How universities can promote democracy and contribute to their local communities

Students in cap and gown
Wednesday, July 20, 2022
Higher Education

By Byron P. White

Last month, higher education, nonprofit and nongovernmental organization leaders from around the world met to discuss common challenges universities are facing, and how we can create a more open, democratic, equitable framework for engaging with and supporting our local communities.

I was invited to represent UNC Charlotte and our urbanCORE department at the Global Forum on Higher  Education Leadership for Democracy, Sustainability and Social Justice in Dublin. With about 120 participants from 45 countries, the context for the forum was clear: Democracy is facing challenges all over the world from nationalist movements, an illiberal skepticism of scientific information and objective facts, and an unrelenting distrust of civic institutions. There was overwhelming consensus that not only are institutions of higher education worldwide directly affected by these threats to democracy but, in many ways, universities are uniquely positioned and responsible for providing leadership and action to address them.

Holding the discussion in Europe made the urgency all the more apparent, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This dose of reality instilled a more honest and transparent tone to the gathering than the typical higher ed conference. Rather than a showcase of best practices and successes, the forum was an honest self-assessment of the systemic changes that higher education must pursue to successfully advance democracy and the associated issues of free speech, equity and social justice.

This article in World University News by representatives of the sponsoring organizations captures the general findings of the forum. Their primary conclusion was succinct: “Without higher education’s commitment and leadership, we will not have real democracy.” My reflections capture six tensions that higher education institutions all over the world seem to be experiencing as they grapple with this reality. The important insight for me was to acknowledge these matters are not simply the consequences of decisions or actions made at the local level. As such, they can and should be addressed in collaboration with other institutions, even those outside the United States. The universal tensions that I identified from the proceedings are:

  1. The need for a local focus of scholarship vs. the incentive for global scholarly recognition
  2. The need for a local investment of student talent vs. encouragement of student exploration
  3. The need for local institutional investment vs. a drive for national and global prestige
  4. The development of civically engaged citizens through curricula and experiential learning vs. a growing tendency toward nationalism interpreted as patriotism
  5. The need for a more equitable access to higher education for marginalized populations vs. the rewards of of status that comes with elitism
  6. The expressed democratic values of higher ed vs. its hierarchical structures and practices

I offer these as tensions because they are not issues of right or wrong, good or bad. They are difficult and, in some cases, contradictory. Even so, there was general optimism among participants that these tensions are reconcilable. But achieving this will require a deliberate introspection, innovation and system transformation. 

Local focus of scholarship vs. global scholarly recognition

Participants generally acknowledged that the needs of local geographic places, especially urban centers like Charlotte, require the full benefit of higher education’s research capacity. Yet there often are few incentives for faculty to focus their research on local problems. Rather, more prestige is to be gained by focusing research efforts on narrow areas of knowledge generation that appeal to peers internationally, largely through academic journals. The need to legitimize local, applied research as part of formal processes for attaining promotion, tenure and other kinds of recognition was expressed by representatives of all types of institutions in all parts of the world. For an urban university like UNC Charlotte that aims to make an impact on our city, this is paramount.

Local investment of student talent vs. student exploration

Students all over the globe want to explore the world, and it would be irresponsible not to encourage them to do so. And yet, increasingly, problems facing the local regions where our universities are located require an investment of our greatest asset: the students we nurture and develop. This is especially true for under-resourced communities and countries, where the lure of far-off, cosmopolitan places is always compelling. Many of our universities are actively recruiting those students. Forum participants, several of them students, expressed a need for universities to offer local work and civic participation as viable options for applying knowledge and expertise gained through their college experiences. This was especially critical for those universities in rural and economically developing regions.

Local institutional investment vs. the drive for national and global prestige

Even among university administrators from different parts of the world, it is apparent that universities are in competition with one another. Increasingly, that competition is global. And the greatest competitive asset among all of them is prestige. However, forum participants recognized that prestige does not necessarily go to the institutions that are most focused on their local communities. This calculus must change in higher ed, they agreed. The presidents of Rutgers University-Newark, Buffalo State College and Dublin City University – all public institutions deeply tied to their local communities– conceded this dilemma but also gave compelling arguments for the rewards that come with a local focus that achieves acclaim nationally and even internationally. Chancellor Cantor at Rutgers Newark explained that many national funders seek out the university for investment because they know it is a conduit for convening local stakeholders and driving innovative solutions to social challenges in Newark.

Development of civically engaged citizens vs. growing nationalism 

The notion that part of the democratic mission of higher education is to instill a sense of civic purpose in students and to equip them to carry it out was expressed as a universal value. Yet, forum participants agreed that such principles increasingly are facing headwinds from nationalist currents that are being provoked all over the world. The underpinnings of democracy, including electoral politics, civic dialogue and rule of law, are all vulnerable to these impulses, and our campuses and students are not immune to them. Many campuses, for instance, are grappling with the dilemma of whether to invite or deplatform controversial speakers. It is naive to believe that traditional community engagement programs are sufficient to counter these trends, participants said. They agreed the necessary response is more transparent discussion of these tensions in our classrooms and on our campuses.

More equitable access to higher education vs. the rewards of elitism

Despite increasing rhetoric to open up higher education to populations that have been most underrepresented, institutions of higher education all over the world remain, fundamentally, elitist. This was one of the most honest self-assessments to emerge from the proceedings. It is simply the fact, around that world, that the richer and whiter you are, the more likely you are to go to college and to be successful. This is not by accident. Participants discussed the need for a global shift from charitable outreach to students from marginalized groups to prioritizing the value that these students will bring to our campuses, communities and the world. Part of this shift will require a way to measure and articulate this value that is more oriented toward the assets of these students rather than their deficiencies..

The expressed democratic values of higher ed vs. its hierarchical structures and practices

One of the harshest critiques of higher education came from a handful of college students and recent graduates from different countries who participated in the forum. They argued that while the rhetoric of higher education carries a strong defense of democracy, universities often operate in undemocratic ways. Despite universities’ practice of “shared governance,” they said, students, faculty and non-managerial staff have relatively little voice in the most critical decisions of how institutions operate. There was acknowledgement that the difficult choices facing higher education might very well drive decision-making to a tighter circle of executive administrators. Participants agreed that it will be important to fight that tendency and broaden internal participation in order to model democracy and drive essential innovation.

As universities around the world cope with the ongoing challenges of a changing higher ed landscape, we must keep our role as promoters of democratic values at the forefront of our work. And as we work to grow our prestige and encourage our students to explore the globe, we must also ensure that we maximize our local impact on the communities like Charlotte that we call home. As practitioners of higher education, we are privileged to sit in a place of creative tension — and it’s our job to make the most of that tension and find balance, rather than shy away from the challenge.