In a democratic ‘recession’, how much can universities do?

The opening plenary for the Global Forum on Higher Education Leadership for Democracy, Sustainability and Social Justice held last week in Dublin, Ireland, did not attempt to define the key word in the plenary’s focus question: “How can universities and colleges work together locally, nationally and globally to respond to the populist attacks on democracy itself, including attacks on electoral systems, free and independent media, and truth [emphasis added]?”

The panellists did not review the history of populism in 19th century America (when it was a progressive force through which farmers challenged the concentration of banking power and successfully pushed for direct election of senators).

Nor did they parse the differences between left- and right-wing populism (Venezuela vs Brazil) or even settle on the most useful definition I’ve encountered, from Benjamin Moffitt, senior lecturer in politics at Australian Catholic University, who wrote in Populism (2020) that populism is a political style rather than an ideology.

Rather, panel participants spoke of a recession of democracy and what their universities are doing to bridge the gap caused in some measure by universities themselves, between institutions of higher learning and the people they are meant to serve.

The conference, the first in-person one since 2018 for the Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education (GC) was held at Dublin City University from 16-17 June. The GC is supported by the Council of Europe, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, the Organization of American States and the International Association of Universities.

Since 2008, GC has mounted six conferences that have brought together scholars from around the world to share best practices of colleges and universities that foster the development of higher education.

Among the themes governing previous conferences since the early 2000s are “Higher Education for Modern Societies: Competences and values”, “Reimagining Democratic Societies: A new era of personal and social responsibility” and “Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and the Future of Democracy”.

“Emerging from COVID and against the background of the crisis in Ukraine and the rise of populism, we believe it is important to reflect on the value of education in creating civic society,” said Daire Keogh, a historian who has written extensively on the history of Ireland, and current president of Dublin City University.

“In hosting this conference, we are very conscious that the particular crises in Irish history are reflected in education. Two examples are: Cardinal John Henry Newman [d 1890] and the idea of the university and the foundation of the state, and Patrick Pearse [d 1916, executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Easter uprising against their rule], who, in the essay “The Murder Machine”, talked about the kind of education needed for the citizens of the new republic.”

Gaps between universities and society

Ahmed Bawa, by training a particle physicist who was vice-chancellor and principal of the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and is the chief executive of Universities South Africa, said that they discussed both the dangers of what happens when universities become detached from their communities and identified examples of research which grows out of a university’s local community that demonstrates the university’s value to that community.

In 2015, a student strike in South Africa demanded both free tuition and that the universities decolonise themselves. Even though by that year the majority of students were black, the universities remained “very attached to their historical roots [sunk during apartheid] and were disconnected from the specific geographical situations and the people around them”.

Decolonisation, he added, had to be more than adding African texts to the curriculum.

“It’s really about generating knowledge about local contexts and between universities, producing knowledge about each independent knowledge system [subject or sub area] on their own terms. If you like, on this basis knowledge is produced by asking a different set of questions.”

When I asked for an example, Bawa pointed to news reports that in 2018 Cape Town was approaching Day Zero, the day, expected in early July, when it would run out of water (the crisis was fortunately averted), and asked, ruefully: “Why weren’t the universities able to predict this fact? That Cape Town would get to this point?”

While not directly the fault of universities, Bawa notes, South Africa’s educated professionals, civil servants and government leaders have not “produced a decent quality of life for the majority of South Africans”, with the result that “there’s a growing distrust of democracy, especially amongst the youth”.

The COVID-19 crisis “has shown us how deeply fragmented and unequal our societies are, how we have failed at the university level to come to grips with the role of universities”. More specifically, he thinks that universities have failed to ask an essential question: “To what extant have the universities been complicit in producing this kind of anti-intellectualism that leads to populism and belief in falsities” about medical science.

The anti-intellectual attitude toward science which has led to high rates of vaccine hesitancy in South Africa, where the vaccination rate is 31% (compared to 44% for Mozambique), dates back, Bawa told me, to the HIV/AIDS crisis of 1999-2004. Despite Nelson Mandela’s openness about his son’s death from AIDS and his support for science, members of his successor’s cabinet said it could be cured with garlic and olive oil.

According to Bawa, members of former president Thabo Mbeki’s government argued that the science of AIDS “was being foisted, if you like, on South African society by science, basically the treatment regimens of anti-retrovirals”.

In order to strengthen what he calls the “social ownership” of the universities, which, he believes will reinvigorate their role in South African society and by extension will counter populist misinformation, Bawa pointed toward several examples from DUT.

The first concerns a recently opened urban studies centre. Instead of focusing on the development of New York, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s famed rebuilding of Paris or any one of China’s newly built cities, the centre takes for its subject the major challenges, including drug addictions and large numbers of people living on the streets of Durban.

The academic emphasis, Bawa told University World News, led to generating partnerships with the city, the business community and other sectors to produce efforts to deal with these problems.

To illustrate the kind of “knowledge that is deeply embedded in the community”, Bawa told me about Mduduzi Mokoena, then a PhD student at DUT (now a professor), who was working on grain fermentation, a method to improve the nutritional value of the food produced from the grain.

Mokoena focused part of his research on interviewing four generations of women in the local community to learn how traditional methods of fermentation worked to produce a more nutritious product: two weeks after Mokoena’s paper was published, he received an e-mail from Chinese scientists saying they would like to collaborate with him because they were working on the same problem.

The limitations of universities

Liviu Matei, who is both a professor of higher education at King’s College London and director of its school of education, communication and society, had an equally nuanced view of the role of higher education in democracy.

Not surprisingly, given that he is also a visiting professor at the Central European University, which in December of 2018 announced it was moving most of its programmes to Vienna because of actions by Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán, Matei does not see that universities can contribute to the growth of democracies in some countries.

“What is it we are talking about if we are asking how universities can contribute to democracy in countries with regimes like Myanmar? There’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing universities can do.”

Indeed, he cautions against thinking that universities are ipso facto factories of liberal democracy. “We have seen in the history of higher education that universities are not always on the side of democracy. They have often been compliant and even accomplices; the communist times are an example [as are the German universities under Hitler],” he says.

His concern for the publicly funded American universities that have recently come under pressure from state legislatures that have banned, for example, the teaching of critical race theory was clear when he spoke guardedly of their autonomy.

“I think universities have an obligation in particular in conditions of democracy to do what they can for democracy – and not just comply with directions that come down from the government or from public authorities,” says Matei.

Taking a wider view, Matei told University World News: “We tend to forget that our discourse about what universities can do in terms of education for democracy is based on the assumption that we all live in democracies, which is not the case.”

At the same time, he notes, in democratic countries, universities – especially those that maintain a high degree of autonomy (which is less and less the case among public universities in some American states) – have a role to play in fostering democracy.

Their exact contribution is hard to define. But they are positioned to counter the recession in democracy in general and the politicians in democracies who do not support democracy, including populist ones.

Producing democratically educated students

When I asked Matei how a université engage produces a critically thinking, democratically educated student, he took me, so to speak, to his classroom.

The discussion concerned the Erasmus Mundus programme, the part of the Erasmus+ programme that brings graduate students from around the world to Europe to study. He asks his students to look beyond the programme’s most obvious success: the production of classrooms with students from all over the world.

“I ask them to follow the policy line. How did the programme happen and why?

“You see that you have a Latin American student and a South Asian student in the same classroom, but where does all this come from?

“It was not a concern for diversity or to help others from outside the European Union. Rather,” his students learn, “it was a very instrumental objective of the European Commission. By providing financial aid to people from outside Europe, they could attract the best minds to Europe. And then they would create the conditions for them to stay and work here, to help with the economic competitiveness of the European Union.”

(This same debate, I should note, occurs in Canada, when it is pointed out that by enticing foreign students with medical, engineering or computer science degrees to stay in Canada, the country benefits from a brain drain that deprives developing countries of highly trained workers.)

The need to confront race

Speaking from her office in New Jersey across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, who also spoke at the forum, focused on a number of programmes the university is either running or involved in that she believes will not just bridge the gap between the university and the people who live around it, but by so doing will “promote democratic exchange and be an agent of social mobility”.

In the United States, she says, race is the first issue you have to confront when talking about developing an equitable society.

“You cannot create democratic citizenry and a sense of empowerment without thinking about racial equity, without thinking about specific issues like policing, housing, school segregation, climate, climate justice [as is the case in Newark, housing for poor people is often in the most polluted parts of cities and towns],” she says.

When the university takes on these issues, it becomes a partner across the sectors within the community and produces the next generation of changemakers committed to questions of equitable growth.

Role for humanities

While it was relatively easy to see how chemistry students could help identify toxic waste hazards in the city that once housed a large number of factories and was a major hub for trains, how, I asked, are humanities students engaged in this reimagined university classroom?

One of the projects undertaken by humanities students involves the contentious issue of reparations for slavery.

“Public historians and students in the humanities are deeply involved in tracing the chain from slavery, through red lining [banks denying blacks mortgages and, thus, the ability to accumulate capital], through school segregation to policing today.

“The information they uncover is used by the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and other community organisations to hold civic dialogues about what reparations could look like.”

Humanities students are also involved in Rutgers’ efforts to fight climate inequality.

Working with the Ironbound Community Corporation, a community group named for the metal working industry that was once in the neighbourhood and the train tracks that surrounded it, humanities students map out from a citizen’s perspective where the environmental toxins are and what they are doing.

“Narrative making,” Cantor told me, “is absolutely critical to empowering democratic voices.”

Throughout our discussion, Cantor emphasised that vast inequalities in America are not only legal, financial and social issues – they are moral issues.

Towards the end of our discussion, she addressed this directly when she spoke of how we [Americans] have to realise that the key to solving these problems is to get away from a zero-sum perspective on what equitable growth looks like, what justice looks like, what democracy looks like, who wins and who loses.

“It’s really about trying to get across that old phrase that all boats will rise [with a rising tide]. When you do well, I do well – and this is really critical to breaking through the populist, to use your word, sort of divisive landscape.”

The university as a (fading) lighthouse

Keogh’s summation of the conference was: “In essence, the purpose the university does is to drive the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and populism, whatever it is, is contrary to that”.

By casting the university not as a bulwark against populist politicians, for whom facts and truth don’t matter, but as a lighthouse, his words seemed elegiac. They brought to mind, I told him, Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” written in 1851.

In the poem’s second-to-last stanza, the poet laments the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith, which in our conversation was not Anglican theology but, rather, the idea of the university as producer and protector of knowledge – an idea that both of us had grown up with.

Keogh agreed that its recession before the waves of populism, to quote Arnold, leaves us “as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night”.