Friday, October 29, 2021
Friday, October 15, 2021
The answer to the question of universities' relationship to the preservation of democracy was answered very directly by the President of Johns Hopkins, Ron Daniels, in an interview about his book, What Universities Owe Democracy. He said:
...this is a perilous moment for democracy. And it is interesting that if one looks back over the years in the United States, whenever there has been a sense that democracy has been in peril -- you know, whether it was during the Civil War, or the two world wars -- the universities, with support from government, have really understood their role as bulwark institutions of democracy. And I fear in this moment, as much as we do to support democracy, there is an opportunity here to do more. And doing more with some urgency is really essential right now. We're not bystanders. We are indispensable institutions to democracy flourishing.
In his interview, Daniels highlighted the importance of creating more inclusive institutions, reincorporating conservative voices into faculty ranks, and abandoning legacy admissions at elite universities. Reinforcing Daniels' core assertion that more should be done, William Tierney believes that higher education is shirking its responsibility to challenge the emergence of fascism and appealed for action to protect voting rights (to which Matt Reed adds the relevance of rule of law and standing) as a critical area of concern. He proposed that "Trustees can set the tone. Presidents can employ the bully pulpit to make the case for fact-based decision making and the import of democracy. Faculty members can engage in respectful, difficult dialogues to model how tough topics might be discussed. Henry Reichman warns that faculty need to more deeply understand what academic freedom is and remain diligent in protecting it. Students can come to grips with the responsibility they have as activist citizens in a democracy."
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February, 2022, drew the world's attention to the tension between democratic and authoritarian states. The President of the Lumina Foundation referenced this revival of military action to impose political order as a wake-up call in relation to the responsibility to expand access and foster social progress through higher education.
While the role of universities in supporting democratic practices is perceived as increasing in importance, there are troubling indications that political interventions are seeking to undermine it. The move to keep critical theory out of K-12 is evident in the 38 higher education focused legislative bills now being considered at the state level. These legislative actions are essentially "gag orders" and "would have a disastrous effect on the tenets of free inquiry, free expression and critical thinking."
Carol Geary Schneider, former President of the American Council on Education, called all of higher education, but particularly those serving previously underserved populations, to revisit the guidance of the 1947 Truman Commission, which advocated:
- Education for a fuller realization of democracy
- Education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation
- Education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence
A critical issue embedded in the question of advancing democracy is how to assess the difference between legitimate intellectual criticism versus canceling others' views and presence. Discourse that involves sharp and direct communication is essential to advancing knowledge and mischaracterizing it as "cancel culture" is a very significant danger to the academy. Essentially, balancing civility with free speech requires "the broadest possible tolerance... while also attending to the potentially harmful effects of accusatory or hate speech." Free speech for all should also be distinguished from academic freedom that faculty are assumed to have. Academic freedom for faculty has specific parameters related to their intellectual expertise and protections related to public, rather than private, issues. Some educators warn that academic leaders' pronouncements may compromise their stance as advocates for free speech.
Students who are conservative report greater reticence about speaking out on campus. Those students who are reluctant to share their candid views fear their peers' criticism outside of class. Academic discourse needs to be challenging and the complaints of self-censorship and cancel culture may actually cross the line to a more restrictive culture. Campus administrators can address the rise of incivility on campus by reminding everyone on campus of the commonly accepted classroom norms that support discourse. Effort should also be undertaken to fuse the expectations of in and out-of-class conduct, especially in the face of an "increasingly hostile and toxic work environment" that results from escalating tensions between staff and students over pandemic and other policy directives.
Accusations of cancel culture, fostering campus environments that are inclusive of diverse perspectives, and campus speech are three tensions that must be managed by higher education leaders. Survey results found that most university presidents believe that race relations are either good or excellent on their campuses, demonstrating surprising naiveté about campus discourse. Managing Political Tensions, a collection of articles offered by Inside Higher Education, promotes deescalating tensions and cultivating the cognitive tools in students to resist manipulation. The Bipartisan Policy Committee's Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap "seeks to bridge the campus speech divide, arguing that talking through contentious issues is a skill set that students can and should be taught - and also that academic freedom and inclusion complement each other instead of conflict" as described in the Inside Higher Education announcement about its release.
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
U.S.A. Students who study abroad may believe that they take the same rights and privileges they experienced at their home institution with them when they travel. A report compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) calls for institutions to be more clear that, when studying abroad, U.S.A. students must be aware of, and follow, the laws of the jurisdiction where they are studying.
The laws of countries where students go vary widely and the details may be difficult to discern, especially when it comes to freedom of speech and dissent. Sarah McLaughlin, director of targeted advocacy for FIRE, said "universities should be doing a little more of the heavy lifting to make sure their students understand what speech issues abroad mean for them specifically." Part of the heavy lifting needs to include the U.S.A. home institutions' policies related to what will happen should a study abroad student violate its policies. Examples of activities that students may assume they can do that could be interpreted as political activism include; wearing pro-LGBTQ+ clothing or pins, writing articles on foreign policy, or tweeting criticism of a host country's government.
One reason for needing clearer statements of institutional policy is that, in the absence of specific declarations, students may unnecessarily self-censor. Fully engaging in the study abroad experience could include service learning or community involvement that would be helpful but, lacking specific direction, students could avoid or not get all the benefit of such experiences.