Plea for a more inclusive, vibrant, democratic university

What Universities Owe Democracy by Ronald Daniels is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, United States. ISBN 9781421442693.

Ronald J Daniels makes four recommendations he believes will put American universities and colleges in fighting trim to graduate students who understand and care about democratic processes – and will reconfigure universities and colleges so they are models of a functioning liberal civil society.

Each recommendation is supported with a wealth of data and, just as importantly, the author of What Universities Owe Democracy shows that each recommendation grows out of the most progressive strains in American history, which means they run counter to some of the most powerful forces buffeting America today.

Legacy admissions

Take the first recommendation: the ending of legacy admissions and the restoration of generous federal financial aid.

The “almost exclusively American custom” of giving preferential treatment to children of graduates (and wealthy donors) is at the heart of a request that the Canadian born and educated Daniels, who in 2009 became president of the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland, received when he was dean of the law faculty at the University of Toronto.

A wealthy and well-known alumnus called to ask Daniels to admit the man’s son who had not made it into Canada’s most prestigious law school on his own merits. Daniels told him he did not have the power to do so. The deep-pocketed, irate parent responded: “If you really want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great Ivy League schools in the United States, you better start acting like one.”

Ended by Oxbridge more than three generations ago, legacy admissions still exist at 70 of America’s 100 top-rated institutions of higher learning. One study estimates they add the equivalent of 160 (or 10%) of the score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to a students’ application. The SAT is used by thousands of colleges and universities in lieu of their own admissions test.

Not surprisingly, the cadres that enter a Harvard or a Yale under a banner that could read “My Father Went Here”, are wealthier and whiter than those who enter these schools via the equivalent of the servants’ door.

In 2009, when Daniels arrived at JHU, 12.5% of the freshmen class were legacy admissions while 9% were eligible for Pell Grants (a US federal government grant available for the poorest students). In 2020, six years after ending the legacy admissions process, 4.2% of students are children of graduates, while 20.5% are Pell eligible.

Pell Grants, however, are not enough. In the 1970s, they covered approximately 70% of the cost of attending a college or university. Today, 50 years after former US president Ronald Reagan’s cuts to government spending and others inspired by him, Pell Grants cover 25% of a student’s costs. Similar cuts by state governments have only exacerbated a problem that, Daniels argues, can only be solved by a massive recommitment to education by the government in Washington.

Democracy requirement

Daniels’ second recommendation, instituting a “democracy requirement for graduation”, is necessitated by the fact that the majority of American college and university students know little about the nation’s governance or the philosophical foundation for free speech, for example.

In this context, oddly, Daniels quotes Plato who describes education as “inspir[ing] the recipient with passionate and ardent desire to become the perfect citizen, knowing both how to wield and how to submit to righteous rule”. Odd, because, as Daniels knows, Plato’s image of the “perfect citizen” rules out more than 50% of the population – women – even as his notion of “submit[ting] to righteous rule”, as made clear in The Republic, has more than a whiff of autocracy.

Still, Daniels’ argument here is solid. Tellingly, he notes that the United States (the nation in which I was born and where every day at school I recited the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’, with phrases such as “and to the Republic for which it [the flag] stands” and “with liberty and justice for all”) does not participate in the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study conducted every few years.

With apologies to management consultants, “you can’t improve what you don’t bother measuring”.

There are, however, more than enough proxies, including the withering of the teaching of civics and Daniels’ and his management team’s “gobsmacked” response when, following a course on the foundations of free speech, freshmen told them that they’d never heard the case for free speech.

Daniels’ pen slips at the beginning of his (insightful) discussion of the rise and fall of civics education: spoiler alert, it rises after national traumas like the Civil War and both World Wars.

He writes: “In the fall of 1918, just over a year after President Woodrow Wilson declared war on the German Empire …”. While the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution reserves the power to “declare war” to the Congress; what Wilson did on 2 April 1917 was request Congress to declare war.

It is hard not to get caught up in paragraphs on community service and volunteerism as something of a cure for declining civic involvement. But, depressingly, he shows that while “service learning” engages students locally, it does not engage them with America’s system of self-government. In one study, the belief that serving on a jury is an individual’s responsibility actually fell in its prevalence, even as the sense of duty to volunteer rose.

Designing a democracy requirement that avoids the Scylla or the right wing’s call for 1950s-style social norms (ie, white male hegemony) and the Charybdis of the left wing’s critique that the entire edifice of American liberal capitalism is rotten to the core, will not be easy.

One possibility Daniels offers is Stanford University’s (Stanford, California) “Citizenship in the 21st Century”. At the heart of the programme is a “rich array of texts (from indigenous writers to the framers of the US Constitution to the poets of the Harlem Renaissance [eg Langston Hughes])”, as well as discussions of ethics and case studies.

Open science with guardrails

“Embrace open science with guardrails,” is Daniels’ third recommendation. His aim here is to see off the dangers of the right-wing echo chamber (which includes those who attack the science around COVID-19) on the one side, and on the other, radical deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida.

On this last, I think it is worth noting that deconstruction, which I studied while doing my graduate work at McGill University (Montreal, Canada), may have been chic in the 1980s and 1990s but, like most intellectual movements, it’s now a bit long in the tooth.

True, even in the state university system, which educates the largest part of America’s undergraduates, there are courses informed by Derrida’s work. However, there are far more called, to stay with my specialty, English literature, “Shakespeare”, “Milton”, “The Eighteenth-Century Novel”, “The British Romantics”, and others that focus on the Brontës, slave narratives, women’s poetry, post-colonial literature, the Victorian novel. Hardly a “différance”, Derrida’s favourite neologism, to be seen.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to agree with Daniels’ resolute defence of facts. And, I must add, it is rather fun to read that the sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, asks if it is the duty of scholars, like his earlier self who questioned the validity of the sciences, “to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins” and declare, “I am now the one who naively believes in facts”.

Further, Daniels underscores the dangers private money poses to university research. The fact that scientific journals are now publishing articles about experiments that are unsuccessful is a good omen, he says.

Countering homogeneity

Daniels’ final recommendation, “Reimagine student encounters on campus and infuse debate into campus programming”, returns, in part, to the book’s first chapter which shows how almost all of America’s universities and colleges did whatever they could to remain racially and religiously homogeneous.

Today, while most of these walls have come down, at least officially, Daniels shows that since universities again started allowing freshmen to choose their own roommates in the early 2010s (the practice had been phased out in the 1980s and ’90s), more and more roommates are of similar income and, most importantly, racial groups.

Brought in under the banner of choice, the real impact of this is self-segregation and a noticeable reduction in the number of students who answer ‘yes’ to the question about having friends who are of a different race.

Mutatis mutandis for wealthier students; those who end up rooming with a less well-heeled roommate can console themselves, Daniels shows, with the fact that these poorer students “are less likely to support higher taxes on the wealthy!”

Some schools have responded to this problem by requiring freshmen to live on campus and removing the right of students to choose their roommates.

Equally worrisome for Daniels is the growth of echo chambers. Mercifully, he does not beat the drum about “cancel culture”, the bugaboo of American right-wing media stars, like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who conveniently elides the fact that almost every right-wing speaker who has been disinvited to a university is not being silenced – unless his understanding of being silenced is being interviewed on his show in front of three million viewers. At most, Daniels says, there are two dozen disinvitations per year.

Yet, Daniels is concerned that campuses are not arenas of debate. (A reader of his book who kept careful notes would have noted that they hardly ever were.) Room can be made for other voices by, instead of inviting one speaker on a topic, inviting two with opposing points of view.

Daniels’ book, which is worth reading for the facts of American higher education he adduces, is also a cri de coeur for a more inclusive, vibrant and, yes, democratic university or college. While I remain unsure whether such a model can halt America’s slide into “illiberal democracy” at best and open authoritarianism at worst, it is at least worth a try.