The 2020 presidential election has put into sharp relief not only the political polarization of the American people but also the widespread confusion and skepticism among the citizenry about democratic practices. While this confusion and skepticism threaten our electoral politics (look no further than the messy aftermath of the 2020 election), our problems run much deeper. At the core of the democratic ideal is the vision of citizens coming together to address our most pressing challenges. Today, however, we are increasingly unable to trust and work with one another on problems and projects that can advance the public good.

When we think about higher education’s role in our democracy, we often think of students as future citizens who need to learn particular academic content in order to take their rightful place in the citizenry. For example, perhaps they need to take a course in American government or political philosophy. More broadly, we might imagine that a course in sociology or even literature (studying the poetry of Walt Whitman, for example) could nurture civic virtues. We also might have students engage in various forms of experiential learning—service learning, community-based research, or even particular travel experiences.

While all of the above strategies undoubtedly can contribute to cultivating good citizens and thus strengthening our democracy, they might not be enough to facilitate the kind of democracy we so desperately need. Perhaps one way to advance towards a more robust democracy is to think of our campuses as laboratories of democracy. Perhaps what we need today are radically democratized campuses that allow students to see democratic practices in action and to participate in those practices.

Certainly, the academy prides itself on the practice of shared governance, but often that is merely a form of consultation. While the faculty might be given control over curricula as well as tenure and promotion decisions, that control is limited and therefore not fully democratic. Faculty members might also participate on many committees throughout their organizations, even on top-level boards, but this is often token, not effective, participation. Staff also might have some shared-governance role, but it is generally even less significant than that of the faculty. Students rarely if ever observe the shared governance on their campuses—so they never see these (albeit limited) democratic practices. And certainly, students have little power or say in the administration of institutions.

What if the administration of our academic institutions were radically different? What if students could regularly see democratic practices among the various campus constituencies and even participate in various democratic practices? For example:

  • Instead of a staff council or faculty senate that operates in isolation with relatively little institutional power, what if all the constituencies (including students) were part of one deliberative body and process? What if such a body were given the power to make decisions that traditionally have been the reserve of upper administration?
  • What if students joined with faculty in determining curricula? At the course level, perhaps students could help determine topics or readings. At the broader curricular level, perhaps they could help determine what kinds of courses should be scheduled. Obviously, some disciplines have accreditation constraints that limit curricular diversity, but most disciplines have significant flexibility.
  • What if we mapped power relations and decision processes and sought to analyze how to democratize that power and those processes? With such maps, we might find many places where students can be legitimate partners in the decision-making process.
  • What if we sought ways to give the broader citizenry a greater say in the direction of the academic institutions that are in their communities? Many of these institutions are public, and their missions are to serve their communities and regions. Shouldn’t community representatives have some say in how these institutions operate? Imagine how powerful the experience would be for students to work closely with community members in this regard.
  • What if we abandoned traditional elections on our campuses and took the “democratic lottery” approach instead? This approach allows all qualified and interested candidates to “throw their hats into the ring” and, through simply a drawing, one of them is selected to serve. Such an approach has been proven to increase participation and get a richer diversity of voices into campus conversations. Democracy should be something other than a popularity contest—and that goes for elections to faculty senates and committees as much as for elections to student governments.

These are just a few ideas for democratizing campuses. Efforts in these directions would allow faculty and staff to truly engage in shared governance and enjoy the empowerment of democratic practices. They would also show students what genuine democratic practices look like, while at the same time bringing them into those practices and thus cultivating civic skills and capacities. In the end, our campuses could become true laboratories where students not only learn about democracy and civic virtues but also live democracy and practice civic virtues. As educators who proclaim the democratic purposes of higher education, we then would be practicing what we preach.

An earlier version of this article was presented as part of a panel presentation at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education.

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indiana University Kokomo

Additional Reading

Bain-Selbo, Eric and Paul Markham. “Did I Teach Them That? The Implicit Power of Democratic Education.” eJournal of Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 2, 2012, ejournal.missouristate.edu. Accessed 12 July 2020.

Bain-Selbo, Eric and Paul Markham. “To Practice What One Preaches: Deepening Civic Education.” Journal of College and Character, vol. 13, no. 4, 2012.