When are Universities Followers or Leaders in Society? A Framework for a Contemporary Assessment by John Aubrey Douglass, CSHE 1.22 (February 2022)


In assessing the current and future role of universities in the nation-states in which they are chartered and funded, it is useful to ask, When are universities societal leaders as societal and constructive change agents, and when are they followers, reinforcing the existing political order? As discussed in the book, Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education, the national political history and contemporary context is the dominant factor for shaping the leadership or follower role of universities – what I call a political determinist interpretation.  We often think of contemporary universities, and their students and faculty, as catalysts for societal progress -- the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements, Vietnam War protests, the anti-Apartheid movement, Tiananmen Square, and more recently the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. Universities can be, and have been, the locus for not only educating enlightened future leaders, but also for opposing oppression and dictatorships. But universities have also proved over their history to be tools for serving the privileged, and reinforcing the social class divisions of a society; they also have been factories for errant theories that reinforce the worst of nationalist tendencies. Universities are both unique environments for educating and mentoring free thinkers, entrepreneurs, and citizens with, for example, a devotion to social change, or for creating conformists -- or all of the above. How might we assess whether universities are followers or leaders in their societies? This essay considers this question, offering a framework for evaluating the follower or leader role, and with particular attention to the emergence or, in some cases, re-emergence of neo-nationalist leaders and autocratic governments.

Publication date: 
February 16, 2022
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)