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After 20 months of intermittent online learning, where the value of a university education can be easy to question as the experience is reduced to a checkerboard of names and faces, encountering a quartet of books that takes universities seriously is cause for optimism. Across these four books, the promise of universities burns bright, from improving democracy to accelerating incomes to life-changing discoveries.

But while all the authors believe universities can address the many risks facing society, they suggest that in order to fulfill their promise, reform on all fronts is needed. Remarkably, for an establishment quartet, the authors reveal how often universities have had to be prodded, shamed and incentivized into making the most significant changes in their evolution, including expanding admission to women, racial minorities and other under-represented students and faculty. In spite of the institution’s history as a mechanism of reproduction for the elites of the day, the authors argue that the university is one of our most promising avenues for decreasing political polarization, fighting misinformation, and ultimately, redressing inequality.

The idea that the masters can rebuild their own house may be received with skepticism by contemporary critics of the university who have not found it open to reform. British academic Sara Ahmed was able to force her former university to confront sexual harassment of students only after she resigned, explaining her decision in her recent book Complaint!, as not “a choice, but like what I had to do.” In Canada, author and journalist Eternity Martis chronicled the racism and sexism she encountered as an undergrad in her bestselling memoir They Said This Would be Fun.

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The university as a place of promise and peril emerges clearly in Ron Daniels’ What Universities Owe Democracy. Alarmed by the attempted January 6, 2021 coup in the United States and armed with international surveys showing declines in democracies’ political health, Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University (and a Canadian), advances the most forceful argument for universities as change-makers. Noting universities’ resistance to discriminatory visa rules for foreign scientists (which saw some find new posts in Canada), and his own university’s support of undocumented students, Daniels wants the American university and its graduates to find more ways to challenge power.

He finds cause for cautious hope in protests against climate change, Black Lives Matter and increasing electoral turnout. Recuperating democratic institutions depends on citizens learning to engage with words not stun guns, machetes or crossbows, Daniels argues. And every part of the university has to help by shaping future citizens: changes to curriculums should include democracy training modules for science as well as social science students, and housing policies that randomly pair students to maximize opportunities for diverse viewpoints should be adopted.

At the same time, he sees emerging campus dogmatism. “Light, though perceptible, [dogmatism] appears in what I see as a growing impatience with opposing views, a reluctance to listen, and a resistance to compromise.”

The book is long on history and short on contemporary examples, but Daniels could have pointed to violent protests during the Trump presidency at Berkeley, and the rise of cancel culture.

Most importantly, the American university will fail to transform society if it does not address how it replicates and deepens inequality in the United States, he acknowledges. He succinctly traces how decades of expanding access were reversed, starting in the 1980s, as universities turned to students to make up for declining government funding. By 2020, tuition rates and decreasing student loans meant that government aid covered only 25 per cent of the cost of average attendance at a U.S. college compared to 70 per cent in the 1970s.

Today, many of the wealthiest universities in the U.S. continue to award extra admission points to the children of graduates, creating elevators to the stratosphere for the already privileged. His own university was able to eliminate legacy admissions because it has a friend in high places: former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who donated US$1.8-billion to his alma mater, earmarked for financial aid.

In spite of Daniels’ hopes, the university emerges as an imperfect vessel for democracy. Seized with the university’s role on the national stage, Daniels misses the opportunity to reckon with how demands for internal change and representation can advance democracy. And significantly, for a book published after the first peak of the pandemic, he does not address remote learning, which offered a glimpse at how access can be truly expanded even as it underlined how there is no replacement for humans sharing physical space.

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Emily Levine’s closely researched history of the rise of the modern elite university, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, raises similarly serious questions about the relationship between universities and power.

Levine begins her story with the founding of the University of Berlin in 1809, the prototype of an institution that “would authenticate and legitimize knowledge” in order to educate a “professional civil service and competitive military.” (The University of Berlin, now the Humboldt University of Berlin, would go on to be home for 57 Nobel laureates.) From this origin story, she travels back and forth across the Atlantic to trace how German and American men leveraged professional education and their respective countries’ hunger for expertise and science as the foundation for their own ascent.

In Germany, national socialism would reveal the cost of the bargain between university, its leaders and the state. Purges of Jewish professors, which led to thousands losing their posts, were followed by close alignment between university curriculums and the now catastrophic needs of the German state.

How can universities stay close enough to power to influence its operation and far enough to maintain their moral centre? For Levine, one source of strength comes from professors’ allegiance to knowledge before country: Germany’s purge of Jewish faculty led to hundreds of prominent professors (Einstein and Arendt among them) moving to U.S. universities. In turn, American institutions seized the opportunity not only to recruit this new pool of talent, but to provide refuge.

At home, the American universities whose history Levine traces failed to confront exclusion. When it came to responding to the claims of women and Black Americans to attend and shape higher education, elite institutions took decades to act. Among the occasionally bewildering global cast of characters that populates Levine’s book, the heroes had to be persistent and pragmatic.

Levine sketches the story of Martha Carey Thomas, the second president of Bryn Mawr College. Thomas presided over the all-women university even as she believed that single sex education could never dismantle discrimination against women. Similarly, in Levine’s telling, W.E.B. Du Bois led a far-reaching reform of black colleges even as white institutions continued to prevent the entry of Black students.

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Closer in time and geography, Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First, reinforces the message that universities are slow-moving beasts. Written by Indira Samarasekera, a former president of the University of Alberta, and Martha Piper, a former president of the University of British Columbia, the book provides advice to accompany every professional phase in women’s careers, from reaching for leadership to retirement.

An honest career compendium for female leaders, the book does not pretend that universities’ educational or research missions set them apart from other public or private institutions. Instead, the two former presidents primarily depict themselves as CEOs of enormous corporations, albeit staffed by colleagues (professors and staff) who have traditionally enjoyed more freedom than their counterparts in the private sector.

With that freedom comes liberty to take potshots, large and often small: Piper retells the absurd tale of her first day on the job. She orders hundreds of baseball caps emblazoned with the slogan “Think About It” as a way to inspire, but the idea contravenes the pomp and circumstance of the occasion. The reaction to the caps is swift, negative and completely out of proportion to the gesture.

When they retire, Samarasekera and Piper are both replaced by men, with the question of whether their leadership will make any difference to better gender balance at the top unresolved. Indeed, as recently reported in University Affairs, 69 per cent of presidential jobs at Canadian universities are held by men.

With universities emerging as needing some reforms themselves before leading society, what might be the scope of what those reforms look like?

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For Harvey Weingarten, the quality of undergraduate education is the first task. In Nothing Less than Great: Reforming Canada’s Universities, Weingarten – a former university president and higher education administrator – sets out his case that while Canadian universities are poised on the cusp of greatness, they are at risk of stagnation.

Courses “have not kept up with modern realities, the quality of education is declining, and institutions are not sustainable,” Weingarten writes.

Our universities combine good employment outcomes, global research excellence, and access, but their success has bred complacency about the reforms and investments needed to prepare students to meet acute challenges like AI and climate change.

“Is it so preposterous to contemplate an undergraduate curriculum structured around solutions to problems – a Department of Poverty Reduction or Climate Change Solutions – instead of the traditional departments that often operate in silos and create impediments to students who wish to learn in multi- and interdisciplinary ways?” he asks.

Governments and institutions must attend to improving their most important product: the human capital created in undergraduate education, he argues.

In support of this position, he cites several studies, including one study of thousands of students that found 57 per cent of respondents felt they were unprepared for academic work, or jobs, after graduation from university.

It is not clear, however, that the blame or the solution lie entirely with universities. In the original study Weingarten mentions, the authors pointed out that the students had received marks high enough to gain them admission to top universities. The problem of educational quality, they argued, can only be redressed through combined reforms to the secondary school curriculum, alongside remedial education in universities.

Still, in Weingarten’s telling, our universities emerge as drivers of social and educational mobility, supported by a relatively shared commitment among governments, the institutions themselves and Canadians to maintaining and expanding access.

“The probability that a child born to parents in the bottom quintile of income will reach the top quintile is about double in Canada than what it is in the United States. Canada appears to be doing better at fulfilling the ‘American dream’ than the Americans,” Weingarten reports.

On the scales of success on which elite universities evaluate themselves and their rightful place in politics and society, Canadian universities do not have the resources of America’s or China’s institutions. Only in recent years have our philanthropists begun to make landmark gifts to top universities such as McGill or the University of Toronto (where I work), and our funding on research and development has declined as other countries’ has increased. Is this why we did not have nice things when we needed them, like made-in-Canada vaccines?

Maybe. Or maybe Canada’s ambitions for higher education are more modest than that of a Johns Hopkins, yet our results are broadly better in areas, such as access and tolerance, that are critical to democracy. After all, if the university is the rehearsal room of democracy, it matters who gets to play a part.

Simona Chiose covered higher education for The Globe and Mail. She is an adjunct political science professor at the Royal Conservatory of Music and works at the University of Toronto.

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