accredited, though you’re required to be up and running before you can get accreditation status. It’s a huge challenge to get donors to fund the university and to get students to enroll before you’re accredited, just to prove you’re worthy of it. Nevertheless, the strategy we have in place has been incredible and I’m grateful to everyone involved. If the process was easier to manage, I’m positive we would see more competition in higher education. Thankfully, donors understand it’s an issue we must face, and while they don’t like it any more than we do, we have some phenomenally devout donors who are here for the long haul because they know how important this is to our society.
Q: Why do you believe protecting the freedom to give is important?
Kanelos: If we, as Americans, believe we have the right to live as we choose, we should believe in the freedom to give to charities as we choose. Any compromise is an attack on our right to believe what we want to believe and be who we want to be. There also needs to be a hard line between one’s private and professional lives. Where one gives his money shouldn’t have any bearing on his professional life. There needs to be a firewall to protect everyone’s freedom to give to the charities they support.
Thevenot: If society pressures us to agree with only conventional practices, then we’ll lose the ability to innovate and to have divergent opinions. A one-size-fits-all strategy has never worked and never will. If we have a one-dimensional toolset, we’ll lose everything that makes us Americans. Philanthropy is where you have different people with different ideas going into society to fix the issues we’re facing, and that’s what makes it so great!
View more stories about the importance of philanthropic freedom at FreeToGive.org.