What Does a University Owe Democracy?

, What Does a University Owe Democracy?, The Habari News New York
, What Does a University Owe Democracy?, The Habari News New York

And, perhaps most serious of all, “an unmistakable pulse of dogmatism has surfaced on campus.” Though Daniels doesn’t think there’s a full-blown speech crisis on campus, he recognizes that something is badly amiss when, according to a 2020 Knight Foundation survey, 63 percent of college students feel “the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

It’s hard to argue with Daniels’s solutions. End, once and for all, legacy admissions. Institute a “democracy requirement” in school curriculums. Enhance openness in science and reform the peer-review process. Curb self-segregation in university housing. Create spaces for engagement and foster the practices of reasoned disagreement and energetic debate.

All essential proposals — and all the more necessary in an era of right-wing populism and left-wing illiberalism. Still, I’d add two items to Daniels’s list of what universities owe democracy.

The first is an undiluted and unapologetic commitment to intellectual excellence. What spurred Dorian Abbot to action was a comment from a colleague that “if you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem.” But if universities aren’t putting excellence above every other consideration, they aren’t helping democracy. They are weakening it by contributing to the democratic tendency toward groupthink and the mediocrity that can come from trying to please the majority.

, What Does a University Owe Democracy?, The Habari News New York

The second is courage. Most university administrators, I suspect, would happily subscribe on paper to principles like free expression. Their problem, as in Abraham Lincoln’s parable of a runaway soldier, isn’t with their intentions. “I have as brave a heart as Julius Caesar ever had,” says the soldier of Lincoln’s telling, “but, somehow or other, whenever danger approaches, my cowardly legs will run away with it.” Right now, we have an epidemic of cowardly legs.

Courage isn’t a virtue that’s easily taught, especially in universities, but sometimes it can be modeled. After Abbot’s talk was canceled at M.I.T., the conservative Princeton professor Robert George offered to host the lecture instead; it is scheduled for Oct. 21 on Zoom.

Courage begins with de-cancellation. Wisdom, thanks to books like Daniels’s, can then take wing.