From Inside Higher Education:
Academe’s Neglected Responsibility
Our higher education institutions, which ostensibly are committed to the search for truth, are sitting on the sidelines as we watch democracy lose to fascists, argues William G. Tierney.
December 6, 2021
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In 2019, the Brookings Institution published the monograph “The Democracy Playbook: Preventing and Reversing Democratic Backsliding.” The text outlined the democratic recession that is at work in the world and put forward numerous suggestions about what important actors, such as legislatures and journalists, might do to ensure that democracy is safeguarded. Then, in 2020, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy in the 21st Century.” As with the Brookings monograph, it made useful suggestions for the reinvigoration of democracy.
Tellingly, neither monograph mentioned what postsecondary institutions or those of us who work in the academy should do to help advance democracy and slow the growth of fascism. As with many others, the reports primarily argue that democracy is at risk and we must take aggressive steps to speak and act on behalf of it.
I agree. But what troubles me is that our colleges and universities are sitting on the sidelines as we watch democracy lose to fascists. As institutions that ostensibly are committed to the search for truth, they should be central to the efforts to protect and enhance democracy.
I appreciate the significant fiscal, social and learning consequences that the pandemic has had on postsecondary education. When we face a crisis, however, we call on high-performance organizations and individuals to do more — not stay the course. Academe can go about its way and try to regroup after the pandemic year and not worry about the democratic recession the world, and the United States, face. For those of us, however, who see the rise of fascism as an overarching threat, then colleges and universities have to respond in more robust ways than we have done.
What might be a collective response? If we look to the four key groups on any campus — the board of trustees, the president and senior leadership, the faculty, and the students — the path is clear.
The board of trustees. Trustees garner attention when they are either asleep at the wheel or focus on singular hot-button issues. Pennsylvania State University’s Board of Trustees is perhaps the clearest example of being apparently disconnected from the activities on the campus during the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Presumably because of the board’s deference to the president, they seemed to have no idea of the problems that existed.
The University of North Carolina’s board of trustees has distinguished itself first by worrying about where a Confederate monument should be placed and then by refusing to offer tenure in the journalism school to an African American Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur fellow. Some boards are either falling in lockstep with, or afraid of, Republican administrations that want to deny requirements that students and faculty wear masks and get vaccinated. Other boards want to insert themselves as masters of the curriculum by telling faculty what they can and cannot teach, such as critical race theory. And more recently, the University of Florida tried to curtail academic freedom by denying faculty the right to testify in their areas of expertise until protests led it to reverse its decision.
Boards ostensibly hold the trust of the institution. Those that want to support democracy should explicitly state that they encourage their president and faculty to speak and write about democracy. They should encourage faculty members to engage in difficult dialogues on the campus and in the community. They might offer explicit support of the shared governance model of decision making. Boards who offer support for dissent and encourage communication about difficult topics are focusing on the true purpose of academic life rather than on the political topic of the moment.
The president and senior leadership. Presidents are shy about using the bully pulpit — either because they do not want to run into trouble with their board or they do not see active public leadership as part of their job. If boards empower them, however, they have the potential to play a vital role as spokespeople for fact-based decision making and in support of democracy.
No group has the potential to speak with as much moral persuasion as the leader of an organization dedicated to the search for truth. Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago filled that role in the 1930s and ’40s. Father Ted Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame did so during the civil rights era of the 1960s. We currently have a few admirable examples of presidents who have spoken out against the attacks on the Capitol, such as William Groves of Antioch University, Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University and Michael Roth of Wesleyan University. Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, has recently penned, with Grant Shreve and Phillip Spector, What Universities Owe Democracy, which makes a forceful case for colleges and universities to protect democracy.
But we need a much more concerted effort if democracy is actually at risk. We need presidents to speak up and support voting rights, for example. They need to set specific goals for their campuses to increase voting in a climate where legislators are trying to suppress it. Presidents have the ability to rally their internal constituencies and the nation if they speak in a singular voice about the importance of democracy and how to defend it by increasing voter participation.
The faculty. The news media tends to report on singular cases of a professor either unintentionally saying something that provokes a backlash or one who explicitly makes a foolish or provocative comment that creates a brouhaha on their campus. The ripple effect of these controversies across the nation makes the rest of the professoriate want to avoid any controversy. To keep one’s head low and to say nothing of significance certainly is one way to ensure that the Twitterverse and other social media outlets will not take notice.
The raison d’être of faculty life, however, is the search for truth. Inevitably, we will disagree with one another as we try to understand particular phenomena and trends. Rather than avoid controversy, we ought to engage in difficult dialogues for two reasons. If faculty members cannot have forums where people respectfully disagree with one another, then we are implicitly suggesting that a key democratic building block is missing. We should also engage in conversations with individuals who disagree with us in order to highlight the facts that frame the topic we are discussing, whether it is about the efficacy of vaccines, the importance of voting or any number of other social issues.
Students. A common assumption is that students are either entirely focused on getting a job or disaffected from esoteric topics such as democracy. Such assumptions are false, and they are fed by a system that tries to convince students that protest is wrong and a waste of time. Look to other countries for guidance. In India, students have frequently led efforts to reform social policy. And students from multiple universities spearheaded the massive protests in favor of democracy in Hong Kong.
Of course, students should be focused on gainful employment when they graduate from college. But if they are disaffected and have little interest in participating in the political system, then the institution has failed them — and failed society. To be a citizen in a democracy is to be an activist. Democracy’s foundation is that individuals are the best judges of how to organize society. Rather than try to tamp down student voices, the board, the president and the faculty should help students gain their voice.
Colleges and universities not only have a responsibility to their students to provide an education that leads toward employment. We also have a responsibility to ensure that they are equipped to participate in a democracy. Postsecondary institutions are unique institutions in a democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that academic freedom is critical on a campus because the idea is fundamental to democracy.
Trustees can set the tone. Presidents can employ the bully pulpit to make the case for fact-based decision making and the import of democracy. Faculty members can engage in respectful, difficult dialogues to model how tough topics might be discussed. Students can come to grips with the responsibility they have as activist citizens in a democracy. For those of us concerned about the rise of fascism and the decline of democracy, it is imperative that academic institutions get off the sidelines and into the game as vocal defenders of representative democracy.
William G. Tierney is University Professor Emeritus, founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California and author of Higher Education for Democracy: The Role of the University in Civil Society(SUNY, 2021).