Can American Universities Protect Democracy?

The president’s executive order that severely restricts immigration from Muslim nations impedes the work of higher education.

02/06/2017 04:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2017

A recent article in The Atlantic by David Frum titled ‘How to build an autocracy’, presents a dystopian scenario in which democracy breaks down in the United States under the Presidency of Donald Trump. Frum examines lessons from the actual breakdown of other democratic regimes and discusses what is likely to happen in the United States. The article is a lucid analysis of the role various institutions could play in such a democratic breakdown. Universities are absent among the institutions he mentions, which include the various branches of government, the press, business groups, social movements, political parties and ordinary citizens.

Since Universities in democratic societies contribute to educate democratic citizens, it is surprising that they should be missing in an analysis of a possible breakdown of American Democracy.

Educating citizens is central to the DNA of the modern university, born with the University of Berlin chartered by Wilhelm Humboldt in 1811. This first modern university, an institution of the Enlightenment, set to advance the improvement of the world through the advancement of science and the cultivation of human reason. Best known for the key roles this modern university assigned to research and teaching, the university was also to serve as a counter-balancing force to the Prussian State, engaging in activities that educated the larger public on issues where scientific and academic expertise could enlighten the public interest. Along with two other institutions of the enlightenment, democracy and public education, universities were meant to challenge abuses of power by Church and State, empowering citizens with the understanding that the powerful methods of science, provided. The Massachusetts strategic framework, the Vision Project, for instance, includes educating students to be active, informed citizens as one of seven key outcomes.

Authoritarian governments are acutely aware of the role that universities can play in defending freedom, the reason they attack them often. As were all German universities at the time, the University of Berlin was seriously attacked by the Nazi regime. Joseph Goebbels and other forces of the regime burned 20,000 books from its library written by professors who opposed the regime. Soon after that, 250 Jewish faculty members and staff were fired, and many students were denied the doctorates they had earned.

Prosecution of Academics around the world who challenged authoritarian regimes preceded the breakdown of democracy in Germany, and continues to this day. Since its founding in 1919, the Institute of International Education has assisted professors who experience prosecution, and played a major role assisting the relocation of scholars prosecuted by the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalinism, by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, by the Nazis, by Franco in Spain, during Apartheid in South Africa, and by other autocracies to this day. In 2002 the IIE created the scholar rescue fund, which in coordination with the Network for Education and Academic Rights, which involves several major US Universities, to assist scholars whose work or activism has placed them at risk from the authoritarian regimes that challenge their freedom as academics. The importance of academic freedom to the mission of the university, while implicit since the creation of the University of Berlin, was explicitly stated by Michel Polanyi in the 1930s, in response to the political control that the Soviet Union exercised of scientific research.

In the United States, Academic Freedom has been generally understood to be central to the life of the University since most universities began to emulate their German counterparts in the early 1900s, with the sad exception of the black lists of university professors developed as part of the anticommunist furor of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and of those with views critical of US foreign policy in the 1980s. On a book on academic freedom in the modern university, John Boyer defined its importance as follows:

“Broadly understood, academic freedom is a principle that requires us to defend autonomy of thought and expression in our community, manifest in the rights of our students and faculty to speak, write, and teach freely. It is the foundation of the University’s mission to discover, improve, and disseminate knowledge. We do this by raising ideas in a climate of free and rigorous debate, where those ideas will be challenged and refined or discarded, but never stifled or intimidated from expression in the first place.” (John Boyer. Academic Freedom and the Modern University).

Given how central academic freedom is to Universities, and how their mission is to advance knowledge, to promote educated and critical thinking, and to advance progress and democratic citizenship, the cosmopolitan values of the enlightenment, how could the article in The Atlantic miss universities in the lucid analysis of which institutions could protect democracy from breaking down in the United States?

The recent executive order signed by President Trump banning immigrants in all categories from seven nations provides an opportunity to test the role the university community can play in challenging actions that undermine its core values. The ban violates the basic requirement for the advancement of knowledge in universities. Creative insight in universities knows no passport, and is only accelerated by the convergence of scholars from different disciplines and cultural origins. Science is one of the most cosmopolitan activities in the world, and so is higher education more generally. It is for this reason that most universities embrace internationalism as part of their mission. It is central to the university’s DNA and core mission to advance knowledge, scientific understanding and the cultivation of human reason.

The president’s executive order that severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim nations on any visa category impedes the work of higher education in two ways. First, it limits the opportunity for faculty to engage with colleagues and students from these seven nations. Second, it signals that the government can at any time issue edicts of this sort, possibly expanding the list of nations. This puts any student or scholar on one of those visas, regardless of the country of which they are a citizen, on notice, causing them distress and perhaps to consider that their work would be best carried out in more welcoming settings. This undermines the ability of universities to carry out their work of advancing knowledge and education.

These threats have been appropriately identified and denounced by a small number of university presidents. Harvard University President Drew Faust has called on the government, the Congress, and the courts to reconsider this order in defense of the University’s “vital interests”. 48 Presidents of colleges and universities, including all Ivies, Stanford and Georgetown, have stated that “If left in place, the order threatens both American higher education and the defining principles of our country”. In addition, more than 30,000 university faculty have asked that the order be repealed and a few hundred rallies have taken place around the country challenging the immigration ban.

Indicative as these challenges to the ban are of the courage of some university presidents and faculty to protest the threats it poses to higher education, the number of those who have opposed it is, relatively speaking, modest. There are over 4,500 institutions of higher education and more than 1.5 million faculty in the United States. Most of them have, so far, been silent about this ban.

Universities and higher education faculty manage many competing priorities, and face many challenges, aggravated by what some have described as the coming avalanche caused by institutional arrangements and costs that are unsustainable, and inadequate to meet those pressing and competing needs. It is possible that, in this context, denouncing a Presidential ban that limits the cosmopolitan character of higher education is not a top priority for many. Perhaps faculty need to weigh in the costs they could face, if banned from receiving federal government funding, for expressing dissent with the ban. It is possible that similarly pressing competing priorities explain why the recent creation of a watchlist of university professors who have socialist political views, or the rise in white supremacy activity on university campuses or the increase in hate crimes in universities, documented by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Globe and the Southern Poverty Law Center have received relatively limited attention from university communities.

David Frum’s article in The Atlantic concludes:

“We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.”

Should Frum’s dystopia materialize, this could also be the finest hour for American academics.