It has been an intense couple of weeks here in the United States as the US Congress begins its public hearings on the events of January 6, 2021, when the US Capitol was attacked by a mob acting on the false claims made by former President Donald Trump about the 2020 election. It has been a horrific year in Europe, with the extraordinary violence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These and a myriad other combined economic, environmental, and political developments — in the third year of a global pandemic — show us a world seemingly on the edge of a dramatic and perhaps final break with the implicit promise of the post-World War II era:  that we had seen horror, and there would be a collective commitment to a better, more democratic future. 

It is precisely the fraying of democracy around the world that is the key premise of Ronald J. Daniels’s important book, What Universities Owe Democracy, written with Grant Shreve and Philip Spector. Daniels argues that we ought to be much more attentive to how the invaluable work of universities (and by extension the full research enterprise) has been made possible by the inextricable connection between higher education and liberal democracy. Democracies need both more knowledge and more knowledgeable citizens, and universities have contributed both. Universities have been a great facilitator of social mobility, and are key places where the challenging work of debating ideas has taken place. Yet not only is democracy in decline, but its long-standing compact with higher education is, too. Citing the Varieties of Democracy Project and quoting Larry Diamond’s observation that we are experiencing a “democratic recession,” Daniels calls for universities to commit to more explicit pro-democracy work. “It is imperative,” he writes, “in this moment of democratic backsliding, that our universities more self-consciously vindicate their obligations to this most precious and fragile form of self-governance.”

hand turning wooden cubes with letters from democracy to autocracy

Daniels has four substantive chapters where he draws on a wealth of recent and historical data and analyses. (When I asked about their collaboration, Grant Shreve, an English PhD, said the work felt like getting another combined degree in political science, economics, and history.) As much as this book is a call to action, this is also a book to get wonky with. I’m taking the space here to sketch each of the chapters in part because the analytical details are foundational to that call. The first chapter, “American Dreams:  Access, Mobility, and Fairness,” tackles the role of higher education in socio-economic mobility, arguing that “American universities — particularly our most elite institutions — have come to sabotage and deform, rather than honor and defend, the ideal of equal opportunity” and the promise of mobility. The incredible potential of higher education to produce mobility is still best seen at public universities; citing the Mobility Report Cards  Daniels notes that it is places like UCLA, SUNY Stonybrook, and UT El Paso that “proved most adept at enrolling high numbers of low income students and moving those students up the social ladder.” Part of the reason all universities aren’t better able to produce this effect, and in ways they did during the immediate postwar years, “lies with the fraying of the government-university compact.” The embrace of the notion that a college degree is of benefit only to the individual rather than to society collectively is part of why — and politically, how — states have so disinvested that their public universities may be “public in name only.”

Daniels’s prescription for what ails us is “nothing less than a restoration of the historic compact between the federal government and the American university.”  And it should begin with “direct funding for low- and middle-income undergraduate students.” Universities also need to stop legacy preference admissions, which have distorted universities’ capacity, indeed responsibility, for educating in a democratic context.

The second chapter, “Free Minds:  Educating Democratic Citizens,” turns to the responsibility for universities to cultivate “civic literacy.” Acknowledging that the structure of universities makes this a complex feat and predicting the intensity of debates about what content and form this cultivation might take, Daniels nonetheless argues that “democratic citizenship must be learned” and “universities must do their part to teach it.” Chapter three, “Hard Truths:  Creating Knowledge and Checking Power,” takes up the central project of many Scholarly Kitchen readers:  the research enterprise. Self-governing requires information that in turn requires new knowledge production which is, of course, research. “The modern university,” Daniels recounts, “is uniquely suited to [the] expert-generating function in the service of democracy.” The acceleration of this function in the postwar period was intentional, based on a model of scientific research, and instituted grant-funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Not just making but disseminating knowledge — research — is inherent to a university’s value, thus Daniel’s enthusiasm for open science.

One of the clearest challenges for democracies is to leverage pluralism for social strength rather than allow difference to be weaponized for division or violence.  In the final chapter, “Purposeful Pluralism:  Dialogue across Difference on Campus,” Daniels acknowledges that a culture of proclamation rather than dialogue, exemplified by social media, makes it ever more challenging to promote constructive exchange.  One prescription universities could implement is to host all campus lectures as exchanges between differing views, not to promote bothsidesing but to model how different views can be not only held and discussed.  As the president of Johns Hopkins University since 2009, and the Provost at the University of Pennsylvania before that, Daniels is experienced enough to know that the “explicit commitment to liberal democracy” that he proposes could be viewed as impinging on the very academic freedom he celebrates as a cornerstone of the university.  What if, he proposes, a student or faculty member “were to argue in a research or classroom setting for the superiority of authoritarian political arrangements?”  Or sexism, racism, or Christian nationalism?  He settles for the virtue of practicing what is preached, in other words protecting “this right of dissent.”  In doing so “we demonstrate our fidelity to one of liberal democracy’s core commitments–the freedom of thought and expression.  The animating genius of liberal democracy–and one of the reasons it demands protection–is that it permits, and even encourages, criticism of liberal democracy itself.”  

book cover

Curious to hear more, I talked to Daniels about what motivated the book, and what he thinks about some pressing current related and relevant issues. I also wanted to talk a bit more about the nature of his prescriptions for what ails us all. Why, as a university president, did it seem like this was the book to write now? Perhaps it should encourage us that university presidents may be feeling like all of us, wondering what we can and should do for the intensifying problems we’re witnessing. “What really fueled me,” he said, “is the fragility of liberal democracy…there is a vulnerability we thought we were immune to.” It’s also encouraging that one of Daniels’s responses was to get scholarly. “Given my perch [at Hopkins,] what role do I / we have in redressing some of these issues” and then how can we be “more rigorous in documenting and analyzing what we can and should do?”

It’s striking but not surprising that a collision of phenomena that are making democratic governance more difficult — the explosion of information and the erosion of trust in information, for example — are making the business of research and scholarship more difficult. The very things that should make this work more necessary are making it more vulnerable. What Universities Owe is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, launched in the 1870s when the university’s first president believed that “publishing is not just the necessary business of a great research university. It is a duty, and it is a noble undertaking.” I asked Greg Britton, the Editorial Director at the press, about the book and he made that very connection to the press’s mission. In an email, Britton said that “many of us work in and around higher education,” and, “we bemoan the fraying of American democracy. What I like about this book is it’s absolutely pragmatic approach to what we can do in our own work to counter that trend. I find it hopeful at a time when we desperately need ways to rebuild our civil society. Just as universities have an obligation to promote democracy, university presses share this duty. By promoting evidence-based research, free enquiry, the creation and sharing of knowledge, and open debate through their books, journals, and digital products, university presses are essential to a democracy society, just as democracy is a precondition for the existence of university presses.” I asked Daniels about working with Britton and the press and he too made the connection to mission. It was, he said, “a privilege” to work with the press, and he had particular praise for the open access version of the book, which “reflects the capacity and commitment of university presses to fulfilling their role” in knowledge dissemination.

World War II looms so large in the book, as indeed it does in how we understand modern democracies and higher education. But for Daniels, it’s also personal. He opens the book discussing his family history of fleeing the Holocaust. This history is “so deeply felt.” “I grew up in proximity to the tragedy of the Second World War and its incredible destruction, and in the shadow of the great institutions created out of its debris.” That framing of the postwar as the crucial connector between (research intensive?) higher education and democracies, though Daniels does write about earlier eras and other progressive educational lineages, namely Black colleges founded in the current and wake of abolitionism and then Reconstruction, might miss some deeper counter currents. Richard Hofstadter was only one of many who have written about the well of anti-intellectualism in America, and doesn’t our contemporary crisis of disinvestment owe something to that tradition, too? Daniels acknowledged that there is “something old and new and tethered to the moment we’re in.” Certainly “we know it’s part of the fabric of the country but I think there is a different context.”

One of those contexts Daniels points to directly in What Universities Owe, and that is not just political polarization, but Republicans’ push to use universities in what he described to me as “an attack on higher education [which is] one of the great achievements of this country.” When we talked about public universities in particular, and their incredible, demonstrated capacity to create social mobility, he pointed to the “terribly worrisome” declines in university enrollments since the pandemic. “We are seeing declining state support as a percentage of total budgets at the same time increased interest in using universities to play out highly symbolic cultural battles,” he said, and “public university trustees using their leverage to worry about the study of Critical Race Theory or to influence the capacity of their university to provide experts on voting issues as we saw in Florida.” So it’s not just that the structure of university budgets or the financial burdens on students are accelerating because of state disinvestment, but the politics of that disinvestment has turned even more sharply partisan. (I note that Daniels has kind words for some Republican civic education projects, including that of former Republican senator and Indiana University president Mitch Daniels [no relation].)

A related issue I asked Daniels about is currently held student loan debt and the Biden administration’s and other plans for loan forgiveness. In What Universities Owe he documents, for example, skyrocketing tuition and laments the failure of Pell grants, “that centerpiece of [higher education] access in the post-World War II era,” to keep up. I was thinking of Tressie MacMillan Cottom’s recent piece, “America Turned the Greatest Vehicle of Social Mobility Into a Debt Machine,” where she, too, documents the unbearable burdens that students and their families are carrying for what was supposed to be access to the American dream and argues that “anything less than across-the-board forgiveness extends the life of the mess.” Daniels has advocated for dramatically lowering the tuition burden going forward, but as for current debt “I do have concerns about across-the-board cuts and their potentially deeply regressive character,” he said, but “if you were to go this route, to the extent that it could be means tested I might feel differently.”

I think I disagree with that conclusion, but as I read the book and talked with Daniels, I found myself appreciating the sense that my disagreement didn’t make him wrong. The exceptionally high stakes of… everything?… has made every single issue and policy a matter of urgency to the extent that it becomes awfully difficult to see wider areas of agreement about direction and underlying goals. I also have some reservations about the framing of What Universities Owe, as I’m sure many will have about its prescriptions. That promise of World War II — not only “never again,” but an explicit commitment to internationalism, to democracy at home and abroad, to tolerance as essential for the health of global societies — and the institutions that, as Daniels notes, arose in its wake — is only partial history of the 20th century and indeed only a partial history of the United States and higher education. The reality is that not just exclusion, but often violent racism and misogyny, were part and parcel of some of those same postwar institutional structures.

Yet Daniels’s book does two things that are desperately needed and that make it important reading for anyone working in or adjacent to higher education. First, it shows us how to contextualize the work we do in universities — and libraries, and as researchers and publishers. We cannot understand the work we do if we do not ever more deeply and fully understand the institutional — and political — contexts in which it takes place. There was never an apolitical way to do this work, as the explicit invocation of the liberal democracies that nurtured the rise of the research university have made plain. Others have contextualized our institutions and their politics differently and in ways that are also incredibly important. Daniels discusses, for example, from a very different vantage, the kinds of relationships universities such as his have to their cities than Davarian Baldwin, who I interviewed about his essential What Universities Have Wrought  last year.  But when we think about the big project of democracy — making plural self-governance work — this widest aperture is very helpful.

Second, it offers some direction of travel and an agenda in a moment when both feel urgently needed and in short supply. Simply coming to grips with the reality of our mutual, entwined endeavor is helpful. As we have thought about the nature of our work in and alongside universities, many of us will have been reading a lot about higher education, including Cottom’s Lower Ed. I’m a fan of historian of education’s Johann Neem’s work (including his What’s the Point of College), and I’m looking forward to journalist Will Bunch’s new book, After the Ivory Tower Falls. But none of these have yet offered what Daniels does, which is a framework for how to think about what connects the best and the worst of governments and universities. Earlier this week Leslie Harris shared on Twitter the Baccalaureate address at Swarthmore by Professor Allison Dorsey. In an incredibly sharp and wise speech, Dorsey counseled the new graduates confronting a world of problems — and a world of problems they might rather avoid, including racism — to be humble and learn. But also, she said “At times, you, as an individual will not be able to fix a problem. The fearful problems that confront you may be too great. Your task then is to bear witness.” This is what many of us — librarians, researchers, publishers — are doing in our quest to make, preserve, and share research.

Are we seeing ourselves as doing this work in order to save democracy? Probably not, but I think we can. It can be easy, and in the world of quick social media takes and a near-overwhelming world of crisis and violence, sometimes be too easy to be cynical or to deny the possibility for positive change. (There’s a reason they call it doomscrolling.) As Ron Daniels observed, “universities aren’t going to save democracy, but we are critical institutions and there are things we can do to address this moment.”

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and Professor of History, Brown University. She is a historian with a research specialty in family, gender and politics in eighteenth-century British America and has experience in non-profit humanities publishing.