"A Fraught Moment." Donors Get Behind a Campus Initiative to Strengthen Democracy

UVA. Felix Lipov/shutterstock

UVA. Felix Lipov/shutterstock

News out of Charlottesville, Virginia, points to another example of donors giving big to strengthen the body politic in precarious times. The big difference here is that their focus isn’t just on the domestic front, but the international stage as well.

Seventeen donors committed a total of $12.9 million to launch the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative, an interdisciplinary teaching, research and engagement effort bringing together a diverse range of scholars, government leaders and practitioners to “study and advance the prospects of democracy around the world.”

The announcement came after the initiative received a $10 million matching grant from the university’s Strategic Investment Fund in 2017.

Led by UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the nonpartisan Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Democracy Initiative is designed to “engage a wide audience in examining the broad issues, changes and challenges confronting democracies today.”

The initiative is composed of five elements: group research labs, a biennial democracy summit of world leaders, a presence in Washington, D.C., the expansion and enhancement of the college’s new curriculum, and the endowment of the Bicentennial Scholarship Fund and Faculty Diversity Fund to attract the world’s best and brightest students.

“At a fraught moment in history when democracies, including our own, are enduring extraordinary stresses, the University of Virginia will help navigate the dangers and draw lessons from best practices around the world,” said William J. Antholis, Director and CEO of the Miller Center.

Surfacing “The Next Big Questions”

Donors, of course, have always been concerned with leveraging universities as Petri dishes for building a healthy, educated, and ethical civil society.

A couple of years back, Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch donated $15 million to Tufts College to “develop a comment of leaders who are able to rise above the fray and bring positive change to the public sphere.” In 2017, Stavros Niarchos Foundation donated a $150 million to Johns Hopkins University to promote the ideal of intelligent and “restrained civic and political discourse.”

And back in June, Martha and Bruce Karsh gave UVA’s law school $43.9 million to support, among other things, interdisciplinary programming focused on the rule of law, civic engagement, civil discourse, and the “indispensable value of truth, integrity and ethics.” 

Meanwhile, the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative has dispatched quite a few grants to academic scholars to advance the goal of “strengthening U.S. democracy and its institutions—especially Congress—in a time of political polarization.”

UVA’s new Democracy Initiative also seeks to cultivate a healthier civic environment.

Speaking to UVA Today, Arts and Sciences dean Ian Baucom said that stakeholders “want to get students more engaged in Washington, D.C., and find ways for them to enter into public life there. Most broadly, we need students and alumni to engage with our events and debates, model civil discussion with one another and help us identify the next big questions we want to tackle.”

But the initiative is more than just promoting civil dialogue here at home. This is where Baucom’s “next big questions” come into play. The initiative argues that many of the problems that plague democracies transcend “politics” in the conventional sense. Here’s Baucom in an excerpt from the school’s alumni magazine:

Today’s democracies—old and new alike—face major challenges. These include poverty, joblessness and inequality; population migrations across borders; eroding support for democratic institutions and norms; tensions over religion, race and gender role change; corruption; pressures of food and water shortages, especially in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria; and a changing media environment that simultaneously empowers authoritarian leaders and protesting crowds.

Baucom drilled down on two specific issues: social media and artificial intelligence (AI).

“We have certainly seen the use of media tools to further democracy,” he said, “but we have also seen those same tools fracture democracy or build on the fractures and fissures that already exist.” Meanwhile, “another area I find particularly fascinating is the rise of artificial intelligence–how it will affect workers, companies and the economy and how those effects will change our social lives and politics.”

Donors elsewhere share Baucom’s concerns.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark recently put up $20 million to launch The Markup, a new journalism outfit that will investigate and examine the effects of the powerful tech industry and its tools on people and society. Others have drawn a straight line between social media and the scourge of fake news.

And earlier this year, tech executives Keith Block and his wife, Suzanne Kelley, gave Carnegie Mellon University $15 million to study the “impact of technology on the ways in which workers at all skill levels will make their living in the 21st century.”

So what, exactly, differentiates UVA’s efforts from what donors are doing elsewhere?

The answer lies in how UVAs institutional assets will address these issues and their effect on “democracy” from a tactical perspective. The institute will bring together practitioners from public policy, military, government and industry to identify “tangible, problem-focused research.”

“We are certainly not unique in thinking about democracy,” he said, “but I believe we are unique in bringing together all of the disciplines of the arts and sciences with a world-leading law school, public policy schools and business schools. That makes an enormous difference.”

A Global Focus

The second differentiating component behind the initiative is that UVA is, to quote co-Director Melody C. Barnes, “also studying the rest of the world and making connections between what is happening here and what is happening in democracies around the world.”

The initiative will launch a series of labs, each of which will focus on a “particular challenge to democracy.” Each lab will run three to five years. When one lab concludes, another will be established through a proposal process.

The initiative’s inaugural lab, “Religion, Race and Global Democracies,” launched in direct response to the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville in 2017, will “probe seminal works that shape ideas about religion and civic participation and resistance.”

The initiative’s second lab, focused on strategies to combat corruption, is led by scholars from disciplines across Arts and Sciences and the School of Law. According to Baucom, it will ask questions like “How do you address corruption? Is it effective to address it through the courts, or through regulation? What actually works, what makes a tangible difference and how can we share those solutions?”

A third lab—a “core lab” dedicated to the History and Principles of Democracy—will inform the work of the other labs.

Repairing “The Social Contract”

If this sounds like heady, big-picture stuff, that’s because it is. Of course, how much impact such campus-based work can have is anyone’s guess—especially given the broad themes of this particular initiative. Still, it’s the kind of effort that civic-minded donors are more than happy to back right now, amid rising anxiety about threats to democracy both at home and abroad.

Some funders in this space don’t mince words about what’s going on. For example, when Open Society Foundations (OSF) opened its grantmaking spigot in the aftermath of Trump’s election, president Chris Stone named names. “The success of Trump’s populist campaign links the United States to a global trend in which truth is trashed, fear is exploited, and democracies are transformed into mafia states,” he said.

Others bring a much wider lens to the moment—as illustrated by the spate of gifts flowing to philosophy departments at universities across the country. It may seem like a stretch to link Aristotle with, say, disinformation campaigns on Facebook, but upon closer analysis, donor logic becomes clear. By imparting crucial skills like critical analysis, argumentation and problem-solving, donors believe the study of philosophy can help humanity cultivate a more rational, civil, and just society.

Looking ahead, expect donors’ role as de facto American Civics 101 instructors to accelerate if the state of American democracy deteriorates further and if government continues to retreat from investing in an educated citizenry.

UVA’s Baucom elaborated on this point, calling attention to “the social contract between higher education and our common civic life—a contract inherently connected to the issue of democracy.” This contact, regrettably, “has loosened with significant reductions in the overall federal support for education and research, and significant reductions in state support nationwide for public higher education.”

Since time immemorial, it’s been the government’s job, either directly or through funding federal and state agencies, to promote democratic values, cultivate social cohesion, and provide “excellent public education.” But somewhere along the way, the government has abdicated its role, leaving donors to step into the breach and empower universities to get on with the hard work of repairing and strengthening the social contract for the next generation.

“Leading democracies like ours should advance the unfinished business of democracy,” Baucom said.