What is the relationship between universities and democracy? From the purposes to the uses of university (and back)

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[Lightly edited text of a keynote lecture delivered to the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology’s Graduate conference at the Central European University in Budapest, 18 September 2017. The conference was initially postponed because of the problematic situation concerning the status of CEU in Hungary, following the introduction of the special law known as ‘Lex CEU‘].



Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here – or rather, I should say it’s a pleasure to be back.

The best way to evaluate knowledge claims is to look at how they change over time. About three and a half years ago, during the launch event for From Class to Identity, I stood in this exact same spot. If you asked me back then what the relationship between universities and democracy is, I would have very likely told you at least one of the following things.

Conceptual, contingent, nonexistent?

Obviously, the relationship between universities and democracy depends on how you define both. What democracy actually means is both contested and notoriously difficult to measure. University, on the other hand, is a concept somewhat more easily recognisable through different periods. However, that does not mean it is not changing; in particular, it is increasingly becoming synonymous with the concept of ‘higher education’, a matter whose significance, I hope, will become clearer during the course of this talk.

Secondly, I would have most likely told you that the link between universities and democracy is contingent, which means it depends on the constellation of social, political, economic and historical factors, implying correlation more than a causation.

Last, and not least importantly, I would have told you that, in some cases, the link is not even there; universities can and do exist alongside regimes that cannot be described as democratic even if we extended the term in the most charitable way possible.

In fact, when I first came to CEU as a research fellow in 2010, it was in order to look more deeply into this framing of the relationship between universities and democracy. At the time, in much of public policy and in particular in international development discourse, education was seen as an instrument for promoting democracy, peace, and sustainable prosperity – especially in the context of post-conflict reconciliation. The more of it, thus, the better. This was the consensus I wanted to challenge. Now, while most universities subscribe to values of peace and democracy at least on paper, only a few were ever founded with the explicit aim to promote them. In that sense, I came to the very belly of the beast, but in the best possible sense. CEU proved immensely valuable, both in terms of research I did here and at the Open Society Archives, as well as discussions with colleagues and students: all of this fed into From Class to Identity, which was published in 2014.

For better or worse, the case I settled on – former Yugoslavia – lent itself rather fortuitously to questioning the relationship between education and values we usually associate with democracy. In Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which was, it bears remembering, a one-party state) higher education attainment kept rising steadily (in fact, at a certain period of time, in exact opposition to governmental policies, which aimed to reduce enrollment to universities) up until its dissolution and subsequent violent conflict.

The political landscape of its successor states today may be more variegated (Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, the semblance of a peaceful order in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia is maintained through heavy investment and involvement of the international community, and Serbia and to a perhaps lesser extent Montenegro are effectively authoritarian fiefdoms), but what they share across the board is both growing levels of educational attainment and an expanding higher education sector. In other words, both the number of people who have, or are in the process of obtaining, higher education, and the number of higher education institutions in total, are growing. This, I thought, goes some way towards proving that the link between universities and democracy is contingent and dependent on a number of political factors, rather than necessary.

Under attack?

Would I say the same thing today? Today, universities and those within them increasingly find it necessary to justify their existence, not only in response to challenges to autonomy, academic freedom, and, after all, the basic human rights of academics, such as those happening in Turkey (as we will hear in much more detail during this conference) or here in Hungary, but also in relation to the broader challenges related to the declining public funding of higher education and research. Last, but not least, the election of President Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the UK have by many been taken as portents of the decline of epistemic foundations of liberal democratic order, reflected in denouncement of the ‘rule of experts’ and phenomena such as ‘fake news’ or the ‘post-truth’ landscape. In this context, it becomes all the more attractive to resort to justifications of universities’ existence by appeal to their contribution to democracy, civil society, and sustainable prosperity.

Universities and democracy: drop the mic

I will argue that this urge needs to be resisted. I will argue that focusing on the purposes of university framed in this way legitimises the very processes of valorisation – that is, the creation of value – that thrive on competition, and whose logical end are inflated claims of the sort, to paraphrase you-know-who, “we have all the best educations”.

In doing this, we forgo exactly the fine-grained detail that disciplines including but limited to sociology and social anthropology should pay attention to. Put bluntly, we forget the relevance of the social context for making universities what they are. For this, we need to ask not what universities (ideally) aim to achieve, but rather, what is it that universities do, what they can do, but also, importantly, what can be done with them.

Shifting the focus from purposes to uses is not the case, as Latour may have put it, of betraying matters of concern in order to boast about matters of fact. It is, however, to draw attention to the fact that the relationship between universities and democracy is, to borrow another expression from Latour, a factish: both real and fabricated, that is, a social construct but with very real consequences – neither a fact nor a fetish, but an always not-fully-reconciled amalgam of the two. Keeping this in mind, I think, can allow us to think about different roles of universities without losing sight neither of their reality, nor of their constructed nature.

Correlation or causation?

Let me give you just two examples. In the period leading up to as well as in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US elections, much has been made of the difference in education levels of voters for respective candidates, leading some pundits to pronounce that the ‘university educated are voting for Clinton’, that the ‘single most pronounced difference in voter preference is college education’. That is, until someone bothered to break down the data a bit differently, which showed that 44% those with a college degree voted for Trump. Within this group, the most pronounced distinction is being white or not. In other words: it’s the race, stupid – possibly just about the most salient distinction in the US today.



The other example is from a very recent study that looked at the relationship longitudinal data concerning outgoing student mobility from former Soviet countries, and levels of attained democracy. It concluded that “…Cross-sectional data on student mobility and attained democracy shows that former Soviet countries with higher proportions of students studying in Europe have achieved higher levels of democratic development. In contrast, countries with higher proportions of students studying in the most popular, authoritarian destination – the Russian Federation – have reached significantly lower levels of democratic development. This suggests that internationalisation of European HE can offer the potential of facilitating democratic socialisation, especially in environments where large proportions of students from less-democratic countries study in a democratic context for an extended period of time”.

Now, this is the sort of research that makes for catchy one-liners, such as “studying in the EU helps democracy”; it makes you feel good about what you do – well, it certainly makes me feel good about what I do, and, perhaps, if you are from one of the countries mentioned in the study and you are studying in the EU (as you most likely are) it makes you feel good about that. It’s also the sort of research that funders love to hear about. The problem is, it doesn’t tell us anything we actually need to know.

It’s a bit too early to look at the data, but how about the following: both the “level of attained democracy” and “proportion of students studying in the EU” are a function of a different factor, one that has to do with the history of international relations, centre-periphery relationships, and, in particular, international political economy. Thus, for instance, countries that are traditionally more dependent on EU aid are quicker to “democratize” – that is, fall outside of the Russian sphere of influence – which is aided by cultural diplomacy (whose effects are reflected in language fluency, aptitude, and, at the end of the day, framing of studying in the EU as a desirable life- and career choice), visa regimes, and the availability of country- or region-specific scholarships. All of which is a rather long way of saying what this graph achieves much more succinctly, which is that correlation does not imply causation.




Sociology and anthropology are particularly good at unraveling knots of multiple and overlapping processes, but history, political science and (critical) public policy analysis are necessary too. It’s not about shunning quantitative data (something our disciplines are sometimes prone to doing) but being able to look behind it, at the myriad interactions that take place in the fabric of everyday life: sometimes visibly in, but sometimes away from the political arena. However, this sort of research does not easy clickbait make.

What universities can do: making communities

In the rest of my talk, I want to focus on the one thing that universities can and do do, the one thing they are really good at doing. That is, creating communities. Fostering a sense of belonging. Forging relationships. Making lasting networks.

If you think that this is an unequivocally good thing, may I remind you that (a) this is a university-fostered community, but (b) this is also a university-fostered community. (For those of you unfamiliar with the British political landscape, the latter is the Bullingdon club, an Oxford University-based exclusive society whose former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson). In other words, community-building can be both good and bad thing: it always means inclusion as well as exclusion. Universities provide a sense of “us”, a sense of who belongs, including to the elite who run the country. They help order and classify people – in theory, according to their aptitude and ambition, but in practice, as we know, all to often according to a host of other factors, including class, gender and race.

The origin of their name, universitas, reflects this ambition to be all-encompassing, to signify a totality, despite the fact that the way totality is signified has over time shifted from indexicality to representation: that is, from the idea that universities project what a collectivity is supposed to be about – for instance, define the literary language and canon, structure of professions, and delineate the criteria of truth and scientific knowledge – to the idea that they reflect the composition of the collectivity, for example, the student body representing the diversity of the general population.

This is why universities experienced a veritable boom in the 19th century, in the period of forging of nation-states, and why they are of persistent interest to them: because they define the boundaries of the community. This is why universities, at best a collective name for a bunch of different institutional traditions, became part of ‘higher (or ‘tertiary’) education’, a rationally, hierarchically ordered system of qualifications integrated into a state-administered context. This is why being able to quantify and compare these qualifications – through rankings, league tables, productivity and performance measurement – is so important to nation-states. It becomes ever more important whenever they feel their grip is slipping, either due to influences of globalisation and internationalisation or for other, more local reasons – such as when a university does not sit easily with the notion of a community projected by the political elite of a nation-state, as in the case of CEU in Hungary.

On the other hand, this is why universities police their boundaries so diligently, and insist on having authority over who gets in and who stays out. In fact, the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy were explicitly devised in order to protect universities’ right to exercise final judgment over such decisions. Last, but not least, this is why societal divisions and conflicts, both nascent and actual, are always felt so viscerally at universities, often years in advance of other parts of society. Examples vary from struggles over identity politics on campus, to broader acts of political positioning related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance.

This brings me to my final point. The biggest challenge universities face today is how to go on with this function of community-building in the context of disagreement, especially when disagreement includes things as fundamental as the very notion of truth, for instance, as with those who question the reality of climate change. Who do universities reflect and represent in this case? How do we reconcile the need to be democratic – that is, reflect a broad range of positions and opinions – with democracy, that is, with the conditions necessary for such a conversation to endure in the first place? These are some of the questions we need to be asking before we resort to claims concerning the necessity of the relationship between universities and democracy, or universities and anything else, for that matter.

Incidentally, this is one of the things Central European University has always been particularly good at: teaching people how to go about disagreeing in ways that allow everyone to learn from each other. I don’t know if any of you remember the time when the university mailing list was open to everyone, but I think conversations there provided a good example of how to how to discuss differing ideas and political stances in a way that furthers everyone’s engagement with their political community; teaching at CEU has always aspired to do the same.

That is a purpose worth defending. This is a purpose that carries forth the tradition not only the man who this room was named after, Karl Popper, but also, and perhaps more, a philosopher who was particularly concerned with the relationship between modes of knowledge production and the creation of communities: Hannah Arendt. Thus, it is with a quote from Arendt’s Truth and politics (1967) that I would like to end with.


“Outstanding among the existential modes of truth-telling are the solitude of the philosopher, the isolation of the scientist and the artist, the impartiality of the historian and the judge (…) These modes of being alone differ in many respects, but they have in common that as long as any one of them lasts, no political commitment, no adherence to a cause, is possible. (…) From this perspective, we remain unaware of the actual content of political life – of the joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, thus acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new. However, what I meant to show here is that this whole sphere, its greatness notwithstanding, is limited – it does not encompass the whole of man’s and the world s existence. It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will.

And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and to change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”


Thank you for your attention.








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