The university has a role to play in defending democracy

In 1974, only about 30 of the world’s independent countries met the criteria of being an electoral democracy. Democracy then had a remarkable 30-year growth spurt across the globe. Democracy seemed to be on the march.

By the turn of the century, more than 100 countries had some form of democracy as their governing apparatus. Some observers even suggested that if the West facilitated the opening of China to trade and they became more entangled with the West, even China would become less authoritarian and more democratic.

For more than a decade, however, the world has experienced what political scientists have suggested is a democratic recession. The world now has fewer than 100 democratic countries.

Citizens of liberal democracies seem more disillusioned than they have ever been. ‘Strong men’ have gained currency in several countries, not the least of which are the United States and India. The United States, once the poster child for democracy, elected Donald Trump, an enemy of democratic governance. India likes to bill itself as the ‘world’s largest democracy’ but now seems content with its own strong man – Narendra Modi.

Various studies and reports have discussed democracy’s decline and have made several useful suggestions about how to support democracy and defeat what many see as a rise of fascism.

What’s curious and depressing in the reports is the complete absence of any suggestion about what role universities might play to protect democracy. One might think that a social organisation ostensibly devoted to the search for truth has a critical role. Unfortunately, however, universities are not a player in the protection of democracy.

Defending democratic ideals

In work I have done over the past decade in India, Hong Kong and the United States, I have seen the rise of anti-democratic movements. I am troubled by the lack of leadership shown by boards, faculty and senior administrators during the rise of fascist movements and the attack on democracy. If democracy is to survive, then universities must be much more active in speaking up and acting on behalf of democratic ideals.

Hong Kong, for example, erupted in pro-democracy protests that ended in China asserting its dominance over the island. Two professors, Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai, initially called for a protest that came to be known as the Occupy Central Movement. Their initial call for a peaceful protest grew when high school and university students took to the streets and occupied a central part of the island for months to try and argue for democracy.

Both professors ended up going to prison. When they were released, Chan Kin-man retired rather than face expulsion. He now teaches in Taiwan. Professor Benny Tai lost tenure and his job at the University of Hong Kong. His firing was a clear violation of the tenets of academic freedom.

No vice-chancellor on any campus in Hong Kong has spoken up for democracy or supported these two academics who went to prison because they exercised their free speech rights. The faculty did not go on a general strike.

Today many individuals who had Facebook and other social media accounts have scrubbed their previous comments that might have been critical of the repression of democracy. Other than select groups, such as Scholars at Risk, the attack on democracy in Hong Kong has largely been met with silence by academics around the globe.

The assumption, mistakenly, is that what happens at another institution in another country has little to do with one’s work in one’s own institution.

The United States, a country which proclaims its devotion to democracy, and India, which trumpets its democratic bona fides, have faced severe challenges over the last several years with authoritarian leaders, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

Trump, for example, demonised individuals from other countries and tried to restrict immigration. Modi, for his part, has sought to demonise Muslims. Although there have been significant protests against both leaders and their policies, universities have generally not played a leading role in support of democracy.

After Trump’s defeat I thought his ideas would recede. Instead, his claims about election fraud and the attack on the Capitol of the United States on 6 January have enabled his ideas to metastasise. The result is that democracy is more at risk today than a year ago.

A renewed sense of purpose

Universities ought to be essential organisations when it comes to the protection of democracy and a central front against the rise of fascism. During a democratic recession it is no longer viable for academics to remain aloof from the challenges that confront society, as if we are hermetically sealed from the problems that exist.

I am suggesting, then, a new articulation of the university. A crisis has the potential to bring forth a renewal of civic purpose and inner meaning. Those of us involved in academia have the opportunity to re-imagine the state in a manner that moves us away from the most constricting forces of neoliberalism and toward a greater sense of communal belonging.

Simply writing abstract texts, calling for change or keeping one’s head down is no longer sufficient for the academic intellectual.

I acknowledge that the challenge for any academic is that in the search for truth we are supposed to be disinterested. Such an idea drove Max Weber’s notion of an ethic of responsibility and the portrait of the campus as removed from the daily conflicts in society. When we interject ourselves into the political arena, academics shed that which gives us authority if we turn from scholar to politician.

Academic life trains us to labour by ensuring that we quote correctly, analyse a formula accurately and stick to the data to inform our findings. I appreciate that our desire to ‘get it right’ frames our hesitation to speak in the public sphere.

However, if academic freedom is a central totem of the academy, then we cannot be silent when a colleague speaks out and is punished, or we are unable to have a conversation in a classroom or on campus because we are afraid of the consequences.

Critical reflexivity is a prerequisite for academic work. In a contested age, such as the one we are currently in, we have to move away from the idea that the university is simply a venue for the study of ideas removed from the everyday challenges that confront us.

Crises such as we now face can be moments of chaos and pain, but they also have the potential for long-term change for a better, more democratic future.

William G Tierney is university professor emeritus, founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, United States, and author of Higher Education for Democracy: The role of the university in civil society (SUNY, 2021).