Can This Giant Campus Gift Really Have an Impact on the Future of Democracy?

Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, followed by the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has sent shock waves throughout the western world. Voters, political parties and media organs on both sides of the Atlantic are sharply polarized. Liberal elites, in particular, are aghast that a populist torches-and-pitchforks rebellion has assailed the establishment from the right, not the left. Suddenly, conservatives seem to be on the side of the “commoner,” and liberals everywhere are on the political defensive, struggling to be heard above the din of vocal, often rage-filled protest.

Into this maelstrom, some prestigious academic institutions and philanthropies have slowly dared to enter. This month, one of Europe’s largest foundations, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation—based, fittingly, in Greece—agreed to donate a whopping $150 million to a joint research, education and public policy program with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that’s intended to promote the ideal of intelligent and restrained civic and political discourse.

The tie between the two institutions turns out to be a longstanding one. SNF, which claims to be active in 130 countries and has an annual program portfolio worth over $2 billion, has supported over 20 projects with Johns Hopkins in the past, mainly in the areas of health, medicine and social welfare. The foundation recently donated $5 million to the city of Baltimore to keep the Maryland Film Festival alive.

Johns Hopkins also partnered with SNF in Greece, most notably by providing Greek students with slots in the well-regarded the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth that recognizes academic talent in exceptional pre-university students and supports their growth by providing them with courses and other services to meet their needs. The center, which has reached more than 500,000 bright students through its programs since its founding in 1979, also functions as an incubator of ideas and innovation for the United States and beyond.

The new Agora Institute, by entering into the realm of politics, represents an important departure, especially for SNF, whose eponymous founder was a global shipping magnate worth billions. But it also reflects the reality of modern Greece. The country’s anti-austerity street protests of 2011 largely anticipated the current wave of rebellions throughout Europe. And there is understandable Grecian pride over that nation’s historical contribution to the founding principles and institutions of Western democracy. What better partner for a top-notch school like Hopkins that typically makes the list of the world’s 15 best universities, with a well-established reputation for top-notch scholarly work in international politics?

In many respects, the highbrow agenda of the Agora Institute reflects two institutions that typically operate with considerable remove from the political fray. Agora will sponsor conferences and special presentations—by academics, in the main—that “address the deterioration of civic engagement worldwide and facilitate the restoration of open and inclusive discourse that is the cornerstone of healthy democracies,” a Johns Hopkins news release notes. Other than supporting and publicizing research by leading scholars, it’s not clear how the two institutions expect to impact events on the ground at a moment when disregard for elites is a key part of the problem this initiative is tackling.

But refreshingly, the program demonstrates determination to engage that world in some meaningful fashion. Participants in Agora’s proceedings “will design and test mechanisms for strengthening democracy through dialogue and social engagement, and convene subject matter experts from a range of perspectives to explore new approaches to divisive issues,” SNF insists. While it’s not yet clear who these experts might be—do they include active participants in political advocacy and election campaigning, or just more scholars?—the stated commitment to explore the real mechanics of democracy building might prevent Agora’s proceedings from devolving into another airy intellectual exercise without much practical substance or relevance.

In some ways, this effort reminds us of the Madison Initiative, the Hewlett Foundation’s big push to reduce political polarization in the United States, and especially in Congress. We haven’t been optimistic about the potential of that grantmaking program for several reasons, including the concern that polarization—which has been driven by powerful forces in U.S. society—is too big a problem for philanthropy to tackle meaningfully.

We have the same concern here, and all the more so because of the academic focus of this initiative. One good thing about Hewlett’s approach is that it’s pretty diversified, with money flowing to universities, policy groups, and media. By contrast, SNF is more than just putting all its eggs in the university basket—it’s betting on just one institution. Assuming you do believe academics can elevate civic life, a more effective strategy might have been to spread the money around to boost work at multiple universities and to foster new collaborations and networks. You could also imagine looking beyond elite actors altogether to advance improved civic discourse—for example, by scaling up the field of deliberative democracy, which has had success on the ground lately in getting citizens to engage with each other more constructively on divisive issues.   


One final note: It’s surprising that the sponsors of this initiative have so little to say about the sorry state of public discourse on modern college campuses. Academia, perhaps more than other American institutions, is riven with ideological and partisan conflict. There are endless debates over “political correctness” and embarrassing displays of ideological excess, with progressives, in particular, defending the banning of thought and speech that they find “hateful” and “offensive” or just plain disagreeable.

Will the participants in this new forum turn their trained research eyes on themselves? Or will they simply mirror contemporary prejudices about the sources of intolerance, thus dismissing the new populism sweeping the West as merely a cause rather than a symptom, as a dangerous threat rather than a vibrant opportunity? Conservatism already finds little favor at big-league universities like Hopkins. It’s one reason that know-nothing populists so often disdain schools as outposts of elitism and class prejudice.

SNF may well be right: The Greek agora—the open marketplace of ancient Athens that morphed over time into a space for public debate—could well provide some ancestral inspiration, if not exactly a blueprint or model, for reforming Western politics. If nothing else, at a time when so many elite universities are themselves deeply polarized, the new institute might actually set a new standard for how civil discourse might also be conducted, at least among intellectuals. But it may require the university to redefine what a truly free marketplace of ideas looks like within its own walls. “Physician heal thyself,” Hippocrates, another great Greek inspiration, once advised.