University President Ronald J. Daniels will be teaching a three-credit political science course in the spring semester titled “The University in Democracy.” The course will examine the role of universities — including Hopkins — in promoting civic engagement within their communities. As of publication, the course has four open seats.
Daniels previously taught an intersession course last winter on a similar topic.
Senior Rachel Fortinsky, who took Daniels’ intersession course, said that Daniels quickly addressed her initial concern about how criticism toward the University would be received in class.
“It was an atmosphere where we could, and did, criticize the University and certain policies and share different experiences,” she said. “You could see that he genuinely took interest and concern.”
Because the course allowed students to discuss contentious University-related issues, Fortinsky stated that she supports the idea of a semester-long course with Daniels.
Additionally, she noted that Daniels has prior experience teaching. Daniels began his career as a law professor at the University of Toronto and subsequently taught law at various universities in the U.S. before becoming the provost at University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s great for him to teach a course in the spring,” she said. “He is clearly qualified and has experience in academia. This is good for students to have more interaction to bridge the gap between the student body and the administration.”
Senior Lana Weidgenant, who also took the intersession course, highlighted that her background as a student activist piqued her interest in the class.
“I’m always interested in... how the University can play a role through their decisions and these larger issues — specifically Daniels’ perspective,“ she said.
Given the many challenges the University is facing, such as its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Weidgenant had concerns about Daniels allocating his attention to the course.
“I hope this is not his top priority given the much larger issues being faced by students right now, which I hope he is taking on as best as he can,” she said.
Junior Jevon Campbell, treasurer of the Men of Color Hopkins Alliance, also expressed his reservations about Daniels teaching a class on democracy, particularly because of the University’s response to racial injustice, in an email to The News-Letter.
“My main concern is more about him finding ways to control the narrative and paint the University as big on advocacy when they actually were very delayed and inadequate in their attempt to even to respond to the injustices Black people were facing throughout this year,” he wrote.
After the death of George Floyd, many students voiced concerns about the lack of support for the Black community. The Black Faculty and Staff Administration even held a peaceful protest during the summer to call for better representation in leadership positions and to oppose the University’s plans to create the Johns Hopkins Police Department (JHPD).
Kristin Brig-Ortiz, a representative of Teachers and Researchers United’s (TRU) organizing committee, questioned whether Daniels’ past decisions qualify him to teach a course on democracy in an email to The News-Letter. TRU is an unofficial student union of graduate students.
“In our time as an organization, we’ve seen how his version of democracy has involved buying expensive lobbyists to get his private police law, despite the obvious opposition of students and community members,“ she wrote. “Democracy for President Daniels involves holding ‘listening sessions,’ and then explaining to everyone at the end that he’s going to do what he wanted to do anyway.”
Brig-Ortiz argued that the University’s actions under Daniels have obstructed democracy.
“He hates the idea that other members of the University have something to say — whether this ‘insubordinate’ discussion comes from workers democratically self-organizing their workplace, faculty members using their traditional deliberative bodies or community and student protestors struggling to make themselves heard,“ she wrote. “Above all, President Daniels sees these people as PR problems to be managed rather than people with a right to help determine the course of JHU’s future.”
This past June, more than 600 faculty members signed a petition calling for greater representation in University decision-making. The petition also demanded more financial transparency as Hopkins enacted austerity measures in response to COVID-19.
Additionally, Hopkins changed the tenure-granting process in February. Some considered this move to further strengthen the influence of the University president while taking away the powers traditionally vested in the Homewood Academic Council comprised of elected faculty members.
However, junior William Shao, who took Daniels’ intersession class, noted that he had a positive experience from the course. Shao took the course out of curiosity about politics, since the topic is outside his regular coursework as a Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering major.
“It was a wonderfully refreshing experience to sit at a table with people I would have otherwise never gotten to meet and discuss topics I had never grappled with before,” he said. “Daniels did a great job of controlling the flow of the conversations and probing and challenging our arguments.”
He recommended the course to students who do not have a background in political science.
“One of the problems that Daniels touched upon during the course is the decline of democracy around the world,” he said. “If the president is taking time to talk about this issue with undergraduates when he could be solving much bigger problems, it is a testament to how important the problem is.”
Junior Mario Aguirre, who was in the intersession class and is the president of the Political Science Steering Committee, stated that the course presents a unique opportunity for many students.
“The political science department greatly benefits from courses like these that are different from our typical course offerings,“ he wrote. “Courses like these engage students that normally wouldn’t take a political science course and that is a good thing.”