What Universities Owe Democracy

The following remarks were prepared for delivery at Ryerson University

Good afternoon, everyone! I am delighted to join you today – I only wish I could join you in Toronto person. Thank you to John Beebe and all the students at Ryerson University who helped make this event possible.

Almost three months ago, on January 6, we watched in horror as American citizens stormed the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC while Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College.

The images of that day will be forever impressed on our collective consciousness.

Confederate flags in the halls where the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the United States was drafted. Clothing mocking the experiences of holocaust survivors. A gallows with a noose – the symbolic machinery of mob violence and racial terror.

Contrary to initial reports, the insurrection was not a spontaneous protest turned bad but a coordinated blow against constitutional democracy.

It was the culmination of forces years in the making, and one more harrowing sign of the steady backsliding of liberal democracy in the US and across the globe.

The data are truly alarming. A decade ago just under half the world’s population lived under autocratic rule. Today, that number stands at a staggering 68 percent.

Liberal democracy can no longer be regarded as the inevitable destination towards which all countries march. This extraordinary experiment in collective self-governance is in real peril.

The question before us – and especially before our student audience today – is what can we do to help democracy not only survive but thrive?

Some of it must reside with you all: the citizens who vote, who hold elected leaders to account, and who fight against injustice.

It must also reside with core democratic institutions, which includes, I posit, our universities.

We know well the authoritarian allergy to independent universities, which we see today in the ongoing attacks on university autonomy in countries like Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Brazil.

Authoritarians have good reason to fear universities.

Indeed, universities have been among the fiercest defenders of democracy, from the flying university that formed in Communist Poland in the 1970s to international research institutions like Central European University, which helped restore the social sciences and humanities to Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain and has, under the leadership of Canada’s own Michael Ignatieff, fought mightily against the authoritarian incursions of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

In my adopted country, the United States, universities have time and again come to democracy’s aid at critical historic junctures.

In the earliest days of the Republic, the nation’s founders called on the nation’s colleges to teach citizens and leaders the requisite skills for democratic life. During the Civil War, President Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which created the sprawling system of land-grant universities that would be instrumental in accelerating scientific discovery and social mobility for the next century. And after World War II, President Harry Truman convened a national commission, which declared that higher education was an indispensable “carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.” The list could go on.

And as universities have evolved across the modern era, they have accumulated distinct functions in the service of democracy:
• They foster pluralism on their campuses by bringing together people from vastly different backgrounds into a shared space governed by the ideals of dialogue and debate.
• They fuel social mobility and opportunity.
• They are stewards of fact that shapes sound public policy and holds elected officials to account.
• And they teach young people the core tenets of democratic citizenship.

Today, I want to consider two of these functions: the education of citizens, and the discovery and communication of facts.

First, citizenship education.

In a democracy, citizens are the bearers of political power, which they exercise through voting in free and fair elections; through volunteering and protest; through military service and meeting attendance; and through debate with their fellow citizens.

When citizens abdicate that role, when they choose indifference over active and sustained engagement with political institutions, they open the door for abuses of power by elected officials or, more mundanely, the enactment of policies that fail to reflect their needs and desires. As I said to our students at Hopkins when they asked my opinion on why they should vote: it’s so that their lives – present and future – aren’t dictated by my generation!

We know that the competencies necessary to fulfill this role are not innate, they are learned – and can be taught.

In the United States, the idea that universities ought to be bastions of civic learning is as old as the nation itself. None other than George Washington repeatedly advocated the creation of a national university that would train citizen-leaders from across the country.

Since then, colleges and universities have strived to embed civic learning into their curricula – from the general education programs of the mid-twentieth century to the service-learning courses of today.

The current emphasis on community service as the dominant model for citizenship education in our universities has been profoundly important, but I also wonder whether in promoting service we (and I include myself here) have neglected to ask whether our students are also receiving a foundational understanding of the duties and responsibilities of democratic citizenship?

Evidence suggests we have. In the US, at least, levels of civic knowledge among young people have remained stagnant for decades even as dissatisfaction with democracy has trended steadily upward.

At a time of democratic fragility, universities cannot shy away from providing students with an education in democracy.

They should be cultivating in students an appreciation for the values and ideals of liberal democracy; a sober and clear-eyed recognition of democracy’s incompleteness and failures; and a competence in the practices necessary to improve it. And universities must do this across their campuses – from quads to classrooms.

Of course, universities do more than teach. They also conduct cutting-edge research across virtually all fields of human knowledge and share those discoveries with the world.

Beginning in 1876 with the founding of the first modern research university, Johns Hopkins, university-trained experts became integral to public policy-making, to advancing human welfare through discovery, and to neutralizing disinformation in the public sphere.

Over the past 145 years, their successes have been truly extraordinary.

Academics shaped the New Deal and built the Internet; they developed vaccines and established legislative research libraries; they put humans in space and instituted the public health protocols we still use to fight pandemics; among so many other achievements.

They made it possible, in short, for democratic societies to flourish.

Their successes were so great that by the latter half of the twentieth century, scientists, in particular, had solidified their position as one of the few professions that citizens reliably trust – far outpacing journalists, legislators, and perhaps unsurprisingly, my own honored profession . . . lawyers.

Yet beneath this veneer of sturdiness, real cracks in the research enterprise have started to appear in recent years – from the revelation that a staggering amount of scientific research cannot be replicated to the political polarization around important areas of scientific inquiry like climate change. These imperil the reliability of discovery and the public perception of academic work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the current complexities of science into stark relief.

We have seen unparalleled triumphs in the speed at which scientists have collaborated to understand this disease and develop extraordinary treatments for it – not least of which is the historic development of multiple safe and effective vaccines in under a year.

This was also a moment when science was brought closer to democratic decision-making and the public eye than at any point in recent memory. 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 scientific research enterprise has experienced a number of high-profile setbacks – as, for instance, in the controversies that flared over hydroxychloroquine this past summer, fueled by scientific papers published in respected journals that eventually had to be retracted for using suspect data.

At a moment when fake news and conspiracy theories spread through democracies at six times the speed of factual information, shoring up the credibility of facts and the state of expertise has never been more paramount – for the sake of science and democracy alike.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the potential and perils of an approach to science that is more open, more collaborative, and more accessible. Barriers that once existed around science have been lowered, and science brought closer to the people and the world.

I believe science will emerge from this moment stronger than it was.
But it is imperative for the health of fact-based societies that universities and researchers build guardrails to harness the power of open science while keeping its hazards at bay.

Let me close with this: I believe deeply that universities are a bulwark institution that are absolutely indispensable to democracy.

I know Canadian democracy is, thankfully, faring better than many other liberal democracies around the globe, but that does not diminish the need for universities and the people who populate them – from leadership to faculty to staff to students – to do all they can to inoculate their societies from the forces of illiberalism and authoritarianism, and to seed the ground for democracy to flourish in the years and decades ahead.

To the students with us today: We are counting on you to continue using the skills you are learning – here at Ryerson and elsewhere – to engage critically with democratic institutions and leaders, and to advocate for lasting change.

Thank you for all you do, and thank you again for inviting me to this wonderful event.