Universities have an obligation to restore democracy education as a core element of their institutional mission and should make rigorous study of democracy a requirement, Ronald J Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, America’s first research university, told the Magna Charta Observatory anniversary conference hosted at the University of Bologna, Italy, last week.
“By this I mean a requirement that incorporates a rigorous study of the ways in which the democratic experiment has achieved its highest aspirations, as well as the ways in which it has fallen short of its ideals of equality, liberty, and opportunity,” said Daniels.
Universities are essential not just within democracy but within liberal democracy, he said, defining the latter as where government by majority rule is balanced by protection of individual – and especially minority – rights.
“This distinction is not simply academic. For years, we have witnessed the rapid rise of illiberal democracies around the globe. In countries like Hungary, the parties in power have maintained nominal majoritarian rule as elected leaders chip away at core democratic institutions (universities among them).
“Under such a looming threat, liberal democracy is more precious than ever.”
Data from the Varieties of Democracy Institute had found that the share of the world’s population living in democracies has dropped from 52% to 32%.
“Fuelled by bigotry, extremism, and a growing antipathy towards democratic institutions, the number of liberal democracies in the world has plummeted to levels that haven’t been seen since the latter days of the Cold War, wiping out decades of liberal democratic gains,” he said.
“We don’t have to look far to see the evidence of this retreat, from the shocking attack on the United States Capitol building on 6 January 2021 to Putin’s horrifying, unjust, and – I pray – ill-fated war of aggression in Ukraine.”
Universities must step up
He argued that in a moment like this one, it is incumbent upon every institution with a stake in the liberal democratic experiment to step up and vigorously protect it. This includes universities.
“Universities, I believe, need liberal democracy to thrive and flourish. At the same time, our universities are indispensable institutions in their contributions to good, democratic governance.”
In his book, What Universities Owe Democracy, drawing on his own experience as a university leader in Canada and the United States, he argues that universities have the capacity to contribute to liberal democracy in four distinct ways:
• Advancing social mobility by launching students up the socio-economic ladder.
• Educating students in the values, history and skills needed to be good citizens.
• Stewarding facts and cultivating expertise that can be used to inform the public and policy and check power.
• Fostering pluralism by bringing people from vastly different backgrounds together and teaching them how to engage with each other meaningfully across their differences.