Are Higher Education Institutions Responsible for Upholding Democratic Principles?

Higher education should uphold democratic principles

This week’s post was difficult to write.

Like many TIE readers, this year has me flat-out exhausted and deeply concerned about the future of American democracy. And, as someone who has dedicated nearly half my life to working in higher education, my weariness has pushed me to contemplate our collective role in supporting the American democratic experiment.

My complex relationship with higher education mirrors similarly complicated feelings I have about the US. I believe that both entities project opaque philosophies of what constitutes achievement. Both entities have also financially benefitted from slavery (paywalled) and continue to grapple with layers of systemic inequities. Yet, no different from my expectations that the US will uphold its espoused principles of democracy for all, I also expect higher education to serve as one of democracy’s pillars.

The origin story of how the nation’s Founding Fathers envisioned higher education as a pillar of American democracy begins in the 1700s (paywalled). The intersection of higher education and American democracy continued to be prescribed through the mid-20th century with President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education for Democracy in 1947

Higher education is marketed and promoted as one of the nation’s great economic equalizers, allowing individuals from diverse backgrounds to gain intellectual and financial benefit for pursuing discipline-centered coursework. Like American democracy, American higher education promises to positively transform lives.

Given these reasons, the silence from the leaders of some of our nation’s most prestigious institutions on the matter of anti-democracy behaviors is deafening. I single out these individuals and institutions because, anecdotally, some of the most vocal anti-democratic politicians on the American scene were educated in the country’s elite institutions. These politicians’ and pundits’ behavior is so shocking and damaging it seems fictitious.

As discussed previously on this blogThe Economist recently raised the critical issue of so-called Ivy League populism, which warrants more attention and research. This form of populism is a broad red thread to many of the anti-democracy efforts currently taking place in the US, including deliberate mischaracterizations of critical race theory; the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol while espousing the Big Lie; and voter suppression efforts. The article outlines a case for why these actions must not be dismissed or corded off as exercising one’s free speech right.

Negative collective actions such as the anti-democratic efforts we are currently witnessing require an equally powerful counter-response. America’s elite institutions are responsible for producing some of the world’s leading thinkers and engineering scores of solutions to advance humankind. They must now rise together in opposition to this new wave of populism that threatens the rights of America’s most vulnerable—even if some of those anti-democratic actors are among their alumni.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.