Democracy & The Politics of American 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 & The Politics of American 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.
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 & The Politics of American Higher Education newsletter, issued monthly, provides overviews and case studies of the most trenchant issues in the political landscape of American higher education. If you’d like to subscribe, you can do so here.
The Democracy & The Politics of American Higher Education project hosts regular conferences as well as other gatherings.
In spring 2023, we hosted 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 as well as other state colleges and universities.
In fall 2022 we held a roundtable conversation with Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, on the role of university leadership in national and 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.
Democracy & The Politics of American Higher Education hosts regular webinars and talks as well.
October 2023 – Threats to Higher Education: The Conservative Assault on Public Higher Education. Watch the recording here.
In April 2023, we held our first webinar on Threats to Higher Education in Florida. Watch the recording here.
Director Eric Mlyn spoke on a panel on Censorship in Medical Education & The Humanities in April 2023.
Director Eric Mlyn also delivered a talk in March 2023 on Navigating the Politics of Higher Education as a special guest of the NC Campus Engagement Presidents Forum.
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.
- Best practices guide on advancing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement from the Heterodox Academy
- D.E.F.Y. Talks, a speaker series on defending educational freedom and building social movements. Produced for New College and beyond in partnership with Bard College and OSUN
- Unify America college partnerships
- Historians for Peace and Democracy, resources on The Culture Wars Against Education
- NC Campus Engagement Presidents Forum on the role college and university leaders play in higher ed community engagement
- Coalition for Carolina webinar on political attacks on accreditation
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 & The Politics of American Higher Education project addresses.
- Adrienne Liu, “The Apolitical University: Should institutions remain neutral on controversial issues?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2, 2022
- Darrel M. West, “Why Academic Freedom Challenges are Dangerous for Democracy,” The Brookings Institution, September 8, 2022
- Holden Thorp, “The Charade of Political Neutrality: Colleges are in the middle of the culture wars whether they like it or not,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 16, 2022
- Evan Mandery, “What Trump Gets Right about Harvard,” Politico, September 27, 2022
- Jonathan Marks, “Red Scare: A populist conservatism that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to McCarthyism confronts colleges,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 28, 2022
- Ellen Schrecker, “The 50-Year War on Higher Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 14, 2022
- Eric Mlyn, “Our House Is Burning,” Inside Higher Ed, August 22, 2022
- Eric Mlyn, “What Are We Waiting For?” Inside Higher Ed, October 20, 2020