Advocacy for a more inclusive, dynamic and democratic university


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

Ronald J Daniels makes four recommendations that he says will shape America’s universities and colleges for graduate students who understand and care about democratic processes — and reconfigure universities and colleges so that they are models of a functional liberal civil society.

Each recommendation is backed by a wealth of data and, just as importantly, the author of What universities owe to democracy shows that each recommendation stems from the most progressive strains in American history, which means they run counter to some of the most powerful forces rocking America today.

Legacy Admissions

Consider the first recommendation: an end to legacy admissions and the restoration of generous federal financial aid.

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

A wealthy and well-known former student called to ask Daniels to admit the son of the man who had not been admitted to Canada’s most prestigious law school on his own merits. Daniels told him he had no power to do so. The furious deep-pocketed parent replied, “If you really want to go neck and neck with the big Ivy League schools in the United States, you better start acting like one.”

Terminated by Oxbridge over three generations ago, Legacy Admissions still exists at 70 of America’s 100 highest-rated colleges. One study estimates that they add the equivalent of 160 (or 10%) of the Academic Aptitude Test (SAT) score to a student’s application. The SAT is used by thousands of colleges and universities instead of their own admissions test.

Unsurprisingly, executives who enter a Harvard or Yale under a banner that might read “My Father Went Here,” are wealthier and whiter than those who enter those schools through the equivalent of the servants’ door.

In 2009, when Daniels arrived at JHU, 12.5% ​​of the freshman class were legacy admissions while 9% were eligible for Pell Grants (a U.S. federal government grant available to poorer students ). In 2020, six years after the end of the legacy admissions process, 4.2% of students are children of graduates, while 20.5% are eligible for Pell.

However, Pell grants are not enough. In the 1970s, they covered about 70% of the cost of attending a college or university. Today, 50 years after the budget cuts of former US President Ronald Reagan and others inspired by him, Pell grants cover 25% of a student’s expenses. Similar cuts by state governments have only exacerbated a problem that Daniels says 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 governance of the nation or the philosophical underpinnings of freedom. of expression, for example.

In this context, curiously, Daniels quotes Plato who describes education as “inspiring[ing] the recipient with a passionate and ardent desire to become the perfect citizen, knowing both how to handle and how to submit to just rule”. Bizarre, because, as Daniels knows, the Platonic image of the “perfect citizen” excludes more than 50% of the population – women – even though its notion of “submission[ting] to just government,” as made clear in The Republichas 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 “oath of allegiance”, with phrases such as “and to the Republic for which he [the flag] stands up” and “with freedom and justice for all”) does not participate in the international study on civic and citizenship education conducted regularly.

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

There are, however, more than enough proxies, including the withering of teaching civics and the “flabbergasted” response of Daniels and his management team when, after a course on the foundations of freedom of speech, freshmen told them they had never heard the case for freedom of speech.

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

He writes: “In the fall of 1918, a little over a year after President Woodrow Wilson had 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 Congress; what Wilson did on April 2, 1917 was to ask Congress to declare war.

It’s hard not to get lost in the paragraphs about community service and volunteering as some sort of remedy for declining civic engagement. But, depressingly, he shows that while “service-learning” engages students locally, it does not engage them with the American system of self-government. In one study, the belief that serving on a jury is an individual’s responsibility actually declined in prevalence, even as the sense of duty to volunteer increased.

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

One possibility offered by Daniels is “Citizenship in the 21st Century” from Stanford University (Stanford, CA). At the heart of the program is a “rich array of texts (from Indigenous writers to framers of the U.S. Constitution to Harlem Renaissance poets [eg Langston Hughes])”, as well as ethical discussions and case studies.

Open science with railing

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

On this last point, I think it should be noted that deconstruction, which I studied as part of my graduate studies at McGill University (Montreal, Canada), was perhaps chic in the 1980s and 1990 but, like most intellectual movements, it is now a bit old.

It is true that even in the state university system, which educates the bulk of American undergraduates, there are courses inspired by Derrida’s work. However, there are many more which are called, to remain in my specialty, English literature, “Shakespeare”, “Milton”, “The Eighteenth-Century Novel”, “The British Romantics”, and others which focus on the Brontës, slave stories, women’s poetry, post-colonial literature, the Victorian novel. Hardly a “differance”, Derrida’s favorite neologism, to see.

Still, it’s hard not to agree with Daniels’ resolute defense of the facts. And, I must add, it is rather amusing to read that the sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, wonders if it is the duty of scholars, like himself who wondered about the validity of science, “to add new ruins to the fields of science”. ruins” and declare: “I am now the one who naively believes in the facts”.

Additionally, Daniels points to the dangers that private money poses to academic research. The fact that scientific journals are now publishing articles on failed experiments bodes well, he says.

Countering homogeneity

Daniels’ final recommendation, “Reimagine student encounters on campus and introduce debate into campus programming,” goes back, in part, to the first chapter of the book which shows how nearly every American university and college has done everything they could to remain racially and religiously homogeneous.

Now, with most of those walls down, at least officially, Daniels shows that since universities resumed allowing freshmen to pick their own roommates in the early 2010s (the practice had been scrapped in the 1980s and 1990s), increasingly more roommates were of similar income and, importantly, racial groups.

Brought 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 of having friends of a different race.

Mutatis mutandis for the more affluent students; those who end up cohabiting with a less well-off roommate can take solace, Daniels shows, with the fact that these poorer students “are less likely to bear higher taxes for 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 worrying for Daniels is the growth of echo chambers. Fortunately, he doesn’t beat the drum on “cancel culture,” the bane of America’s right-wing media stars, like Fox News‘ Tucker Carlson, who conveniently sidesteps the fact that almost every right-wing speaker who has been disinvited from a university is not silenced – unless his understanding of being silenced is interviewed on his show in front of three million viewers. At most, says Daniels, there are two dozen disinvitations a year.

Still, Daniels worries that campuses are not arenas for debate. (A reader of his book who took careful notes would have noted that they almost never were.) One can make room for other voices by, instead of inviting a speaker on a topic, by by inviting two with opposing points of view.

Daniels’ book, which is worth reading for the facts of American higher education it presents, is also a heart cry for a more inclusive, vibrant and, yes, democratic university or college. While I’m not sure such a model can stop America’s slide toward “illiberal democracy” at best and overt authoritarianism at worst, it is at least worth a try.

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