Don’t Save the Canary, Fix the Coal Mine

Introducing the Universidad de las Hespérides, a classical-liberal startup university.

Quite a few scholars have written in favor of developing new institutions of higher education, since most of our current ones have been captured by ideological activists. For example, in this Martin Center article, Robert Wright advocates a “parallel university system.”

On that score, there is some good news—it’s happening.

The Universidad de las Hespérides is a start-up, online, classical-liberal endeavor. It is an exciting exercise in academic entrepreneurship, combining virtual courses for students around the globe, a blend of synchronous and asynchronous classes, and rigorous scientific inquiry that is firmly based in an appreciation for the philosophical and institutional foundations of a free society.

The new college is firmly based in an appreciation for the philosophical and institutional foundations of a free society.Hespérides is an offshoot of Universidad Francisco Marroquin (UFM). UFM was founded in Guatemala City in 1971 by academic entrepreneur and former Mont Pelerin Society president Manuel “Muso” Ayau. Muso was horrified by the statism and mediocrity of Guatemala’s universities. So he founded his own, with $40,000 and 125 students, around the free-market Centro de Estudios Económico-Sociales (CEES).

The CEES motto says it all: por una sociedad libre, sin coercion ni privilegios (“for a free society, without coercion or privileges”). UFM, meanwhile, now offers 24 undergraduate degrees, from medicine to economics and from architecture to political science, along with the same number of master’s degrees and a handful of doctorates.

It has two satellite campuses, in Panama City and Madrid. The university’s mission is “to teach and disseminate the ethical, legal, and overall economic principles of a society of free and responsible persons.” It has become a beacon of liberty in Latin America. Every time I visit the campus, I bump into old friends in the liberty movement, from Argentina to Mexico.

Current Mont Pelerin Society president Gabriel Calzada was the chancellor of UFM from 2013 to 2021. In 2021, he returned to his native Spain to start the Universidad de las Hespérides, an endeavor he began fully 16 years ago. That is indeed how long it took to navigate the Spanish bureaucracy and political system. The many hurdles set up by educrats in Brussels and Madrid caused multiple delays, but Calzada persevered, and his dream became a reality with the late-2023 launch of classes.

Dr. Calzada notes that the cumulative total of administrative filings amounted to 105,000 pages, containing 42 million words. There is a movement afoot to make a 70-foot sculpture of the piled-up papers to represent bureaucracy—and to place it on the university’s tiny campus in the Canary Islands (a Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa).

The model is innovative. The university’s virtual nature allows students from across the world to pursue an education (currently a BA or an MA, but PhD programs are in the works). My students are primarily from Spain and the Americas, but I also have one who lives in Central Asia.

This is not a shoot-and-forget model of virtual education.But this is not a shoot-and-forget model of virtual education. Over the span of a 15-week semester, professors offer a blend of synchronous classes, asynchronous classes, and tutorials. Twenty asynchronous classes are recorded in a professional studio and broken down into a series of short videos of three to seven minutes. Six synchronous classes in the semester offer the chance for interaction and discussion and are augmented by four tutorials.

This inaugural year, the university has welcomed about 180 students. Tuition is 3,500 Euros ($3,850) per year for undergraduates and 6,000 to 9,000 Euros ($6,600 to $9,900) for graduate programs.

I am a parched man, emerging from a dozen years in an academic desert and drinking deeply from the exciting intellectual oasis of Hespérides. I was spoiled by my first academic job at Hillsdale College, with its small classes, curious students, and joint faculty-student inquiry into the big questions. I left because of the dark, cold winters. I subsequently wandered for the past decade through an academic desert of woefully unprepared and lazy students. I endured mollycoddling administrations who didn’t give a fig for teaching but were terribly interested in tuition revenue and the latest academic fads, from Assurance of Learning to Quality Enhancement Plans and from grade inflation to customer service.

Such pathologies are not surprising given the state of academia. See, for example, Jason Brennan and Phil Magness’s book on academic rot, Cracks in the Ivory Tower. Brennan and Magness document the mediocrity and moral mess of a higher-education industry that has been gutted and perverted by educrats, education majors, and fake PhDs (“EdDs”), as well as state subsidies and the moral hazard of federally backed loans.

The Universidad de las Hespérides avoids all of that.

I love teaching. Let me say that again. I love teaching. It is not mere penance for a salary and the opportunity for research. It is a vocation I have discerned over the years. I have drunk deeply of Father Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, Father James V. Schall, C.S. Lewis, Gilbert Highet, Paul Heyne, Plato, the Foundation for Teaching Economics, William F. Buckley, and John Henry Cardinal Newman on the purpose of a university, as well as several workshops on teaching.

My students’ thirst for liberty is unsurprising given the university’s motto, “Free to learn how to be free.”I am called to kindle flames if not fill vessels. I routinely sing the first verse of “Gaudeamus Igitur,” the international student song, in my classroom, then play Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture as I explain to students that I am inviting them into a conversation into which I was once invited, with thinkers living and dead. In the words of Leo Strauss, “liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful.”

I have found a home at Hespérides. I have already been called a communist, if in jest, by a student who is horrified that I don’t (quite) share her anarcho-capitalist beliefs. My students’ thirst for liberty is unsurprising given the university’s motto, “Free to learn how to be free.”

I have already published a short article with a former student. Each class is a joy of mentoring budding peers. I have pushed my limits by teaching microeconomics in Spanish, and the students are generous with me as I come to them as both a scholar (of economics) and a student (of their native tongue).

This semester, I am teaching a graduate course in advanced microeconomics, where we learn and question the tenets of the neoclassical framework, using discussion tools from Austrian and behavioral economics. I have also just completed a course on research methods, where my students have written superb op-eds and literature reviews. I have invited Dr. Megan Teague of West Chester University (Pennsylvania) to discuss the power and limits of quantitative methods and Dr. Donald R. Boudreaux of George Mason University (one of my dissertation advisers) to discuss the craft of writing.

Hespérides’s founders are well aware of the pathologies of the modern university. Echoing Paul Heyne’s warning several decades ago, Dr. Calzada refers to the “non-aggression agreement” between many university professors and university students: I will give you good grades and minimal work if you give me good evaluations and the time to write. Hespérides, in the tradition of Universidad Francisco Marroquin, is conscious about maintaining quality teaching and open discussion, eschewing both the mediocrity and the cancel culture that have plagued so many contemporary universities.

Check it out: The university offers a beacon of hope for higher education. If you’re convinced and share my optimism, consider endowing a chair or a scholarship fund. Send us your students. And maybe audit a class.

And by the way, the Hesperides were the nymphs of evening, the golden hour, and the West—and hence also of the Canary Islands, which were the westernmost part of the known Greek world. I had to look it up.

Nikolai G. Wenzel is professor of economics at the Universidad de las Hespérides, where he directs the M.A. in economics (English-language). He is an associate research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.