Democracy and 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 and 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 in standing in front of foliage

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).

Featured Work

Eric Mlyn, Project Director, making opening comments while leaning on a podium.

Democracy and the Politics of American Higher Education organized a conference on December 1 and 2, 2023, titled “Americans Politics and State Higher Education.” Panels addressed the following topics: case studies in the politics of higher education from the University of North Carolina and University of Wisconsin systems, as well as The New College of Florida; academic freedom at public universities; the role of state governments in the governance of public universities; and freedom of expression for students across the political spectrum. See the conference program here.

The Democracy and the Politics of American Higher Education newsletter 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 and 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.

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 and 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.

Alt text: Democracy and Higher Education webinar. Threats to Higher Education: The Conservative Assault on Public Universities. Moderated by Dr. Eric Mlyn, Director. Monday, October 23, 12:00-1:00pm. Photos of speakers. Dr. Steve Brint, Distinquished Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside; Dr. Ashley L. White, Assistant Professor of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Education Fellow for Equity Access and Opportunity, NAACP's Center for Education Innovation & Research; Dr. Jeremy C. Young, Program Director, Freedom to Learn, PEN America.


In April 2023, we held our first webinar on Threats to Higher Education in Florida. Watch the recording here.

Democracy and Higher Education webinar: Threats to Higher Education in Florida. Thursday, April 20, 12:00-1:00pm. Photos of speakers. Robert Cassanello, Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Florida. Anna V. Eskamani, Member of the Florida House of Representatives for District 42. Sophia Brown, Student Editor in Chief of New College's student-run newspaper The Catalyst. Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, Baker-Ferguson Professor of Politics and Leadership Emeritus, Whitman College. Moderated by Eric Mlyn, Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Lecturer at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Director Eric Mlyn has been featured in several panel discussions as well. He spoke on a panel hosted by Duke’s Office for Faculty Advancement on Navigating Sensitive Topics in Your Teaching and Research Spaces in December 2023.

Speaker title page from panel on Navigating Sensitive Topics in Your Teaching and Research Spaces. Headshots of speakers displayed in circles: Bruce Jentleson, Eric Mlyn, Candis Watts Smith, Kathryn Whetten, and Gary Bennett. Duke Faculty Advancement logo.

Eric Mlyn also spoke on a panel on Censorship in Medical Education & The Humanities in April 2023.

Eric Mlyn 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 and the Politics of American Higher Education project addresses.