What Universities Owe Democracy

Published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

It is almost axiomatic that authoritarian (or “would be” authoritarian) leaders are innately hostile to free and open universities. Consider, for instance, the obsessive preoccupation over much of the last decade of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán with Central European University, an institution founded and funded by Hungarian-American financier George Soros. Not only did Orbán exile the university from the country’s borders, but he also chipped away at the autonomy of the nation’s other universities and scholars, installing overseers to manage all financial decisions at public universities, aggressively censoring academic conferences, and placing the historically independent Hungarian Academy of Sciences under strict government control. In nearby Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also invoked executive decrees to arrest or fire thousands of academics, and granted himself untrammeled power to appoint the heads of public and private universities. Across the Atlantic in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro slashed university budgets and threatened to demolish programs deemed too leftist. And most recently, in Afghanistan, the American University of Afghanistan was among the first institutions to face the wrath of the Taliban when they overtook Kabul in August 2021; over half the university’s students have now been evacuated from the country.

As for the United States, there were doubtless many moments in the tumultuous four years of Donald J. Trump’s norm-shattering presidency when universities felt as though they were in the crosshairs of the President and his surrogates. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., in 2017 summed up the Administration’s public-facing attitude toward universities: “[They’ll] take $200,000 of your money; in exchange [they’ll] train your children to hate our country.” Although the Trump Administration’s rhetoric toward universities was more extreme than its actual policies, there is no denying that President Trump channeled the critical sentiments, anxieties, and resentments that his base had toward higher education, made up of many of those on the losing side of globalization’s steady march over the past several decades. This hostility manifested itself in a widening rift in partisan perceptions of the value of higher education. In 2015, Pew reported that 54 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats viewed universities and colleges as having a positive impact on the country. Four years later, in 2019, the portion of Democrats who believed the same remained almost unchanged, while the share of Republicans who viewed universities positively had collapsed to 33 percent. The yawning gap between Republicans and Democrats in their views on universities and the national interest is just one of many divisions that mark and define our highly polarized country today.

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