Op-Ed: American Democracy Is in Danger. Here’s How Universities Can Help Protect It.

United States Capitol building building with American Flags hanging down and people social distanced for the presidential inauguration

President Joe Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20 as leaders from both parties gathered to honor a peaceful transition of power. (White House photo)

Editor’s note: University of Virginia President Jim Ryan and Karsh Institute of Democracy Executive Director Melody Barnes wrote this commentary, published Saturday in USA Today. One day earlier, the University announced plans for the new Karsh Institute of Democracy at UVA, made possible with a $50 million gift from Martha and Bruce Karsh.


ive months after the insurrection of Jan. 6, the country is still waiting for answers. How could this have happened – and why? Who should be held to account for an attack on the heart of our government? Were mistakes made in preparation or response?

These are important questions that demand a reply. But our inability to answer – or even debate – them reflects the deepening chasm in our democracy and raises even more urgent issues.

What must we do to protect and strengthen the principles that define and guide our American experiment? How can we build a democratic culture that bolsters our institutions and ensures they work effectively – for everyone? How can we repair damage that’s already been done?

This, of course, is the responsibility of every citizen. But it’s also a special responsibility of institutions of higher education. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to nurture democracy, and to strengthen the norms and cultural beliefs that are necessary for it to function.

As leaders within higher education, we also can’t deny that some people think universities are part of the problem instead of a part of the solution. We have our own work to do in rebuilding trust and credibility with all Americans, especially the skeptics who portray us only as instruments of liberal indoctrination or protectors of ingrained systems of power.

The good news is the most valuable work universities can undertake to support democracy is purposeful and nonpartisan. And there is plenty we can and should contribute.

At its heart, a university creates knowledge and pursues truth through scholarship and research. It encourages and facilitates civil debate. It brings together people with different experiences and points of view and – through university life and thoughtful engagement in the surrounding community – positions them to interact, compromise and build the relationships necessary to foster respect. We won’t always agree, but our democracy compels us to learn how to disagree without destroying each other.

As it turns out, our institution has been at this for some time. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819 with a mission of educating citizen leaders who could contribute to the functioning of what was then a very young American democracy.

That founding purpose animates us today, some 200 years later – now including, of course, women and people of color who were excluded for more than a century.

Our own experience shows how important it is to sustain founding principles that are indisputably good – education to prepare citizens to serve as “guardians of their own rights,” for example – while ensuring they’re applied for everyone’s benefit.

Universities Can Lead the Debate

The same is true of a healthy democracy. This is a time when we need to discover – or rediscover – ways to protect and strengthen our system of government so that it works for everyone.

Higher education must lead. Together, we need to engage even more people in discussion and debate about our country’s future, on campus and beyond. Universities should assertively lead the way forward in research and analysis of democracy itself, identifying its successes and shortcomings, and addressing challenges head-on.

Hand-in-glove with discussion and debate, higher education must also be a place for action.

There’s a long history of impact-oriented work at colleges and universities. Many of the strategies and tactics used to dismantle legal discrimination were crafted and refined in the halls of Howard University’s School of Law, where leading civil rights lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston were trained or taught.

Stanford University helped breathe life into Silicon Valley and the technological advances that have changed the world. Across higher education are voluminous examples of invention, service and outreach that have improved the lives of all Americans.

But we also believe there’s far more to be done. The challenges facing our democracy demand that we place a big bet on the work that higher education can – and must – do to help solve them. That requires that we continue the pursuit of new knowledge and translate what we learn so it can be used by policymakers, practitioners, private sector leaders and the public.

Institute Will Help Bolster Democracy

To support that work, we’ve committed to invest $100 million in the study, teaching and promotion of democracy, made possible by a $50 million lead gift from Martha and Bruce Karsh establishing the University of Virginia Karsh Institute of Democracy.

The institute will be nonpartisan, public-facing and impact-oriented, providing opportunities for our seven existing, democracy-focused schools and centers to collaborate – doing work they couldn’t do alone – and launching its own signature initiatives focused on shoring up America’s wobbling democracy.

In another six months, the attack on the Capitol will command even less of the country’s interest. New crises will emerge, as they always do, and consume our attention.

But we can’t forget about the bigger questions raised on Jan. 6. The stakes could not be higher. The health and strength of our democracy demand our attention, and higher education must answer the call.

Media Contact

McGregor McCance

Executive Editor