Democracy and Higher Education gathers faculty, administrators, and members of the public to reflect on how the university should respond to ongoing threats towards democratic values and principles. We critically examine the current political debates surrounding higher education to identify areas for intervention. We also embrace a view of the university as a place where different ideas come together, and we seek to promote democracy on our campuses while remaining non-partisan and engaging a diverse range of viewpoints.

Democracy and Higher Education believes that the university has a responsibility to defend the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy in the face of attacks – whether election denialism or legislative attempts to limit what can be taught within its classrooms.

Furthermore, we intend to uphold the value of the university as an institution and its contributions to society during a time of increasing antipathy towards higher education, media and U.S. institutions more generally. This does not mean shying away from criticism from stakeholders across the political spectrum, but engaging with these criticisms, thereby moving away from the polarized views dominating the current discourse.

Liberal democracy and higher education are interdependent. Higher education cannot pursue the creation of knowledge and the education of our students without the academic freedom ensured by a democratic system, and democracy needs critics who are able to respond to the political debates of the current moment from the perspectives of academic disciplines—from biology to sociology, from history to cultural studies. If democracy is the body in which all American institutions must function, higher education is one of its vital organs.


Headshot of Eric Mlyn

Eric Mlyn is a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Lecturer at Duke’s Sanford School for Public Policy, and the Director of KIE’s Democracy and Higher Education project. Prior to joining KIE, he was the founding Executive Director of DukeEngage and also served as the Assistant Vice Provost for Civic Engagement. Before that, he was the founding director of the Robertson Scholars Program and served on the Political Science Faculty of UNC-Chapel Hill. Mlyn also chairs Duke’s Global Travel Advisory Committee. His intellectual interests focus on the role of higher education in fostering democracy and working with undergraduates to foster political and civic engagement. He holds a BA in Political Science from Tufts University and a PHD in Political Science from the University of Minnesota. During the fall of 2019 he was a senior fellow at the Tisch College for Civic Life at Tufts. He is the Co-Editor with Amanda Moore McBride of the book Connecting Social Innovation and Civic Engagement: Toward Higher Education’s Democratic Promise (2020).

The Democracy and Higher Education project hosts regular conferences as well as other gatherings.

This spring, we will host a conversation series at Duke amongst colleagues to engage respectful and honest conversations about some of the most contentious and difficult issues faced by higher education at this time of democratic peril and extreme political polarization.

We are currently planning a fall 2023 conference examining recent political battles involving the University of Florida system.

In fall 2022 we held a roundtable conversation with Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, on the role of university leadership in campus politics.

This project has its origins in a conference on Democracy and American Higher Education held in the spring of 2022. See the program conference here.

Our newsletter combines reflections on our current moment with a round-up of recent political news related to higher ed. Information on our gatherings will also be shared through our newsletter.

Please email Jac Arnade-Colwill at jac.arnade-colwill@duke.edu to be added to the newsletter.

Faculty today face unprecedented challenges in deciding what to teach and how to teach it, especially when touching on issues of U.S. history and politics, which have become unusually hyperpoliticized. This project provides a forum to share resources responsive to such a climate. We encourage others to share syllabi and other resources to be hosted here as well.

The following is a nonexhaustive list of recent articles that we have found helpful in guiding our thinking and providing context for the issues the Democracy and Higher Education project addresses.