A Meditation on Restoring Faith in Our Nation

By Stephen Parks

What Universities Owe Democracy by Ronald J. Daniels, with Grant Shreve and Phillip Spector. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

The summer of 2022 was marked by a national reconsideration of the events of January 2021. The hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol have provided rich detail into how insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in the name of loyalty to a defeated leader and what they perceived as “his rightful place of power,” bringing with them deeper motivations steeped in racism and a rejection of a multiracial, inclusive democracy. Johns Hopkins University president Ronald J. Daniels has responded with an extended meditation on how the university must actively turn its resources toward the work of restoring faith in US democracy. He declares in the introduction to his book that “with liberal democracies flagging around the world, and hostility to institutions rising at home, this moment feels perilous, maybe singularly so. We can no longer pretend that the United States is immune from the gale winds of illiberalism or its universities from the suppression that often follows.” And it is to the credit of What Universities Owe Democracy that Daniels does more than just ponder these issues, arguing that “it would be a scandal” for universities “to sit passively by as the political structures aligned with their mission degrade around them.” He also offers concrete steps universities must take to fulfill their important public mission. Assisting Daniels in this effort are Johns Hopkins colleagues and secondary coauthors Grant Shreve, senior writer in the Office of the President, and Phillip Spector, former vice-president for strategic initiatives.

Daniels organizes his work into four primary chapters, with each one discussing a key issue facing the university and, by association, liberal democracy: “American Dreams,” which focuses on upward mobility; “Free Minds,” which considers the value of democratic education; “Hard Truths,” which explores issues related to free speech; and “Purposeful Pluralism,” which introduces the idea of dialogic campuses. In each chapter, Daniels offers a brief history of how universities have aligned with a particular democratic goal (for example, free speech), followed by an exploration of the political, institutional, and cultural forces that have contributed to a diminished commitment to that goal. For faculty members and administrators, many of the issues and examples will be familiar. Protests over controversial invited speakers, for instance, have disrupted many campuses. Similarly, the difficult terrain of the university classroom as a site to have conversations about race, class, gender, and sexuality will be instantly recognizable.

Daniels’s discussion of these issues, however, gains power through his ability to embed these tales within a network of data pulled from national studies, responses by professional organizations, and policy responses from university campuses. By the end of each chapter, the reader begins to realize why such issues are so difficult to resolve. And for this reason Daniels’s proposed solutions will serve as an important starting point for department, college, and university discussions of how universities can support the rebuilding of democracy in the United States.

To take just one practical example, in the interest of building an intentionally pluralistic campus environment, he suggests removing the ability of students to self-select roommates. Random housing assignments, he argues, provide an opportunity for students to learn about other identities, heritages, and cultures. This isn’t just conjecture: he cites evidence of students who state that such a policy benefited their education. Admittedly, such small changes might not possess the drama of expansive systemic restructuring of the university, but for many administrators, I expect, they have the important quality of being feasible. In this way, readers might approach Daniels’s book not only as a his­tory or as a political statement of the role of the university but also as a handbook for faculty and administrators in how to begin this important work.

Students, however, might have a less favorable reaction. Daniels routinely invokes a hypothetical “university student,” whom he portrays as failing to fully understand the tenets and workings of democracy and who mistakes community engagement for the responsibilities of demo­cratic citizenship. In the “Free Minds” chapter, for instance, Daniels argues that students are “woefully undereducated in democracy’s core precepts” and that while the ever-popular model of community engagement “ought to be a pillar of democratic learning . . . it simply cannot be the sole source of a civic educa­tion.” He notes, more generally, that if universities had succeeded at training citizens, “one would expect to see evidence . . . in the democratic capacity of its citizenry.”

Such representation of students, I would argue, demon­strates a profound lack of respect for the activism of university students over the past decade. For instance, just focusing on Dan­iels’s use of the term “citizenry” glosses over the significant work of university students to expand educational rights and benefits to undocumented students, such as the work of the undocUVA collec­tive at the University of Virginia. Indeed, instead of acknowledg­ing the work of undergraduate students in expanding such rights, Daniels cites the creation of “engagement” courses at the University of Virginia. Speaking as a UVA faculty member, I would agree that these courses are, in fact, commendable examples of a democratic education. But per­haps even more important, UVA’s students of color and student advocates themselves have been a significant factor in making positive change possible at UVA. Indeed, this dialogue between stu­dent and institution might be read as a sign of a healthy democratic culture.

Daniels’s historical discussions tend to privilege political figures like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and educational advo­cates like John Dewey, eclipsing alternative theories of democratic governance and community struc­ture. Daniels notes that some of the central battles on university campuses are those concern­ing which “tradition” should be held up as fostering inclusive democratic values. But what is missing from his discussion is the recognition of how student movements are drawing from other traditions—such as Native American and Indigenous com­munal structures—in their work to rebuild “American democ­racy,” as Daniels frames it, both on and off campus. In this sense, I fear that students would find What Universities Owe Democ­racy a bit nostalgic and dated in its portrayal of democracy and, in that sense, perhaps less useful for what will be their generational struggle.

Ultimately, however, What Universities Owe Democracy is also exactly the type of read­ing that should be assigned in a university classroom, circulated among faculty, and shared with administrators. Daniels’s book initiates important work that should be taken up across univer­sity campuses. He is attempting to reestablish a common space for discussion, one that moves past simple divisions and unpro­ductive political posturing. And, he reminds us, such discussions must result in concrete actions in support of democracy. As noted above, there may be disagree­ments about what traditions, values, and practices should mark that common space, but there is real value in reminding us of the importance of such spaces and communities. As Daniels puts it, “The key here is to insist that any exploration of democracy’s failures be firmly implanted on an understanding of its promise and a recognition of its inherent fragility.”

We have all just witnessed democracy’s fragility. We must now begin again the difficult work of realizing its promise.

Stephen Parks is professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the chair of the University of Virginia’s Democratic Futures Working Group, the editor of Working and Writing for Change, and the author of Writing Communities, a textbook focused on building democratic communities. His email is sjp3st@ virginia.edu.