Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 4, 2023
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COURTESY OF KENNA LOWE

Daniels spoke on the significance of cultivating democratic ideals at the University. 

In an interview with The News-Letter on Dec. 12, University President Ronald J. Daniels discussed the function of higher education in American democracy, the importance of accountability in the University’s decision making and the creation of democratic spaces on campus. 

The News-Letter: Why is democracy so important, both to you and for higher education institutions? 

President Ronald J. Daniels: I think at one level, it reflects the institutional role that I have, that you understand how important democracy is to the flourishing of the University. Great universities require a climate in which you have open debate, institutionalized skepticism towards claims, constant challenges that people make of claims made by others. 

There's just a willingness of governments to see the importance of this kind of investment in democratic societies, which you don't see in authoritarian ones. We know the story is that, for a lot of authoritarians, the university — because it challenges received wisdom, it's prepared to push back against claims that those in power often make — is a threat to those societies. It's really hard to maintain a strong commitment to free expression if there's a state that is going to penalize people for criticizing the government, and that has a chilling effect on the character of the debate. 

On another level, I have a very personal story that is tied to my family's near miss in the Holocaust, in which you saw the failure of democratic society in Nazi Germany. My family constituted five of about 5,000 Jewish refugees that were admitted in Canada from 1933 to 1945. It also says something about Canadian society: that fear of outsiders and parochialism can still be tied to the democratic experiment.

The flourishing of democracy is really important for the ability to support and sustain civilized societies, and I feel it very directly.

N-L: How do democratic ideals guide the way you govern the University? 

RD: Having a place where people can be free to challenge — to think imaginatively about alternative ways of organizing the world, of how you think about social or scientific phenomena — is really important. I think that this is where the connection between the success of the University and its democratic character is really important. 

Over the last several years at Hopkins, we've worked in a number of different ways to try and build structures around a number of different issues where we're giving opportunity and, in fact, being very deliberative about trying to find ways in which we can give more voice to people to help us think through the best way to run the University. 

We stood up two bodies during COVID to help us get better information and to have a forum where, again, we could have open debate and deliberation... We did that with faculty [The University Pandemic Academic Advisory Committee], and we did that with students [JHU 2020 Planning Student Advisory Committee]. After the end of the second year of working with these bodies, it seemed to us just blindingly obvious that they should be continued, formalized and become a permanent part of the architecture at the institution so that you have these structures that ensure that, when major decisions are being made, they have an opportunity to be checked, debated and informed by the views of many others.

We did that in a number of different areas — around the diversity roadmap, thinking about how we manage the issues of sexual assault, one could go on and on — but fundamentally what I think is really important is if you're serious about cultivating this democratic character, to make sure you have institutions, committee structures and processes that help concretize that idea.

N-L: How does diversity in college admissions contribute to the project of American democracy?

RD: That's the issue right now before the Supreme Court of the United States. We have signed briefs and made arguments on a number of different fora supporting the proposition that having diversity reflected on a number of dimensions on college campuses is absolutely essential for the success of the university but so too for the success of the country more generally. 

The University represents a site where, by deliberately cultivating diverse student populations and also diverse faculty and staff, you create an environment in which people who might not otherwise be exposed to one another have to live with, talk to, challenge, work through problems together; in some sense, [it is] a microcosm of the richness of American society, which, in other circumstances may be avoided.

This was one of the reasons why I was very supportive of the idea of trying to, in the case of our housing policy, go beyond simply saying it's enough to bring a diverse student body who might then line up roommates who come from similar backgrounds of themselves; it seemed to me that was a lost opportunity to fully harvest the benefits of diversity to be up on campus.

It's not just enough to have representational diversity; you really want to have interactional diversity. Where people [not just know] that we're on the same campus together but they're really forging relationships and exploring different ideas and identities.

N-L: What do you see as threats to American democracy, and do you see these manifesting themselves at higher education institutions? 

RD: The threat of growing polarization, distrust in institutions [and] demonization of those who have different views of ourselves ultimately does impact the body politic and it's extremely dangerous. A compounding factor is the extent to which people are losing the capacity to be able to discern truth from falsehood and to even understand when you can and cannot have confidence in the truthfulness of claims that others make. Once you're in a world where there's no ability to see whether a claim made is true or not and people come indifferent to it, then I think that becomes extremely dangerous because it allows your political leadership to tell you what the truth is. 

It's absolutely essential for the university to be understood as one of those institutions that you can go to and believe that — when we make claims, when we make recommendations, when we produce research findings — it's based on facts and truth. We can assure and reassure the public that we're serious about that responsibility.

N-L: With the broad range of viewpoints expressed on campus, how can the University create spaces for meaningful dialogue?

RD: It's important to encourage people to be true to the values and the beliefs they have and to share them. On another level, I think what it requires is that we're constantly conscious of the need to make sure that everyone feels that they truly belong, that these debates can never create a sense that you're marginal or that you really don't have a right to be heard.

We should have space to be able to have hard conversations where we're truly probing different views and maybe even value systems and still see that as legitimate and an important part of the experience. 

Finally, trying to create broad boundaries for civic friendship where, even if I don't agree with what you say and what you believe, we can still find ways of not just being civil to each other but even saying that we want to have a friendship. 

N-L: How does the University guarantee that the various stakeholders, including students, faculty and staff, are represented in its decision making processes?

RD: First and foremost, before you even get to “are they represented in the decision making process,” it requires intentionality on ensuring that they're actually in the campus community to begin with. Over the last decade plus, it’s just been a remarkable transformation of the student body. We've been able to achieve the most selective class in the country while simultaneously creating one of the most diverse classes ​​in the country represented on a number of different dimensions: racially, ethnically, politically, geographically and socioeconomically.

The various initiatives that I described a moment ago, both in terms of standing committees that we have stood up and, more generally, in terms of more subject-specific task forces [and] working groups that have been established — this is where you want as much as possible to make sure that you're creating bodies that have that kind of diversity of perspective and experience so that people will feel that there's a legitimacy in the decisions that are being made.

It's an important factor in how you think about inviting people into these committees. Whatever your background is, people feel that there's an excitement about being part of the conversation and want to help make decisions and help us get to a better place. 

N-L: How does the University organize civic engagement efforts to reach students of varied academic interests?

RD: It starts with a strong belief that our students who are in STEM-related fields are incredibly important to the conversation over the nature of our contemporary democracy. Just look at the issues that confront us daily around how you think about new modes of technology, how they should be regulated… How should we think about clinical trials and the kinds of protections that participants in those trials should or should not be subjected to? So many of the challenges that are going to be posed to democracy are going to come from those kinds of developments.

One of the things that the Dean of Engineering and the Dean of the Krieger School have been really worried about is the extent to which the requirements for many of our majors limit the capacity of students to step outside of their majors and take courses where they get exposed to these ideas. They have been systematically trimming back major requirements to create more space for students to take those courses. 

Our students will see that their understanding of the technology and the complexity of technology can filter into those broader frameworks that we see in the social sciences and the humanities. It's about creating more breathing space, more opportunities. It actually requires us being able to find ways in which we can communicate to our STEM students that, as I said before, they're really vital, essential participants in this debate. I think that, too, might require a greater intentionality on our part as to how, particularly given the large STEM population that's here at Hopkins, they see themselves in this.

N-L: Looking forward, what other initiatives does the University have planned to continue promoting democratic ideals? 

RD: [The SNF Agora Institute] is one of the most consequential things that we've been involved in at the University. We're recruiting a significant group of faculty and fellows to be part of that program and thinking about everything from debate series to other kinds of specialized programming that can build upon the existence of the Agora Institute and find ways of sharing its benefits with the undergraduate student body. 

Even the decision that we announced over the weekend, in terms of the naming of our Bologna campus, represents another opportunity that students can take advantage of. That gift will allow us to increase significantly the size of the faculty who are at the Bologna campus, and two of those additional faculty positions will be earmarked for faculty who will be associated with Agora. There's a really interesting opportunity for students who are undergraduates here to continue to probe and explore the issues of democracy from a comparative perspective. 

There's just so many opportunities, with all the outreach efforts that you can do in Baltimore, to actually take these ideas of democratic engagement to a different level. It's not just about your participation in elections — whether you'll work on a political campaign or run for office, as I hope our students will — but even the extent to which you engage in various civic organizations and are dealing with issues from homelessness, to drug addiction, to violence, to the deficiencies in our education system, all of which I know our students are doing on a daily basis here. That, again, is another opportunity for students to use their time here at Hopkins to get more exposure to our democratic moment.


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