Four key strategies for higher education leaders to advance democracy

Submitted by dene.mullen on Tue, 29/03/2022 - 00:01
University leaders must use their positions to develop citizens and communities that combat tyranny and facilitate democracy – hard work that is done on and off campus
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One of the most acclaimed historical biographers of the past century, David McCullough, once said that “history is a guide to navigation in perilous times”. Desire for power and wealth have plagued world leaders throughout history, resulting in atrocities and corruption such as those currently occurring.

In contrast to the greed that can often accompany power, the will of the people has historically been one of strong opposition to injustice. We posit that, as we face challenges familiar to those we’ve faced in the past, we must similarly rely on the will of strong people to combat those challenges and promote democratic principles, which often include respect for human rights and related freedoms such as freedom of speech, the right to assembly and participatory, transparent and accountable governance.

Higher education in general, and the leaders of colleges and universities across the world, must serve as bastions for developing citizen leaders to combat tyranny and promote democracy. Here we present four ways that higher education leaders should engage in this critical work.

Promoting shared governance

The concept of shared governance is not central to all higher education institutions (HEIs), but it provides an example of how they can demonstrate and prepare citizens to engage in democratic thought, speech and activity. In a shared governance model, faculty, staff and students actively participate in significant decisions facing the institution. For example, student leaders can be elected and given voting rights on institutional executive teams or governing boards. Similarly, faculty and staff may serve as representatives for their respective units and voice perspectives on university policies. For HEIs to promote democratic principles, shared governance must be strengthened and supported by institutional leaders.

Engaging communities

HEIs are often central to their communities. They serve as social, cultural, political, entertainment and economic drivers. Leaders need to leverage the central role of their institutions by encouraging democratic participation, and there are a few natural ways this can occur. First, institutions can facilitate faculty and community collaboration to develop policy briefs that share multiple perspectives on local and national political issues. These briefs could serve to inform communities and drive informed dialogue. Similarly, leaders should invite communities to their campus, both physically and virtually, for political debates. In a recent study focused on the role of presidents in combating racism, we found that presidents perceived open and safe dialogues on campus to be critical to supporting inclusion among students, staff and faculty. Finally, institutional leaders should be engaged with community organisations – too often, institutions and their leaders are insulated from the communities they serve.

Proactively standing against oppression

Universities and colleges have had their fair share of scandals related to racism, sexual assault and other forms of oppression. To stand as an example of democracy, higher education leaders should be proactive in their stance against oppression in all its forms. This could take the form of written editorials by university leaders, prompt responses to issues on campus and/or training for campus constituencies to ensure inclusive practices.

In many examples, where tyranny has challenged democracy, acts of intolerance and challenges to the rights of people have gone unchecked, leading to more egregious affronts to the rights of people. Higher education can also serve as a locale for honest and open discussions about what is or is not working in democratic communities as well as what the threats to democracy are in immediate as well as broader contexts. This is accomplished by creating supportive or safe spaces for open and civil dialogue, whether it be through opportunities for controversial ideas to be discussed during a speaker series or more localised engagement with perspectives that may challenge mainstream social norms and cultural values.

Protecting pluralism

A key component of democracy is the ability for many different groups, ideas and agendas to not only co-exist but also to recognise, respect and value this diversity as a strength. Higher education is in a position to provide the infrastructure and support for understanding and engaging with the diversity of thought, identity and purpose that exists within local, national and global communities. Protecting the exploration of ideas and activities that may not always be palatable to the majority but are crucial to providing a pluralistic, democratic environment is key. This could involve protecting faculty tenure to ensure that intellectual freedom is preserved, but it may also mean identifying and holding HEIs accountable for corrupt leadership and diverting resources away from community needs.

The path forward

These are a just a few ways that higher education leaders could promote principles of democracy. They are not easy to implement, either. Promoting shared governance, engaging communities, standing against oppression and protecting pluralism require university leaders to not only be immersed in the ideology of democracy but also to be strong in safeguarding democracy where it already exists and facilitating it where it may be in danger or struggling. HEIs are often microcosms of the broader social and political systems where they exist, but the challenge is to not only ensure democratic policies and practices within the institutions themselves, but also to facilitate, preserve and hold accountable democracy in local communities and global society.

Jon McNaughtan is assistant professor of educational psychology and leadership, and Alexander W. Wiseman is professor of educational leadership and policy, both at Texas Tech University, US.

University leaders must use their positions to develop citizens and communities that combat tyranny and facilitate democracy – hard work that is done on and off campus