Inaugural Richard Ekman Keynote Address in Higher Education

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Inaugural Richard Ekman Keynote Address in Higher Education | Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute
January 5, 2022

Good morning!

I am so sorry I’m not able to join you in person, but I am truly honored to be delivering the inaugural Richard Ekman Keynote Address.

As so many in this room know, Richard Ekman led the CIC for more than two decades, cementing its role as a powerful advocate for American higher education. His passion and faith in the mission of our colleges and universities is stirring, and it is a true privilege to deliver this address bearing his name.

And I am especially grateful to be able to do so in the company of so many distinguished college and university leaders.

So, thank you to the CIC for the invitation and for all your remarkable work on behalf of independent colleges, especially at this extraordinary moment in which our society and our institutions face so many profound challenges.

Among those challenges, of course, is the fragility of democracy here and around the globe.

The data are striking.

Between 2005 and 2020, the number of countries classified as not free by Freedom House rose from 45 to 54. And the Varieties of Democracy Institute has found that in just the past decade, the share of the world population living in democracies has dropped from 52% to 32%.

Fueled by bigotry, polarization, and anti-institutional sentiment, democracy has now retreated back to where it was before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And yet, I’ll confess that until this week a year ago, I had allowed myself to cling to an ember of hope that things were improving.

Here in the US, the 2020 presidential election was—according to the Department of Homeland Security—among the most secure elections in our history, with historic rates of participation across age groups.

And abroad, European democracies like Germany were holding steady against the forces of anti-democratic populism.

But, then, on January 6, 2021, we all watched in horror as approximately two thousand American citizens stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to halt the Senate’s expected approval of the Electoral College vote.

This was not a protest but an assault on the very foundations of our democratic process. And it underscored the painful fact that the threats facing democracy – even in the world’s oldest democracy – were more than speculative.

It was clear then and remains clear today, almost exactly one year after the capitol insurrection, that a tremendous amount of work remains to sustain and nourish the democratic experiment for the years and decades to come.

I believe that this work must draw on the efforts of democracy’s core institutions.

Now, the institutions typically included in this pantheon are familiar: the media; courts and legislatures; competitive political parties; and voluntary associations like churches and community organizations.

All too rarely do colleges and universities make the cut.

This is a grave oversight.

In my recent book, What Universities Owe Democracy, I argue that colleges and universities—from exceptional private institutions like yours to our great public universities—have, over the past two centuries, acquired a suite of critical functions that have made them indispensable to democracy.

This is especially true in the United States, where this nation’s great diversity of colleges and universities have become intimately woven into the fabric of democratic life.

With nearly 4,000 institutions of higher education employing 1.5 million faculty members and educating 20 million students, there is no denying that our impact on society is profound.

Knowing this impact, I could not help but ask – if you’ll allow me to paraphrase John Kennedy – not what more democracy can do for us in higher education, but rather what we should be doing for democracy?

Specifically, what roles and obligations do we have in preserving, supporting, and embodying the ideals of liberal democracy in the face of real, measurable, and growing challenges to its flourishing?

I believe our answer to this call lies in four key functions that colleges and universities play in the support of democracy. These are:

  1. Advancing social mobility: Colleges and universities can embody and make real the democratic promise that anyone with hard work and talent can move beyond the class into which they were born.
  2. Educating democratic citizens: Colleges and universities can equip young adults with the skills, knowledge, values and aspirations to be good democratic citizens.
  3. Stewarding facts and cultivating expertise: Colleges and universities can steward facts, cultivate expertise, and hold power to account through evidence and reason.4. And, finally, we can foster pluralism by bringing people together from vastly different backgrounds and teaching them how to engage with one another meaningfully across their differences.

In each of these ways, colleges and universities support and sustain the democratic project. Yet, I believe that in the past several decades, higher education has faltered in the fulsome execution of these roles.

This is not an abstraction.

Over the past several decades, more and more young people in the US have expressed a mounting dissatisfaction with democracy and a growing sympathy for authoritarian forms of governance.  Recent polling has also shown that a growing percentage of young Americans would not foreclose the use of violence against a democratically elected state.

These data-points are jarring, and underscore the need for us to look unflinchingly at our role and relationship to the democratic project. They call us to ask whether there is more that we can do to redress the fissures that are rending our democracy.

In the time I have this morning, I’d like to walk through the four ways in our institutions support liberal democracy, identify areas where I believe colleges and universities have faltered in fully discharging these roles, and then offer a few thoughts on what we can do to restore these vital capacities.

First, social mobility.

Liberal democracy is premised in part on the notion that all people regardless of the station of their birth should have the opportunity to climb the social and economic ladder on the basis of their aptitudes and efforts.

Besides being a central tenet of life in a democracy, recent research confirms that mobility is, in fact, beneficial to democratic stability. Indeed, in countries where there is more upward mobility, citizens are more likely to favor democratic values, to trust others, and to believe their society is fair.

In the United States, we have long called the democratic promise of mobility the “American Dream.”

For much of our history, the American Dream was a reality for many—but of course not all—citizens, particularly those of color. Today, however, that dream is more elusive than ever.

The United States has slipped behind many of its peer nations in rates of social mobility, and has experienced a significant decline in mobility at the upper and lower extremes of the income spectrum.

Colleges and universities have long been society’s most important institution for facilitating the promise of mobility.

This has been true throughout our history.

In the early republic, college was a critical pathway to professional careers in law, engineering, and the ministry.

The economic benefits of higher education became even greater in the twentieth century, when the emergence of mass public education, an economy increasingly reliant upon specialized knowledge, and eventually the rise of the modern information age supercharged the value of a college degree.

By 2012, an American with a bachelor’s degree earned more than twice as much as an American with only a high school diploma and was three and a half times more likely to avoid poverty.

Several years ago, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues identified the schools that were doing the most to launch students from the bottom quartile of the socioeconomic spectrum to the top – among these schools were CIC member institutions like Pace University.

Unfortunately, only a fraction of American universities and colleges are able to do this consistently.

Elsewhere throughout American higher education, there are too many schools that have the capacity to provide greater access but continue to enroll disproportionate numbers of students from the wealthiest families.

Indeed, as Chetty and his fellow researchers showed, nearly forty top colleges and universities in the United States enroll more students from the top 1% of income earners than the bottom 60%.

Meanwhile, too many other schools are struggling with resource constraints that impair their ability to make good on the promise of mobility.

There are two overarching causes for this.

The first is the tragic retreat of federal and state governments from their support of access and financial aid.

Up until the 1980s, access to college for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds was gradually expanding, thanks to the creation of public university systems and community colleges, the passage of visionary legislation like the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act, and the efforts of universities themselves to invest in financial aid.

But in the last 30 to 40 years, states have scaled back financial support for higher education while federal funding has stagnated and lost focus. Nowhere is this more evident than in the steady loss of value of Pell Grants, which used to cover nearly the entirety of a college education. They now cover, on average, less than a third of the cost of attendance.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities have adopted or doubled down on a variety of admissions policies that have the immediate effect of advantaging wealthy students and disadvantaging poor ones. Among the most pernicious are practices like demonstrated interest and legacy preferences that we know definitively give an unfair edge to more affluent students.

So, what can be done?

We need to continue to advocate passionately for more federal and state support for access to higher education – seeing it as a fundamental investment in a world in which human capital is the coin of the realm, but also as foundational for our democratic stability.

The receipt of a higher education is not only a private good that assures graduates a more prosperous life, but stands as a public good that holds our society together.

At the same time, colleges and universities themselves—especially highly selective ones—need to either abolish or profoundly reconsider admissions practices that we know disadvantage low-income students.

As I have described in some detail elsewhere, several years ago, Johns Hopkins decided to end legacy preferences, and although there were howls of protest in some quarters, the lion’s share of feedback we received from our alumni was positive and encouraging, and the decision had no discernable negative effect on our fundraising.

The second area where colleges and universities serve democracy is civic education.

In a democracy, citizens are, of course, the legitimate bearers of political power, and they have an obligation to discharge their roles as citizens in a responsible and thoughtful manner.

Yet when citizens abdicate that responsibility through either ignorance or indifference, they open the door for abuses of power by elected officials that subvert the public weal.

Despite some hopeful signs in recent years, the long-term trendlines of civic participation are dispiriting.

From 1984 to 2014, the share of American adults who said they didn’t believe that staying informed about current affairs was an obligation of citizenship more than tripled, from 6 to 20 percent. The problem seems especially acute among this current generation of citizens, many of whom are also our students.

As I alluded to earlier, over the last few decades, dissatisfaction with democracy among young people has risen substantially, particularly in the United States.

The January 6 insurrection – which was fueled by an ignorance of democratic institutions, an attitude that embraced conspiratorial lies and rejected hard facts, and a willingness to turn the inevitable democratic experience of electoral loss into political violence – was a sobering reminder that teaching citizens the foundations of democratic life is not a fringe benefit of education but an urgent and existential necessity.

For too long, colleges and universities have been content to let K-12 schools bear the burden of an education in democracy. We simply don’t have that luxury any longer, especially given the fact that only about 25 percent of American K–12 students demonstrate even a rudimentary level of proficiency in civics.

Meanwhile, almost 70 percent of high-school graduates now go on immediately to enroll in post-secondary education each year. This is an enormous pool of students who are coming into our institutions at a critical stage in their maturation as democratic citizens – and all too often, we have treated the education of this role as an afterthought.

The idea that higher education ought to teach democratic citizenship is hardly new.

George Washington actually devoted one fifth of his inaugural State of the Union address in 1790 to the idea, even calling upon the nation’s colleges to train citizen-leaders who could, in words that resonate loudly today, “distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority.”

Our colleges have delivered on this charge inconsistently over the centuries, with moments of resurgence followed by periods of departure.

For most the nineteenth century, civic education in colleges typically took the form of a senior capstone course in moral philosophy that presented students with an opportunity to exercise moral agency and to practice skills of debate and dialogue.

This was replaced in time by suites of courses in American government and history taught in newly ascendant departments of history and political science. Yet, unfortunately, only a fraction of students reaped the benefits of these courses.

The experience of two world wars reignited a commitment to civic-focused general education for all students. President Truman even commissioned a study of higher education’s obligations to democracy, which concluded that higher education should – and I quote – “be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.”

In the decades that followed, however, a host of internal and external factors diluted this admirable project.

Then, in the 1980s, a new model for engagement emerged on college campuses: community service.

By many measures, the service-learning movement (as it has come to be known) has been the most successful civic education effort in the history of American higher education.

For as important as it has been, however, I also worry that in promoting service we (and I include myself here) have skirted addressing the question of whether our students are also receiving a foundational understanding of the duties and responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

I believe that we, as educators and leaders, have an obligation to restore education for democracy as a core element of our institutional mission.

At the center of any effort, I think, should be some kind of Democracy Requirement. This could take the form of a course, extracurricular activities, an exam, or some combination of these.

How each institution achieves this will need to be determined by its own history and the populations it serves.

I know many of your institutions have already launched exciting experiments in providing an education in democracy, from Franklin Pierce University’s work in deliberative dialogue (and its annual celebration of Constitution Day) to the College of the Ozarks’ commitment to introducing students to military history to Wagner College’s plan to infuse “civic professionalism” throughout their curriculum.

Whatever it looks like, this education should be neither reactionary nor radical, but evenhanded and comprehensive.

By this I mean it should incorporate 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. And, above all, it should provide students with the knowledge and tools to renew democracy’s promise.

Let me turn now to my third category: facts and expertise.

Facts are, of course, the life-blood of democratic life. They are indispensable to public decision-making and debate. Without them, we have no standards by which to evaluate what is true or not, what is working and what is not, and who is reaping the benefits (and who is bearing the costs) of different policy decisions.

And the decline of facts inevitably benefits authoritarians, who are all too willing – in the words of the Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz – to “by-pass a fact when a concept comes into conflict with reality.”

Regrettably, our world right now is one in which our facts are as polarized as our politics, a consequence of the rapid proliferation of media options, the escalation of disinformation campaigns, and the rise of algorithms that favor outrage over truth.

Colleges and universities have long been preservers and discoverers of facts. It is core to our mission.

And the knowledge we create has become instrumental to democratic life.

In the past 150 years, our faculty have shaped transformative legislation; they have provided expert knowledge to the public and to governments; and they have revolutionized medicine, public health, and technology.

Yet, recently, we have begun to see real cracks emerge in the edifice of the academic research enterprise.

Studies have demonstrated that an unsettling amount of scientific research cannot be replicated. Meanwhile, important areas of scientific inquiry like climate change have become so polarized as to resist sober, evidence-based disagreement.

These trends imperil the reliability of discovery as well as the public perception of academic work – and with it, faith in facts themselves and faith in institutions like ours that are stewards of fact.

The answer, I believe, lies in bringing our knowledge closer to the people it is meant to serve. We no longer expect to stand from on high and suggest that we are to be trusted simply because of our formal credentials. This is a moment that calls for openness and transparency, as a way of burnishing trust.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the promise of such an approach (as well as some if its vulnerabilities).

On the one hand, we have seen over the past two years a series of remarkable successes: the sharing of data in real time among researchers and the open publication of research results have accelerated our understanding of COVID-19 (and its many variants) and led to the rapid development of path-breaking treatments in ways – and at a pace – that would have been unimaginable in years past.

Our scientists have made the results available widely through preprint servers and newly open policies by academic publishers. Although the results are hardly unequivocal, surveys suggest that this openness has helped to burnish trust in science and institutions.

At Hopkins, we were proud to play a role in the pandemic through the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which has served as an indispensable repository to the public and policymakers of testing and tracking data, and expert interpretations of this moment.

At the same time, however, the research enterprise has experienced a number of high-profile setbacks during COVID, where bad data or shoddy analysis were released into the world too quickly and fueled disinformation campaigns.

For me, these are not reasons to close ourselves off from the public, but to embrace openness and visibility for all it has to offer for discovery and democracy – and to do so with guardrails that will help ensure that the data we produce and verify, and the insights and recommendations we draw from that data, remain a vital and reliable public resource.

This is a critical juncture for academic expertise and research, and I hope we can use it to harness the power of openness and collaboration while guarding ourselves against distortion and manipulation.

The final way in which colleges and universities serve democratic society is by acting as microcosms of pluralistic democracy that bring students into meaningful contact with peers whose backgrounds and belief differ from their own.

Enshrined in the very idea of liberal democracy are, of course, the twin principles of expressive freedom and the protection of the rights of minorities. These ensure, in theory, a minimum guarantee of peaceful co-existence.

But genuine pluralism is more than mere co-existence. It requires interaction, dialogue, and vigorous contestation of values and ideas across a vast spectrum of experiences to forge democratic compromise, consensus, and will.

Historically, colleges and universities have been among the institutions that have offered young people their first opportunity to leave the communities in which they grew up and to interact with others from different racial, religious, regional, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds. This has been true for more than two centuries.

Indeed, at various moments, our colleges have truly been at the vanguard of pluralistic inclusion.

In the nineteenth century, for instance, Oberlin College (another CIC member) became the first college in the nation to admit students regardless of race or sex.

Following in Oberlin’s footsteps was Berea College (also, I should note, a CIC school), which was similarly opposed to any form of caste. This was not theoretical. More than half of the students in Berea’s first class were Black, and all the school’s students lived together, ate together, learned together, and debated one another.

A visitor to the campus in 1871 marveled at the fact that Berea students were able to interact with one another across lines of race, gender, and geography to discuss, quote, “the most practical and the most radical questions with the utmost freedom.”

Decades later, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, many college and university leaders also helped lead the charge for advancing diversity at their schools, even in the face of intense and violent backlash.

Thanks to efforts like those, as well as the bold advocacy of so many students over the decades, American higher education has made undeniable strides in expanding access and addressing inequities, although that progress is taking far too long and still remains unfulfilled.

On balance, our campuses are far more diverse today than they ever have been.

And yet, for all that we have done for representation, I worry that we have not fully or adequately fostered in our students a capacity for the interactions and exchanges across differences that are foundational to a healthy democracy.

Indeed, colleges and universities in this moment are doing less than ever to draw students together. At many institutions, we have allowed our students to choose where they live, whom they live with, where they dine, and what classes they take. We know from research that too often they choose to associate with people who look like them. We have essentially given them a pass to opt out of encounters with people dissimilar from themselves.

And even when encounters across difference do occur, these are more likely to be superficial and fleeting, presenting little opportunity for self-reflection and reasonable, substantive disagreement.

If we want to address “cancel culture” writ large – as so many say we should – perhaps we should start by ensuring that our students first understand how to live alongside one another and speak to one another about difficult issues in our society.

To my mind, that means rethinking how we shape student life on our campuses to promote more sustained encounters between students – without, of course, sacrificing necessary opportunities for students to connect with peers who do share similar identities.

One of the first steps I call for – and this is something we’re doing at Hopkins – is to reinstitute assigned roommates in first-year student housing. This is a practice that although prominent two decades ago has since fallen into disfavor as social media has made it easier than ever for students to select their own roommates – who all too frequently happen to be peers who grew up in similar circumstances.

This impulse is completely understandable, but it is, on balance, problematic. The literature shows that by intentionally pairing students with peers from different backgrounds can foster sympathies for people from different racial groups and makes them more likely to be politically active later in life.

Relatedly, we need also to work harder at fostering a stronger culture of debate and dialogue on our campuses. We have become too reliant on single speakers or panels of speakers who are in broad agreement. Indeed, most universities only rarely sponsor events about public policy issues that incorporate different perspectives.

Committing ourselves to more disagreement in our public events is one way we can model for our community the art of debate and the importance of civic friendship.

All this we should do in the pursuit of seeking to instill in our campuses a more purposeful pluralism.

As I conclude my remarks, I hope I have cemented my case that colleges and universities—the institutions that all of us have the honor and privilege of belonging to—should be recognized as standing firmly among the institutions critical to securing democracy’s loftiest promises and sharing in the responsibility to protect them when they are in peril.

In fact, I would argue that few social institutions have matched our historical contributions to liberal democracy’s twin promises of equality and liberty.

That said, we shouldn’t pretend that we will rescue democracy on our own. There are a great many other actors at play, and forces at work; we have an obligation merely to do our part.

And even with regard to the role of higher education, we do not act alone – indeed, as I have alluded to, the federal government and state governments will need to do their part to renew the historic compact between the public sector and colleges and universities.
Nor do I wish to claim that the reforms I’m advocating will be either simple or easy. You know, as I do, that the norms and structures of academic institutions don’t lend themselves to swift, dramatic change.

There is the innate skepticism of our colleagues, the fragmented channels of decision-making, and the essential–though seemingly endless–consultation.

But I believe that with a clear articulation of principles and goals, patience and, above all, leadership, enduring change is possible.

Our institutions are indispensable to the democratic experiment, and we are now facing a moment in which our democracy is deeply, undeniably vulnerable. And so, we have an obligation to act and to do so with intentionality and urgency.

On this somber anniversary of the capital insurrection, how can we do anything but re-affirm in word and in deed our commitment to an idea and an experiment that is so profoundly and intimately connected to humankind’s most vaunted aspirations of freedom and equality.

Thank you again for allowing me to join you today.