Democracy and the University in the Age of COVID-19

Recorded Oct. 28, 2020 | Broadcast Nov. 3, 2020
The following remarks were prepared for delivery at the Times Higher Education Leadership & Management Summit

Good morning, everyone. I’m delighted to be able to join you for today’s Leadership & Management Summit.

On March 18 of this year, I sent a message to the Johns Hopkins University community announcing that due to the mounting threat of COVID-19, classes would be remote for the remainder of the semester and that all but our most critical research operations would be suspended.

It was an excruciating decision, one virtually unprecedented in our university’s history.

In an instant, the hum of discovery, conversation, and passionate debate that defined so much of our university’s identity were gone.

The same was true at universities around the world.

But although our campuses had emptied significantly, we were not in retreat. Indeed, our universities – as they have time and again in times of crisis – leapt into the breach to understand and combat this pandemic.

At Hopkins, one such example is that of Dr. Lauren Gardner, an engineering professor.

In late January, Dr. Gardner spent a weekend with one of her graduate students designing an interactive dashboard to track the trajectory of COVID-19 when it was still confined to Wuhan, China. She put it online expecting that it would attract a small audience of mostly infectious disease experts.

But as the disease then spread from continent to continent, Dr. Gardner’s dashboard grew far beyond its initial audience, becoming a vital source of accurate, reliable information about this virus for individuals, governments and media organizations around the world.

Over time, we developed the website into the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which now serves as a critical source of information about testing, tracking, and contact tracing; a repository of analysis and insight from faculty at every division of our university; and a virtual convening space to host experts, policy-makers, and leaders from across the government and the academy. To date, the site has been visited more than 900 million times.

This is but one of a multitude of ways that universities have confronted this pandemic. We have provided direct care to patients; contributed to vaccine development; collaborated with partners across the public and private sectors to develop coherent, evidenced-based health policy; worked with our communities to put sound information in the hands of our neighbors, and so much more.

This panoply of efforts has underscored, once again, the immense and singular contributions of the university not only to the flourishing of individuals, but to the flourishing of democracy itself.

And this is what I want to posit today: that universities are among the core institutions in protecting the vitality of the democratic experiment and securing its promises.

Universities rest upon a foundation of reliable facts, and they are committed to free inquiry and the peaceful contestation of ideas. They are places of pluralistic inclusion and gateways of opportunity; certifiers of expertise and educators of citizens. They are integral to the formation of good public policy and essential to checking the excesses of power.

They are, in a word, indispensable to liberal democracy.

And now, at a time when liberal democracy is itself increasingly fragile, we need them more than ever. Today, a staggering 54% of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule, and that number appears to be rising.

For the purposes of today’s talk, I want to focus on two distinct (and, in this moment, especially timely) ways in which universities exercise their indispensable role: the discovery and diffusion of facts and the education of democratic citizens.

Discovery and Diffusion of Facts

Last week, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health hosted Dr. Anthony Fauci for a conversation. When asked about the role of universities in policy-making, Dr. Fauci was unambiguous.

Universities, he said, are an “indispensable part of any effort in science or global health” because they are “the home of people who . . . get down to the facts.”

As usual, he’s right. Getting down to the facts is one of the defining virtues of research universities. From their origins in the 1870s, research universities have been forging the frameworks and methodologies for ascertaining facts and for communicating new knowledge into the world that helps establish standards of truth, neutralizes disinformation, and shapes sound public policy.

By the mid-20th century, our great universities had secured their place as being among the most trusted sources of reliable information and research in democratic society.

But in recent years, we have seen some indications that trust in the academic research enterprise has become more fragile. The reasons are complex and multifaceted, but one cause is surely the hyper-polarization of our politics that has accelerated the spread of mis- and disinformation and cast even basic facts into sources of partisan division.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in part, amplified these conditions by creating what the World Health Organization calls an “infodemic” due to the deluge of misinformation flooding social media.

But there are signs of hope.

The threat of COVID-19 has also revealed the capacity of the research enterprise to adapt to radical new conditions.

Indeed, science is now being conducted at a pace and with a level of transparency that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. And public trust in science appears to be on the rise. One recent report showed that in the summer of 2020, the fraction of people who said they were skeptical of science declined for the first time in three years.

In 1967, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that “the chances for truth to prevail in public are greatly improved by the mere existence” of universities.

Our collective response to this pandemic is demonstrating that these words can still hold true today.

Civic Education

But, of course, as important as research is, universities are educational institutions first and foremost.

This leads me to a second way that universities serve democracy: civic education.

By civic education, I mean specifically an education in democracy, one that is willing to stake out a normative position in defense of the democratic project.

Such an education should not be mistaken for the indoctrination of students in either thin patriotism or naïve nationalism.

Rather, I believe, our universities have a responsibility to cultivate in students a pride in the ideals of liberal democracy; a sober and clear-eyed recognition of its incompleteness and its failures; and competence in the practices necessary to improve it.

For too long we have assumed that K–12 schools alone must shoulder this burden. But with 70 percent of high school graduates now enrolling in college and liberal democracy under attack from so many corners, we cannot shirk this obligation.

The idea that institutions of higher education should train democratic citizens dates back to the founding of the republic. George Washington, in fact, urged colleges and universities to help students – and I quote – “get fixed in the principles of the Constitution … as well as the professions they mean to pursue.”

Over the centuries, we’ve executed the second part quite well; but we have too often lapsed on the first.

Indeed, the history of civic education is littered with episodic bursts of collective willpower followed by long periods of stagnation and retrenchment.

Today, civic education at colleges and universities is often reduced to community service. And while service is integral to citizenship formation, it is only one part of an education in democracy.

We need to do more.

Millions of college students will be voting this Election Day. Colleges and universities must equip these young people with the knowledge, skills, and values they need to perform this sacred and foundational act of citizenship intentionally, as well as to carry the duties of citizenship forward into the time between elections.

Making such an education a reality is easier said than done, especially at a time when even the most foundational civic norms (of tolerance, of open dialogue, of the free exchange of difficult ideas) have been so thoroughly tainted by partisanship. When we can’t even agree on what the basic tenets of civic education are, how can we possibly teach it in a classroom or on a campus?

In the United States, at least, our universities have an advantage.

From community colleges to liberal arts colleges to public and private research universities, American higher education is extraordinarily diverse and independent. Our colleges and universities can be laboratories of civic experimentation, with the freedom to seed civic learning in everything from new curricular options, to voting initiatives, to programming that cultivates core skills of citizenship.

We should, in other words, let a thousand flowers bloom. Even in as polarized an age as ours, we cannot shy away from embracing educating our students in democracy.

Conclusion

Over the past two centuries, American universities have enriched and have been enriched by liberal democracy. They are intertwined with its values and its ends. And in times of crisis they have responded with vigor and vision.

We have already seen them do so with great success during this pandemic. But as we look ahead to the moment when we emerge from this period of strain – perhaps aided by a vaccine first developed in a university laboratory – we should remain vigilant in ensuring that our universities continue to reexamine and requite their role as an indispensable institution in the democratic project. Thank you.