Higher ed must confront threats to democracy (opinion)

With the health of American democracy hanging by an unraveling thread, our old approaches to civic education are woefully inadequate to combat this existential threat.

To meet this moment of peril, we must recognize that the American political divide is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. Instead, it’s between those who are pro-democracy and those pushing us toward authoritarianism.

I have been a participant and leader in higher education’s civic engagement movement for more than two decades. The focus of my work has been building experiential programs that place students in civic organizations at home and abroad and teaching civic engagement and social change in the classroom. I have seen the deep impact that these kinds of programs and classes have on the students who participate in them and on the communities that they serve.

But I now see some of my own efforts and those of my colleagues as inadequate, because we are as a group unwilling to honestly name the threat, and so I am disheartened as I watch American higher education cower in the face of threats to our democratic mission. Most higher education leaders have maintained a frustrating fidelity to evenhandedness and caution while campuses, particularly those that are publicly funded, encounter daily attacks from state legislatures, including attacks on tenure, on discussions of critical race theory and on our colleagues who would deploy their expertise to serve the public good. Ironically, we fear being seen as political, while institutional leadership is politicized. In the face of these threats, it is a long past time to adopt new and bold actions, and to set aside our hand-wringing about being perceived as controversial.

Since at least the 1940s, with the publication of the 1947 Truman Commission report “Higher Education for American Democracy,” the civic engagement movement in higher education promoted its democratic mission primarily through student voluntarism in local and global communities, including by creating service learning programs and co-curricular opportunities for direct service. Work in this area has become mainstream. Leaders in higher education regularly renewed calls for civic and service learning through a series of reports and exhortations, even as American society, its institutions and the nature of political conflict underwent dramatic change. As recently as 2012, a report commissioned by the US Department of Education and issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” urged “educators and public leaders to advance an educational vision that would make civic learning and democratic engagement an expected part of undergraduate education.”

The civic engagement movement broadened its focus over the last decade with the growth of local and national organizations working to increase voting among college students. From the Andrew Goodman Foundation to the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge to Ask Every Student and the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, campuses have worked with outside organizations and initiatives to encourage and facilitate student voting.

The most recent iteration of the civic movement in higher education is a variety of programs encouraging civil discourse. These programs are in part a response to right-wing populism’s claim that progressive students and faculty members seek to silence conservative voices on campus. More generally, they are a response to the increased political polarization of our society and our campuses. In programs offered by Braver Angels and Unify America, to name just a few, students and faculty are encouraged to talk civilly and respectfully with people they disagree with, to listen deeply and to be open to a wide range of viewpoints on our campuses. Although I agree that viewpoint diversity on our campuses is a good thing, “cancel culture” does not threaten democracy in the way that some claim. The extent to which liberals cancel conservatives on our campuses has been greatly exaggerated; its threat to democracy pales in comparison to the outright assault on teaching “divisive concepts” from the right-wing populist movement. Between January 2021 and June 2022, Pen America tracked 70 different bills “intended to impose restrictions on teaching and learning in colleges and universities”—mostly around issues of race, racism or gender—introduced in 28 states. Seven of these bills became law.

In sum, while these more recent initiatives are well intended, they still fail fundamentally to meet the nature of the threat we’re facing. And if we fail to act, things could get much worse. Hungary, under the far-right autocratic prime minister Viktor Orbán, provides a disturbing model for where we might be headed. Orbán has moved to take over control of Hungarian higher education by stacking controlling bodies with appointed officials by his ruling Fidesz Party. He hounded the George Soros–funded Central European University so much that it had to relocate from Budapest to Vienna. Much of the American right, including former president Trump, have embraced Orbán and regard him as a model to emulate. And though some may be tempted to say that Orbán’s destructive influence on higher education could never happen here, we should be long past the time of believing in American exceptionalism in this and other areas.

This is not the moment for reticence. I say this with the full understanding that unlike many other US institutions, colleges and universities do have a special obligation to remain nonpartisan, to encourage viewpoint diversity and to create an environment where multiple viewpoints are heard and expressed. However, unusual moments in history compel us to shed our usual constraints. As Mark Danner recently wrote in The New York Review of Books“We’re in an emergency—act like it.”

In light of these existential threats, our campuses must be different this fall than in years past. Given that a number of Republicans and former Trump allies have condemned the ex-president’s incitement and support for the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, advocacy for democracy is not partisan—it’s a fundamental commitment to our Constitution shared across the partisan divide. With this framing, university leaders are not being inappropriately political when they speak out against the threats posed by the wing of the Republican Party that opposes our constitutional commitments. They are instead defending one of the fundamental missions of American higher education and working to assure that the freedoms needed for higher education to thrive will survive.

With all this in mind, here are just a few ideas for fall that we should be considering:

  • Teach-ins: For our arriving students in the fall, campus experts from political science, law, history and other relevant disciplines should organize learning opportunities to help our students understand the unique political moment that we face and the actions students can take to protect American democracy. A common template should be developed for interested campuses, and a national teach-in day should be declared before the midterm elections.
  • Pro-democracy internships: Universities should support semester-long and summer internships for students to work for bipartisan organizations working to protect and expand voting rights and to more broadly defend democracy. Such organizations exist at the local, state and national levels.
  • Promoting voting: Colleges and universities should expand their work in encouraging all campus stakeholders to vote. Student voting is particularly complicated because of changing voter identification rules and because students are often not sure where they are eligible to vote. As part of this, colleges and universities should support the recently introduced Youth Voting Rights Act that will, among other things, require campuses to have polling places and will require all voting locations to accept college identification cards to meet state voter-identification requirements in the federal elections.
  • Leader statements: University presidents and leaders must unite and speak out about the current democratic threats faced by their institutions and the country, explaining these other threats to the mission of our institutions. Private university leaders must spearhead this effort because of the political difficulties public university presidents face.
  • Fall events: Colleges and universities should use existing funding, programs and lectures to highlight the current democratic threat, inserting this conversation as often as possible in already funded opportunities.

Certainly, more must be done. But let’s start here, so that when our children and grandchildren ask us what we did when the flames of authoritarianism were licking at democracy, we can say we did more than just watch it burn.

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