Higher education must help protect democracy

Intellectual isolationism won’t help the Ivy League — or the United States

Published December 12, 2023 5:29AM (EST)

Harvard University President Dr. Claudine Gay testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee Hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Dec. 05, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Harvard University President Dr. Claudine Gay testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee Hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Dec. 05, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

There is a clear and present danger to American democracy: Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism. This is no secret, and yet many in higher education would prefer not to talk about it. Instead, we find ourselves wondering if elite school presidents should resign. 

It is not a matter of supporting a political party or issue. We in higher ed must stand up for the values that make free inquiry and teaching possible. We must defeat a movement that has already promised to seize control of how we study, conduct research, and teach. This is no time to seek refuge in doctrines of neutrality. Such doctrines led to the kind of flaccid, lawyerly responses we heard from Ivy League presidents testifying in front of Congress last week. “That depends,” is not an answer you want from someone whose job it is to protect students confronted with calls for their annihilation. 

Disengagement, not protest, is the norm.

Recently there has been a spate of articles about whether leaders in higher ed should speak out about atrocities or war crimes that, however distant, are having an impact on campuses. Some college presidents may be relieved to be told that they should stick to their core responsibilities (raising money) and avoid controversy. The abysmal performance of the presidents at a Congressional hearing will certainly encourage other leaders to keep their heads down.

While commentators rail against high education’s efforts at inclusion and the cultivation of so-called woke ideologies, students are increasingly choosing to focus their studies in fields more quantitative than value-laden. Disengagement, not protest, is the norm. Even some humanists urge their colleagues to stick to disinterested scholarship and preserve the “contemplative mood.” According to the author of an ill-timed recent NYT op-ed, this will somehow make those in the Humanities especially “irresistible.” 

We must resist this kind of intellectual isolationism – from presidents and from their institutions generally. 

We must refuse the privileges of “internal exile” in the face of tyranny and reject the ironic stance of professors who imagine that tenure is enough protection – at least for them. 

Why worry so much about another Trump presidency, some say, when we already survived one? Democrats, they argue, aren’t so great either.  Evasiveness comes easy. 

But Trump has put his cards on the table, making his positions known even more clearly than he did in 2016. Back then I wrote: “You don’t need a fascistic theory of government to use the inflammatory tactics of fascism. It is clear enough: given his rhetoric and behavior, Donald Trump’s election would undermine the foundations of the republic and cause fundamental harm to the country.” That’s exactly what Trump did, and the election denialism of 2020 and the failed coup of January 6 2021 are precursors of what’s in store for us if he prevails in the coming year.

It is foolhardy and immoral to imagine that we in the academy will be fine if we just keep to our scholarship. Whom do we think Trump has in mind when he attacks (however nonsensically) the communists, Marxists, fascists and radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”? “Vermin” was a favorite trope of Hitler’s, and the vermin Trump has in mind no doubt includes us in higher ed.    

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Colleges and universities have long claimed that promoting civic participation and liberal learning through engagement in the public sphere is central to their mission. Professors and administrators often find themselves in disagreement, but there has been wide support for the idea that schools should help students develop civic preparedness, the ability to work across differences for the public good. 

Four years ago, Wesleyan University joined with other colleges and universities in Engage 2020, a project highlighting ways in which students develop the skills of citizenship. E2020 was centered on three principles:

  1. Developing civic preparedness is a core element of the mission of American higher education.
  2. Participating in American political life helps students learn from a diversity of ideas and people while developing skills for lifelong, active citizenship.
  3. Empowering students and teachers to engage with the complex issues facing the country are crucial facets of higher education’s contributions to the common good.

More than three hundred schools from across the country were part of the E2020 network, from small colleges to large research universities. Although many of our plans for public activities were derailed by the COVID pandemic, we were able to motivate students to take up the challenge of democracy during an important election year.  

The urgency of this work has only grown, and now we’re calling for schools to double down on student democratic participation in 2024. We hear talk almost every day about the threats to our democracy – not just that one’s preferred candidate might lose but that the electoral system and the civic culture in which it is embedded is at profound risk. In order to do our part to shore up democracy and combat the rampant cynicism about elections, we must seize this moment to galvanize learning through political participation. By defending democracy, we will deepen learning; by deepening learning we will defend democracy. Both will make our educational institutions more effective, and this will create a virtuous circle of civic preparedness for the country as a whole.

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Many schools already belong to organizations like Campus Compact and All-In Campus Democracy Challenge that encourage voting; many already are focused on promoting free speech and civil dialogue on their campuses, like the Institute for Citizens and Scholars and Interfaith America. Such work strengthens civic culture, but schools now need to do even more. Those affiliated with E2020 are well positioned to collect best practices that can inspire students in the coming months to work on campaigns, or to organize in the public sphere around specific issues. Call it Democracy 2024.  As Danielle Allen has noted, “Any stable democracy must have a supermajority of citizens who are willing to invest time, talent and treasure in the healthy operation of the system itself, and that supermajority will necessarily span ideological divisions. The supermajority has to work together on democracy renovation to ensure that we have a stable system for contesting matters of substantive policy.” Colleges and universities have a responsibility to help build that supermajority and to help make it as inclusive as possible. D2024 can be a start. 

The inflammatory Donald Trump has promised to destroy the “healthy operation of the system itself.” We have been duly warned that he means it by people from across the political spectrum. Republican Liz Cheney has cautioned that we are “sleepwalking into dictatorship,” and Robert Kagan, usually called a neo-conservative, has sounded a similar alarm in The Washington Post. In an entire Atlantic issue devoted to warnings about a second Trump presidency, liberal David Frum writes that “for democracy to continue … the democratic system itself must be the supreme commitment of all major participants.” Now, he notes, we are “careening toward breakdown.” And Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Müller reminds us in The Guardian that if Trump wins, he will take it that the people “have decided in favor of revenge and destruction.”

We in higher education should not be focused on poor presidential answers to a MAGA warrior’s questions. This amounts to fiddling (however irresistibly) when flames threaten to engulf the republic. We must affirm the core principles of civic education and take specific actions to defend democracy while it is still possible to do so. When the Kalven Report counseled schools to stay neutral in 1967 (rather than support civil rights or criticize the Vietnam War), even its cautious authors made an exception for moments when “the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” This is such a moment. Whatever party or candidates one supports, colleges and universities must defend democracy to defend their very mission, to defend their values of free inquiry and teaching. At this time that means calling out the dangers of tyranny while inspiring democratic practices among young people (through efforts like D2024) so that we can defend our country from the incendiary forces now gathering around Donald Trump.

By Michael S. Roth

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist's Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses” and “The Student: A Short History.”

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