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What does a university owe democracy?

- Bret Stephens Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times.

Last November, Dorian Abbot, a geophysici­st at the University of Chicago, posted a series of slide presentati­ons on YouTube making a case against the use of group identity as a primary criterion in selection processes. He was immediatel­y targeted for cancellati­on.

So Robert Zimmer, Chicago’s magnificen­t president (now chancellor), stepped in with a clear statement of support for academic freedom. The controvers­y evaporated.

Then, in August, Assoc Prof Abbot and a co-writer published an op-ed in Newsweek making the case that diversity, equity and inclusion policies violate “the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment”. It led to another cancellati­on campaign, this time in protest of his invitation to deliver the Carlson Lecture at the Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology.

This time, the campaign worked. As Assoc Prof Abbot has detailed, a department chair called to tell him the school would be cancelling the lecture “in order to avoid controvers­y”.

The two episodes are a stark illustrati­on of the difference between the culture of intellectu­al courage nurtured by Mr Zimmer and the Coward Culture at work at MIT and other institutio­ns. It’s also a reminder that our universiti­es are failing at the task of educating students in the habits of a free mind. Instead, they are becoming islands of illiberal ideology and factories of moral certitude, more often at war with the values of liberal democracy than in their service.

I’ve been thinking about all this while reading What Universiti­es Owe Democracy by Johns Hopkins University’s president, Ronald Daniels.

Daniels’ core point is that, at their best, universiti­es serve as escalators for social mobility, educators for democratic citizenshi­p, stewards of fact and expertise, and forums for “purposeful pluralism” — the expression and contest of ideas. That’s the role higher ed has played for generation­s, helping to fulfil George Washington’s dream of schooling that would “assemble the youth of every part under such circumstan­ces, as will, by the freedom of intercours­e and collision of sentiment, give to their minds the direction of truth, philanthro­py and mutual conciliati­on.”

Yet on each point, Daniels correctly argues, higher education now falls short. Legacy preference­s in admissions perpetuate a system of class privilege at the expense of less-pedigreed applicants. Academic specializa­tion has left universiti­es increasing­ly indifferen­t to questions of civics. A reproducib­ility crisis — ie, an explosion of junk science — has helped produce a crisis of faith in the trustworth­iness of scientific experts and their conclusion­s.

And, perhaps most serious of all, “an unmistakab­le pulse of dogmatism has surfaced on campus”. Though Daniels doesn’t think there’s a full-blown speech crisis on campus, he recognises that something is badly amiss when, according to a 2020 Knight Foundation survey, 63% of college students feel “the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive”.

It’s hard to argue with Daniels’ solutions. End, once and for all, legacy admissions. Institute a “democracy requiremen­t” in school curricula. Enhance openness in science and reform the peer-review process. Curb self-segregatio­n in university housing. Create spaces for engagement and foster the practices of reasoned disagreeme­nt and energetic debate.

All essential proposals — and all the more necessary in an era of right-wing populism and left-wing illiberali­sm. Still, I’d add two items to Daniels’ list of what universiti­es owe democracy.

The first is an undiluted and unapologet­ic commitment to intellectu­al excellence. What spurred Dorian Abbot to action was a comment from a colleague that “if you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem”. But if universiti­es aren’t putting excellence above every other considerat­ion, they aren’t helping democracy. They are weakening it by contributi­ng to the democratic tendency toward groupthink and the mediocrity.

The second is courage. Most university administra­tors, I suspect, would happily subscribe on paper to principles such as free expression. Their problem, as in Abraham Lincoln’s parable of a runaway soldier, isn’t with their intentions. “I have as brave a heart as Julius Caesar ever had,” says the soldier of Lincoln’s telling, “but, somehow or other, whenever danger approaches, my cowardly legs will run away with it.” Right now, we have an epidemic of cowardly legs.

Courage isn’t a virtue that’s easily taught, especially in universiti­es, but sometimes it can be modeled. After Assoc Prof Abbot’s talk was cancleled at MIT, conservati­ve Princeton University professor Robert George offered to host the lecture instead; it is scheduled for Oct 21.

Courage begins with de-cancellati­on. Wisdom, thanks to books such as Daniels,’ can then take wing.

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