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(From a speech delivered Jan 10, 2013 at the World Universities Forum in Vancouver)

Western democracies are ailing. Polls in many jurisdictions show citizen confidence in political parties and governing institutions has plummeted over the past four decades, while voter turnout in elections in North America and much of Europe has declined by up to 25 per cent over the same period.

Such trends have prompted American scholar Russell Dalton to observe that the most serious challenge to democracy comes not from external or internal enemies, but from citizens "who have grown distrustful of politicians, skeptical about democratic institutions and disillusioned about how the democratic process functions."

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The cure for what the Law Commission of Canada has called a "democratic malaise" must be an enthusiastic re-engagement of the public in the political life of the country. This will not be easy to achieve but, if we are to have hope, universities must play a critical role.

Concern for the state of our democracy is neither new nor mysterious. In his 1984 book, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, Benjamin Barber identified various forms of government "by and for the people." He noted that democracies can be thin or thick, weak or strong. Weak democracies require little citizen engagement. Voters are called upon infrequently to elect representatives who are empowered to make decisions on the public's behalf. In Canada, cabinet ministers in majority governments (often elected by minorities) wield huge powers; yet, between elections, are minimally accountable even to legislatures, let alone to the public at large.

Strong democracies, on the other hand, engage citizens more consistently and fully in establishing and shaping public policies. As Barber says, "In strong democracy, citizens actually participate in governing themselves, if not in all matters, all of the time, at least in some matters at least some of the time."

Universities are well placed to equip citizens for this kind of engagement, and to support the structures and dialogue that are critical to strong democratic processes. They already have a long history of supporting weak democracy. They have:

– helped develop an educated citizenry able to evaluate policies and make informed choices

– cultivated political and bureaucratic elites equipped to lead and administer our governing institutions; and

– assisted political decision-making with critiques, analyses and policy proposals.

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However this support, while significant, is not adequate if we hope to have robust and healthy democracies in which citizen participation is more than skin deep. To support the development of strong democracies, universities need to position themselves less as ivory towers and more as public squares.

Instead of seeing ourselves as bastions of knowledge, insulated from the hurly-burly of civil society, universities must become knowledge exchanges, with mandates to share information and build capacity throughout the broader communities we serve. Simon Fraser University's new strategic vision offers one such blueprint. Last year, we committed to being "the leading engaged university defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research, and far-reaching community engagement."

In the democratic context, that means providing students educational programs that allow them to grapple first-hand with socially significant issues. Such programs develop civic literacy and social responsibility, while equipping students with knowledge and skills that enable them to become engaged and effective citizens.

On the research front, universities can help communities develop the knowledge, capacities and structures their citizens require to make informed decisions concerning the challenges they face.

To be consistent with democratic values, such research must be community-based and collaborative. It must be done with rather than for communities, involving community members as partners in, rather than as subjects of, enquiry.

More generally, universities can foster stronger democracies by leveraging their considerable intellectual, physical and programmatic resources to support community education, dialogue and deliberation.

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This shift in orientation from ivory tower to public square can be unnerving. Some academics may fear a loss of autonomy and objectivity. I believe the opposite is true.

Broadening public engagement is likely to make universities less, not more, partial in their perspectives. And the public support we derive from such engagement should strengthen our capacities to withstand external pressures placed upon us.

Certainly, there are limits to university engagement. I understand, for example, that there are some in universities whose research, by necessity or choice, will never be shared with the broader community.

Nor do I mean to suggest that community engagement is new to universities. Most have some programming directed toward communities. My point is that, if we are to be instruments for stronger forms of democracy, we must move these commitments from the periphery to the centre of what we do.

If universities open every door – if we teach our students to be engaged citizens; foster community-based research; and harness our other resources to facilitate public dialogue and deliberation on issues of the day – I submit that we will strengthen much more than democracy.

We will also boost our economies, enhance our societies and – at this so-critical juncture – help safeguard our fragile global environment.

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Andrew Petter is President and Vice-Chancellor of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.

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