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From the admin chair

How universities can reclaim their instrumental role in revitalizing democracy

As a guardian of freedom of expression and critical thought, higher education plays an invaluable role in maintaining stable and balanced democratic systems.


In September 2012, Seyed Abolfazl Hassani, then Iran’s minister of education, ordered the country’s universities to ban women from some 80 courses in fields he regarded as being unsuitable for women.

Six years later, Hungarian nationalist leader Viktor Orbán forced Central European University to cease operations in Budapest, its home since 1991. The move came as the president’s party accused the university’s founder, financier George Soros, of bankrolling a plan to suppress Hungary’s national identity by encouraging migration to Europe. More recently, in December 2021, following the Taliban’s return to power, the Afghan government ordered universities to immediately ban women from campuses, stripping them of their right to education, and essentially excluding them from public life in their own country.

What is the takeaway? That when democracy falters, it takes the institutional autonomy of universities down with it? Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, reminds us in What Universities Owe Democracy (co-authored with Grant Shreve of Johns Hopkins University and Phillip Spector of Yale University) that now more than ever, at a time when unchecked populism is being fuelled by anti-elitism, universities are a critical cog in the machine of modern democratic life.

Scientific progress has imposed a kind of technological tyranny that is profoundly changing our world, with universities now forced into a kind of economic realism, reluctant to educate people able to reflect on the future of our societies. Knowledge in its purest form is of interest to society as a whole; it is the bedrock of participation in political deliberation and decision-making, and allows us to escape – on an intellectual level – the authoritarianism of ideological power.

The democratic mission of higher education lies in the custodial role it plays with young people in creating and transmitting knowledge, and teaching them critical thinking skills so they become engaged and enlightened citizens. The ultimate goal is to impart knowledge that young people can use to make sense of the world, and to free themselves from the shackles of dogma.

As spaces for research and debate on important issues and for public participation in democratic processes, universities must assemble all the structures necessary to foster freedom of thought. They must act as mediators by bringing together student body and faculty members from different backgrounds who, in tackling thorny issues, will help resolve conflicts — or at least keep them from boiling over.

All societal and political issues can and should be explored in higher education settings, safe from censorship and with an openness to differing viewpoints, whether on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, social inequality, pension reform in France, the gender self-determination law in Spain, or the current debate on Canadian provinces invoking the notwithstanding clause. As a pillar of freedom of expression and critical thought, higher education plays an invaluable role in maintaining stable and balanced democratic systems.

Colleges and universities bolster democratic checks and balances by producing and disseminating scientific and technical knowledge that can be used to analyze and critique public policy. Moreover, they provide opportunities for experts in different sectors to share their knowledge and experience with students, faculty, and the community. These can take the form of  lectures, seminars, and debates — where different ideas and perspectives on topical issues are explored, while being careful not to delegitimize dissent.

It is through dialogue that differences are bridged and distances are diminished to make room for equality. Because they bring together people from different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds, universities are an ideal meeting place to help people reach mutual understanding. But the grand ambition that is academic freedom will never be fully realized unless and until we make the idea of equal participation a tangible reality.

In concrete terms, universities will only be able to effectively fulfil their role of maintaining and nurturing democratic life if they:

Promote equal opportunity and advocate for social justice. Academic institutions have a critical role to play in ensuring equal access to education by providing offerings tailored to each individual, whatever their gender or socioeconomic or ethnocultural background. Higher education will need to adapt its policies and practices to bridge the access and success gap for students from underrepresented groups, such as individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minorities. For example, the 2016 census found that only 10.9 per cent of Indigenous Canadians aged 25 to 64 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to almost 54 per cent of the rest of the population.

Actively promote international mobility. Campuses are fertile ground for practising democracy and play an important role in promoting diversity, intercultural learning, and dialogue between cultures. While international student enrolment at Canadian universities is growing steadily, less than three per cent of Canadians in higher education participate in international exchange programs. And yet, the dynamics of outgoing mobility are an important indicator of the internationalization of higher education, which is why our institutions must foster a plurality of perspectives on campus and leverage mobility programs in a spirit of collaboration and exchange.

Enrich the student experience with opportunities to practise democratic principles. By the end of their academic careers, students should understand how their education has prepared them to fulfil their civic duties and contribute to the advancement of democracy. Rooted in the civic mission of higher education, freedom of expression is also defined by a commitment to a pluralism of ideas. Promoting pluralism is a means of combating “culture wars,” “cancel culture,” and intolerance in all its forms. But universities must go beyond promoting a plurality of viewpoints and creating a space where diverging dogmas, beliefs, and opinions can be debated. They must effectively reinvent themselves by connecting with other places of knowledge production and by cultivating discernment in learning and teaching — unconditionally, methodically, and critically.

In the context of a democratic recession, higher education can no longer be content to operate on the periphery of public affairs, but must actively participate in and nourish the public debate, so that universities can reclaim their instrumental role in revitalizing democracy.

Sanni Yaya is vice-president, International and Francophonie, at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Senghor Research Chair in health and development. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada.
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