University President Ronald J. Daniels announced that he would be teaching a course during Intersession in an interview with The News-Letter on Wednesday. The class, titled “Do Democracies Need Universities?,” is built on the premise that universities support democratic societies by educating students, fostering civic discourse and promoting upward mobility.
Daniels explained that the course will explore different issues that American universities, including Hopkins, have faced, such as limits on free speech in the academic setting and obstacles to equality of opportunity for students.
According to Daniels, universities have often been the subject of public distrust. The seminar, capped at between 15 and 18 students, will examine areas in which these institutions can improve.
“The question is, ‘Are there things we ought to be doing differently in order to better discharge our role in liberal democracy?’” he said. “I want to look very closely at the ways in which controversy around us is deserved or ill-deserved and what we do to respond to that.”
Daniels shared his excitement to teach this topic during an election year.
“This controversy is now shaping the fundamental views of the American electorate around universities,” he said. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a very significant gulf open up between the views of Republicans and Democrats over the role of the university, with Democrats being much more supportive of universities and Republicans being much more skeptical of them.”
He cited enrolling students from various socioeconomic backgrounds as one area of controversy. He referred to Operation Varsity Blues, the college admissions scandal this spring during which federal prosecutors charged dozens of wealthy parents for bribing or cheating their children’s ways into universities across the nation. Hopkins was not implicated in the investigation.
In addition, Daniels mentioned that legacy has no bearing on the admissions process.
“Hopkins does not have a legacy program; it hasn’t had one for several years,” he said. “We’ve made changes that have responded to that issue, but there may be other things that we need to talk about in terms of really fulfilling our promise to the country in terms of reduced barriers to entry.”
Daniels looks forward to collaborating with students on these types of issues. Aside from guest lectures, he has not taught in the classroom for 14 years. He was previously a law professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania.
Daniels shared that he is developing a manuscript on the relationship between universities and democracy.
“This [course] is an opportunity for me to test drive some of the ideas that I have for the book project that I’m working on, so I’m looking forward to getting feedback from our students,” he said. “I’m also quite excited about the opportunity to connect with students in a different setting from what I typically do as president.”
Students’ contributions to class discussion, Daniels said, are not necessarily intended to influence future decisions made by the University.
“Wherever you get good ideas, you take those ideas. Obviously if they’re compelling and impactful, you want to implement them. That’s true of any kind of interaction that I have on campus, but having said that, I think it’s important that this course is fundamentally an academic course,” he said. “It’s not meant to be directed at a very particular set of policies and prescriptions for Hopkins. That’s not what this is.”
Daniels emphasized his goals for the seminar.
“We will be simultaneously talking about the system as a whole but obviously speaking from the experiences which we all know well at Hopkins,” he said. “It’s my strong belief that universities are indispensable for the flourishing of liberal democracy.”