What Universities Owe Democracy

Universities’ four core functions help liberal democracy flourish. But at this historical moment, they must do even more.

By Ronald J. Daniels

Tagged Democracyfreedom of speechHigher educationuniversity

It is almost axiomatic that authoritarian (or “would be” authoritarian) leaders are innately hostile to free and open universities. Consider, for instance, the obsessive preoccupation over much of the last decade of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán with Central European University, an institution founded and funded by Hungarian-American financier George Soros. Not only did Orbán exile the university from the country’s borders, but he also chipped away at the autonomy of the nation’s other universities and scholars, installing overseers to manage all financial decisions at public universities, aggressively censoring academic conferences, and placing the historically independent Hungarian Academy of Sciences under strict government control. In nearby Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also invoked executive decrees to arrest or fire thousands of academics, and granted himself untrammeled power to appoint the heads of public and private universities. Across the Atlantic in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro slashed university budgets and threatened to demolish programs deemed too leftist. And most recently, in Afghanistan, the American University of Afghanistan was among the first institutions to face the wrath of the Taliban when they overtook Kabul in August 2021; over half the university’s students have now been evacuated from the country.

As for the United States, there were doubtless many moments in the tumultuous four years of Donald J. Trump’s norm-shattering presidency when universities felt as though they were in the crosshairs of the President and his surrogates. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., in 2017 summed up the Administration’s public-facing attitude toward universities: “[They’ll] take $200,000 of your money; in exchange [they’ll] train your children to hate our country.” Although the Trump Administration’s rhetoric toward universities was more extreme than its actual policies, there is no denying that President Trump channeled the critical sentiments, anxieties, and resentments that his base had toward higher education, made up of many of those on the losing side of globalization’s steady march over the past several decades. This hostility manifested itself in a widening rift in partisan perceptions of the value of higher education. In 2015, Pew reported that 54 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats viewed universities and colleges as having a positive impact on the country. Four years later, in 2019, the portion of Democrats who believed the same remained almost unchanged, while the share of Republicans who viewed universities positively had collapsed to 33 percent. The yawning gap between Republicans and Democrats in their views on universities and the national interest is just one of many divisions that mark and define our highly polarized country today.

The authoritarian allergy to universities is no mystery. Everything that universities embody is inimical to the autocrat’s interest in the untrammeled exercise of arbitrary public power. They are institutions committed to freedom of inquiry, to the contestation of ideas through conversation and debate, to the formation of communities that gather and celebrate a diverse array of experiences and thought, and to individual flourishing achieved through diligent study. They rest upon a foundation of reliable knowledge and facts, which are antidotes to the uncertainty and dissimulation peddled by authoritarian regimes. They are, to quote William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, an “institution born of the democratic spirit.”

No truly great university can flourish in a society where the specter of autocratic power sows fear and distrust among its members. That much is clear. But as much as universities are dependent upon strong, vibrant democratic societies to sustain their mission, the question that is less often asked, but equally critical, is how does the university support the vibrancy of the democracy in which it is embedded? This question is urgent given the perilous state of democracy today. We now live in a moment when democracy appears to be in retreat. By any measure, the “democracy recession” that began in the mid-2000s is deepening. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s most recent Global State of Democracy Report found that nearly half of the world’s democracies “suffered declines in the previous 5 years.” According to the Varieties of Democracy Institute, 2.6 billion people now live in nations that are becoming more autocratic.

Our core democratic institutions are vital intermediaries between citizens and governments that preserve both the popular will and rule of law, performing that consequential work of fusing democracy and liberalism together. Many institutions perform this work. Some are political, like legislatures that channel the popular will into public law, courts that protect individual liberty against the overweening exercise of power, or even political parties that—in the ideal, of course—temper the excesses of public opinion by packaging diverse views into broad governing coalitions. Existing alongside these are institutions that sit outside of politics, such as the independent media that cultivate an informed electorate and serve as a watchdog over those in power, and voluntary associations like churches and community organizations through which citizens develop the customs and habits of coming together and acting toward a shared interest or enterprise. These entities hold a special relevance in promoting the common good and protecting individual liberty, and in cushioning the tensions between the many and the few. They are integral to the success or failure of liberal democracy.

Our colleges and universities are among these indispensable institutions. This is a capacity into which universities have grown over time, but it was present from the very beginnings of our democracy, a point sometimes obscured or minimized in histories of American higher education. Indeed, from the earliest days of the republic, universities were considered to be integral to the democratic project. At first, their role was seen to be limited to cultivating democratic citizens and to offering young people from a variety of backgrounds a chance at a liberal education and, perhaps, a better life. Yet the scale at which they executed these aims was vanishingly small. In 1851, there were fewer than 500 colleges serving only about 60,000 students (less than 1 percent of the population) throughout the entire United States. That fact didn’t prevent one contemporary observer from describing the United States as “a land of colleges.”

One can only imagine what he would have said today. In 2019, the United States boasted almost 4,000 postsecondary institutions—from liberal arts colleges to sprawling private and public research universities to regional colleges to community colleges to institutions that exist entirely online—educating more than 20 million students, employing 1.5 million faculty members, and receiving more than $40 billion in annual federal research funding.

As they have widened their reach, our colleges and universities have acquired additional capacities. They have come to be not only the educators of well-rounded citizens, but also certifiers of expertise, gateways to opportunity, and places of pluralistic inclusion that mirror the nation itself. Further, they produce research and knowledge that are integral to the formation of reasoned public policy and essential to checking the excesses of power. And they have harnessed their resources for the betterment of society through medicine, public health, the economic development of cities, and partnerships with communities. Truly, colleges and universities are among liberal democracy’s cornerstone institutions, and they play an indispensable role in the exercise of building, maintaining, and inspiring liberal democracy.

No truly great university can flourish in a society where the specter of autocratic power sows fears and distrust among its members.

This immense potential has been brought into clearest relief during America’s most convulsive moments. When the democratic project felt most imperiled, the nation turned to its universities to enter the breach. This was true at its founding, when George Washington called for the establishment of a national university to unite the fledgling nation under the banner of learning, and when colleges adapted their curricula and structures to the aims of forming what Thomas Jefferson called “the statesmen, legislators & judges, on whom public prosperity, & individual happiness are so much to depend.” It was true during the Civil War, when President Lincoln signed into law the first of the Morrill Land-Grant College Acts, setting into motion the creation of the sprawling system of land-grant universities that came to be known as “democracy’s colleges” and would eventually include historically Black colleges in the South, opening up opportunity for advancement for students in all parts of a fractured country and from all walks of life. It was true during the height of the Gilded Age, when rampant corruption and abject inequality threatened to sabotage the promise of democracy, and politicians enlisted academics to help them shape sweeping political and economic reforms. It was true after World War II, when—with the nation reeling from democracy’s near-demise at the hands of fascism—President Harry S. Truman turned to the nation’s universities, convening a national commission on democracy and higher education that declared “the first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.”

We stand at another such point of vulnerability. Our institutions of higher education can be neither indifferent nor passive in the face of democratic backsliding.

I believe that universities should be recognized as standing firmly among the institutions critical to securing the full promise of liberal democracy and sharing in the responsibility to protect it when its legitimacy and its durability are at risk. In fact, I maintain that few other social institutions rival the university, at its best, in the sheer breadth of its vaunted contributions to liberal democracy’s twin promises of equality and liberty. Economists have even now demonstrated through empirical study that—historically, at least—higher levels of college education have made democracies more likely to endure and autocracies more likely to democratize. The fates of higher education and liberal democracy are deeply, inextricably intertwined. With strongmen either in power or waiting in the wings and democracy in question, now is a time at which universities must purposefully and self-consciously embrace their role as one of the stewards of the liberal democratic experiment.

As the president of Johns Hopkins University—America’s first research university—for more than a decade and, before that, as provost of one its oldest universities, the University of Pennsylvania, I have had the privilege to witness time and again the immense and incredible contributions of the American university to democratic life. I have watched undergraduates from all backgrounds and all regions flourish on campuses and discover their potential as leaders and scholars. I have watched as discoveries made in laboratories and amidst library stacks are transformed into life-saving treatments for deadly diseases, or antidotes to the poison of our public discourse, or enduring policies that improve the equitable treatment of all. And I have watched people’s minds (including my own) be changed through impassioned but reasoned debate.

But I have also experienced many of the alarming trends of our democratic moment: the admissions policies we have allowed to accrue that stack the deck against talented low-and middle-income students; the ways in which our curricula have abdicated responsibility for teaching the habits of democracy; the incentives that have unintentionally hobbled the research enterprise and fostered distrust; and the hyperpolarization and self-segregation that have undercut our ability as educational institutions devoted to expressive freedom to speak to one another in a way that promotes compromise and mutual understanding.

I believe colleges and universities can enhance their capacity to contribute to liberal democratic flourishing by reinvigorating four of the core functions American higher education has acquired in the course of its history: (1) launching individuals up the socioeconomic ladder (social mobility), (2) educating citizens for democracy (civic education), (3) creating and disseminating knowledge that can check the excesses of power (stewardship of facts), and (4) cultivating the meaningful exchange of ideas across difference (pluralism). These do not represent the extent of American higher education’s connections to liberal democracy, but they are critical capacities in which our colleges and universities both have particular purchase, and in which they have unfortunately regressed.

First, social mobility. At this moment, the liberal democratic dream of equal opportunity is more elusive than ever for many in contemporary America. For most of their history, colleges and universities gradually expanded access to college for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, a feat achieved through the creation of public university systems and community colleges, through visionary legislation like the G.I. Bill and the Higher Education Act, and through massive investments in financial aid. But in the past 30 to 40 years, states have scaled back financial support for higher education, federal funding has stagnated and lost focus, and universities have embraced admissions practices that too often advantage wealthy students and disadvantage poor ones. These trends have accelerated the stratification of higher education. The solutions for addressing this dire problem will need to be far-ranging, including robust financial aid initiatives to mitigate the burdens of student debt. To start, however, universities need to eliminate legacy preferences from admissions, which continue to be an egregious example of social immobility written as policy.

Next, there is civic education. Since the founding of the United States, leaders have called for higher education to play a role in the formation of democratic citizens. For most of the nineteenth century, colleges and universities sought to develop students’ moral faculties; throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they championed training in scientific reasoning as the cure for society’s ills; and after World War II, they created ambitious general education programs to instill in students the knowledge and values of the often fraught and contested notion of a common cultural inheritance. Since the 1980s, however, the dominant paradigm for civic education at colleges and universities has been community service. This movement has been truly important and has done much to strengthen connections between students and the communities of which they are a part. But as the source of a civic education, it is incomplete because it leaves untouched a knowledge of democratic history and political institutions, as well as many of the skills necessary to engage those institutions effectively to create lasting change. To ensure that students encounter an education in democracy during their college years, colleges and universities need to establish a Democracy Requirement in the form, potentially, of a civic literacy exam, mandatory coursework, or other curricular and extracurricular requirements.

The third core function I identify is the role of universities as fact-producing and fact-checking institutions. Liberal democracies need reliable knowledge and a shared sense of truth for citizens to make informed decisions as voters and community members, for legislators to develop rational public policy, and for holding institutions like the free press, leaders, and governments to account. With the founding of our first research universities in the 1870s, American higher education has been among the most important institutions for credentialing expertise; for conducting advanced research; and for unearthing, preserving, and disseminating facts. In time, democratic societies came to embrace universities as beacons of factual truth, and government support of research across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities has unleashed countless discoveries and strengthened the university’s role as an anchor for democratic life. Yet this relationship has frayed in recent years, as questions from within and without the university have accumulated about the objectivity, legitimacy, and accuracy of the academy as a locus of truth and facts. Among the most troubling causes of this is the reproducibility crisis (the growing evidence that much scientific research cannot be replicated) that is leaving no part of the academy unaffected. The COVID-19 pandemic was a global case study in the scope and reach of scientific research, and I believe from this (still ongoing) experience we can draw lessons about how to harness technology to promote a more open science that might begin to address the broader crisis of trust in expertise.

As the university’s commitment to democracy has lapsed recently, so too has democratic governments’ commitment to universities faltered.

Finally, there is the question of diversity and speech on campus. Colleges and universities are microcosms of pluralistic, multiethnic democracy that have the capacity to model for students how to interact with one another across a vast spectrum of experiences to forge democratic compromise, consensus, and will. Our campuses today are far more diverse than in past eras, yet we do not fully or adequately encourage the interactions and exchanges across differences that are foundational to a healthy democracy. In a multitude of ways, universities have essentially given students a pass to opt out of encounters with people dissimilar from themselves. Higher education has rightly focused on promoting diversity in admissions, but it has neglected to foster pluralism once students arrive, which has given rise to an undercurrent of silencing and a dearth of substantive debate. I am convinced that the answer to this dilemma lies in a move toward a more purposeful pluralism on our campuses, undergirded by policies that drive students to have more encounters with those unlike themselves, and that then help deepen and enrich these interactions.

The United States continues to struggle with a global pandemic, a fragile liberal international order, and economic upheaval. These lead me to suspect that liberal democracy and our universities stand, as they have before, at a critical juncture. I am also convinced that there are actions that colleges and universities can take now in our admissions policies, housing policies, curricula, extracurricular programming, and faculty research that have the potential to direct our academic institutions more firmly along a democratic path and, in the process, buoy the democratic idea.

I believe the university must seize this moment to confront directly and courageously the challenges before it (and others still on the horizon) to requite its responsibility to liberal democracy. Such a project has never seemed more urgent.

Although I have spent my career thinking about the relationship between universities and democracy, I didn’t start codifying these ideas until 2017, when so many of us were becoming increasingly concerned about the various threats posed to liberal democracy in America and beyond. At the time, antidemocratic populists across the globe were ascending to power in once-secure democratic nations, and attacks on global alliances made it seem as if the liberal international order was splintering. With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I—along with so many others—watched with consternation and concern as to how (or even, more distressingly, if) the core institutions of democracy would accommodate a person whose rise had been predicated upon violating norms.

By most accounts, the state of democracy globally has not improved in the years since. It may be even more fragile. No event epitomizes the fraught nature of democracy in the United States more vividly than the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 by a riotous mob of insurgents who vandalized and ransacked the building, attacked and injured police officers, called for Vice President Mike Pence (who was in the Capitol building at the time) to be hanged for his role in officiating over the Senate’s expected approval of the Electoral College vote, and seem to have been prepared to kidnap legislators in the interest of halting the peaceful transfer of power from one elected Administration to the next. The insurrection was more than an unhinged protest against a fair and free election; it was a blow aimed at the very institutions of constitutional democracy.

In storming the Capitol building, the rioters sought both to desecrate the physical emblem of democratic process and majority rule, and disrupt a constitutional mechanism designed to ensure the orderly transfer of power. One could hardly have imagined a more fitting and tragic conclusion to a presidency defined by eroding norms and anti-institutional fervor.

Given enormities such as this, I have often been asked whether I am too optimistic in my assessment of the difference universities can make. How, many wonder, can universities overcome the obstacles of budget cuts, a global pandemic, and declining public trust? And even if they can, how will they muster the will to address their failures and change course? Or—more cynically—are American colleges and universities simply beyond repair?

To the first question, it is undeniable that colleges and universities—especially land-grant and other public colleges and universities that were conceived in the nineteenth century as “democracy’s colleges”—face serious, and perhaps even existential, problems. We would do well to remember that American colleges and universities have never acted alone in realizing their democratic obligations. At key moments, they have found an important partner in state and federal governments.

This has, in fact, been the arc across U.S. history: As the ties between the university and democracy have deepened, each has invested in the other’s sustainability, from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 that gave our country its extraordinary land-grant universities to the creation of the government-university research compact after World War II to the Higher Education Act that expanded access for low- and middle-income Americans. But just as the university’s commitment to democracy has lapsed in recent years, so too has the commitment of democratic governments to universities faltered. Now is a time when we need sweeping and progressive reinvestment by government in universities in the form of historic levels of renewed funding to academic research, public universities, and financial aid. Right now, there are signs that Congress may be taking up this challenge with new investment in research funding in the Endless Frontier Act, and Pell funding in the Build Back Better Act.

Yet even if Congress acts, will universities themselves be able to step up to the plate in support of democracy? Can they abolish legacy admissions (as I’ve recommended), establish robust civic education requirements, expand the openness and transparency of the research they conduct, and encourage more open debate on campuses? I think they can. Universities can be cumbersome, but they also have shown the capacity over time for extraordinary resiliency and renewal, especially in the face of true exigency. We are starting to see precisely this lesson in action.

This year, the University of Virginia announced a new $100 million institute for the study of democracy, joining the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins and other universities that are forming new institutes or initiatives around the democratic moment. In 2020, the University of North Carolina launched a new strategic plan with the promotion of democracy as one of its core pillars. On the admissions front, schools like Amherst College, Johns Hopkins University, and Pomona College have abolished legacy preferences in recent years, joining institutions like MIT and CalTech that do not weigh admissions decisions in favor of children of alumni. Earlier this year, alumni groups launched donation boycotts of schools that perpetuate the practice, and more than two dozen student newspapers have run op-eds calling for an end to legacy admissions. We are also seeing renewed investment in civic education. Stanford University has piloted a general education course in twenty-first-century citizenship, and Purdue University now is requiring all students to pass a civic literacy exam to graduate.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped spur efforts to reimagine how academic research institutions are delivering on their promise to bring facts to the public and governing bodies. Dozens of colleges and universities are joining a new National Academies of Sciences community of practice to expand the openness and transparency of academic research. And universities are taking more seriously their role as places of true dialogue across difference by forming new consortia to model these skills. At Johns Hopkins, we will be launching our own major initiative around campus debate and discourse next year. All of this is evidence that universities are mobilizing in response to this fragile moment for democracy.

Such trendlines give me cause for hope. But not everyone agrees. Some believe these efforts are too little and coming too late, that American colleges and universities are shattered beyond repair, and that a new model of higher education needs to take its place. There is no clearer example of this than the University of Austin, the new university dedicated to “the fearless pursuit of truth” that was announced in November 2021 to no small amount of commotion and controversy.

In an essay announcing its existence and articulating its mission, its founders unleashed a series of unbridled, hyperbolic attacks on other colleges and universities, describing them as “broken” and “rotten” and as hotbeds of “illiberalism” and “indoctrination.” At times, the launch seemed less a statement of mission than a manifesto giving voice to the eddies of frustration and even rage at institutions coursing throughout American thought and culture.

I confess that I do not recognize the institutions the University of Austin founders described. Their characterization simply does not comport with my experience. It also elides one of the most extraordinary aspects of American colleges and universities: their exceptional diversity. Indeed, American higher education is not a monolith but a rich tapestry comprised of liberal arts colleges, regional public universities, denominational colleges, two-year community colleges, and public and private research universities with extensive doctoral programs. This diversity is a source of strength for the sector and for our country, and it will help to generate the responses we need to the democratic recession. I hope the University of Austin delivers on its promise to add to that variety, and I welcome them to the vast experiment that is higher education in the United States.

Still, the University of Austin announcement is a sign that universities have a long way to go to win back public trust and restore their diminished role as bulwarks of democracy. I believe universities are places of extraordinary promise and renewal. They are places not to be discarded, but renewed. If, as I have argued, universities stand among the institutions indispensable to liberal democracy, then it is crucial that they act in a manner that is commensurate with this obligation.

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Ronald J. Daniels is the president of Johns Hopkins University and the author of What Universities Owe Democracy, from which this essay was adapted.

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