Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 6, 2021

Hahrie Han, a political scientist from University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), recently began her appointment as the inaugural director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute at Hopkins.

The SNF Agora Institute is an interdisciplinary academic and public forum that aims to promote a healthy democracy by fostering civic engagement, inclusive dialogue and open exchange of ideas. 

Han previously served as the Anton Vonk Professor of Political Science and Environmental Politics at UCSB, where she ran a lab focused on civic and political participation, collective action and social change. 

As the SNF Agora Institute’s inaugural director, Han said that she was excited about the unique ability of the institute to tackle what she thinks are some of the most central challenges people face today.

”Sometimes you might see other institutes that might be think tanks, not grounded in the university community, or you might see university-based institutes that aren’t as focused on engaging with the world,” she said. “I think SNF Agora Institute is really just a unique opportunity to bring all of those things together.”

The institute draws its name and inspiration from the ancient Athenian agora, a public gathering space that was the center of political, spiritual and artistic life in Ancient Greece, and where the ideals of modern democracy first took shape. In a similar fashion to the Athenian agora, the SNF Agora Institute aims to provide spaces that can foster civil discourse and political participation. 

The $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation established the SNF Agora Institute in 2017. Han noted that the relatively recent creation of the institute offered an appealing chance to help the institute develop. 

“There’s still a lot of meat we have to put on those bones, and part of what was attractive to me was the opportunity to build something new, and do it in this amazing place with this amazing group of people,” Han said.

Han’s primary goal for the SNF Agora Institute is to bridge the space between research and engagement, involving both students and conversations with the public. She stated that she wants to give people the best resources to do their work and that getting students involved is an important component of this process. 

“A lot of what we’re going to be doing over the coming year is thinking about, ‘How do we best pull students into the life of the institution?’” Han said. “What are the opportunities that students want to engage with? How do we engage with the different publics all over the world that we want to be part of our institute?” 

Han said that she encourages students from any area of study to attend their events. She emphasized the need for democratic society to involve a wide range of individuals, not just political science experts.

Han explained her desire for the SNF Agora Institute to help students pursue their capacity for citizenship. She stated that she believes people are not born with the capacity for citizenship, but rather that citizenship has to be cultivated.

“We aren’t telling people what to think, we’re not going to create a formula for democracy, or anything like that, but instead, we’re going to create spaces where people can learn to engage in the debate,” she said.

Han elaborated that she hopes students would learn how to take steps to act on their own interests and help achieve the kind of world they want to shape. She said that she was particularly hopeful about the ability of the younger generation to improve the world.

“I draw my hope from young people, because young people have the critical eye and the hopeful heart that we’re going to need that will make us be able to create a better world,” Han said. “[The SNF Agora Institute] can very much help realize that vision, and also be a vehicle to help realize that vision.”

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