Democratic Engagement: A Review at Johns Hopkins University

Back to Summer 2022: Volume 111, Number 2

By Scott Warren

At a moment when democracy is under strain in the United States and abroad, universities across the country are awakening to their role in cultivating democratic engagement. Much of this democratic reckoning in the higher education setting has come through broad missives, conferences, speeches, or other exhortations for universities to do more to reflect on their civic mission. These are all important acts, but insufficient.

Recognizing the need to go deeper, over the last year I helped to lead a comprehensive review and audit of how Johns Hopkins University is currently advancing democracy on campus, and how it might consider strengthening its approach. The full review and audit is available here. We are hopeful that it may provide an example of how universities could engage in similar types of democratic reviews.

Against the backdrop of the tumultuous 2020 election, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and a nationwide racial reckoning and renewal of civil rights efforts, the time is ripe to take stock of the efforts underway on campus and identify how else the university might instill a vibrant democratic education and culture on its campus. Johns Hopkins is well positioned to serve as a model for how to deepen an institution’s commitment to the democratic communities of which it is a part: Baltimore, the State of Maryland, and the United States more broadly. When democracy is under strain at home and abroad and citizens’ trust in institutions is eroding, acting purposefully as a university is more than just an opportunity—it is an urgent need.

The results are not meant to be definitive, but rather, reflective, and they demonstrate a broader commitment to engaging in deep democratic work internally. Specifically, the audit and review attempted to:

  • Collect and analyze information on democratic engagement at Johns Hopkins through a systematic review of courses, events, and other activities.
  • Interview audiences—including students, faculty, staff, and members of the surrounding community—to determine how they experience democracy-oriented opportunities at Johns Hopkins.
  • Start to define what democratic engagement might mean for purposes of a university.
  • Identify ways Johns Hopkins might consider strengthening its approach to democratic engagement

Recognizing the need to present concrete definitions, while acknowledging there is no correct classification, we asserted that a university that promotes democratic engagement should seek to instill in its students the knowledge, skills, values, and behaviors to become active participants in the democratic process. The sort of participation this contemplates includes but is not limited to voting, participation in public debate, advocacy on local issues, and engaging democratic institutions to address flaws in the society or the democracy itself, among them, enduring issues of inequality. This definition is meant to be more encompassing than electoral and political activity but more specific than any form of general civic or community engagement, which—however valuable in its own right—does not necessarily teach to democratic aims.

Importantly, we also noted that a focus on the hyper-local was critical to universities effectively promoting deep democracy. Americans can be overly focused on national politics, a trend that could be contributing to affective polarization, a sense of frustration with democracy among citizens, and an absence of community buy-in for local democratic outcomes. Universities have a critical role to play promoting local engagement in their specific communities.

We separated the top-line findings into five distinct categories, which may be useful to other institutions of higher education:

Coursework: We engaged in a deep audit of “democracy-related” courses occurring throughout the university at the undergraduate level. Partially because of the advent of the SNF Agora Institute, the number of democracy-focused undergraduate courses grew 44 percent from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 academic years alone.

However, importantly, we found that democracy-courses were not reaching STEM-oriented students. For purpose of comparison, 785 undergraduate students from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences took at least one democracy-focused course over a two-year period from Fall 2019 to Spring 2021, out of the 4,524 unique students in Krieger in that period. Only 83 undergraduate students from the Whiting School of Engineering took a democracy-focused course during those two years, out of the 2,444 unique students in Whiting in those two years.

Events and Programming: We also comprehensively examined recent democracy-related events occurring on campus. We found that the number of such events on campus also has grown substantially in recent years, from 15 such events in Fall 2019 to 27 events in Spring 2021, according to our comprehensive analysis. Again, the data indicate that this is primarily due to the maturation of the SNF Agora Institute.

However, students reported that they are often unaware of democracy-focused events on campus. Our own review revealed that these sorts of events do not appear in any single repository online and often are scattered across multiple websites.

Elections and Voting: The university has launched a number of initiatives under the Hopkins Votes umbrella in recent years to improve its students’ participation in elections, and the data suggest these efforts are paying off.

According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, a national university voting study, the voting rate of undergraduate students nearly quadrupled from 7.5 percent in 2014 to 29.4 percent in 2018.

However, in interviews, students expressed some concern about the lack of breadth in the university’s election promoting initiatives. Some students observed that the university focuses almost exclusively on national elections and tends to ignore local affairs. Others said that the university’s election promotion is voting-centric and that it could do more to promote election activities beyond voting—for example, volunteering at polling places.

Local Communities: The university has invested in partnerships with Baltimore through anchor institution initiatives in recent years. But to date, this focus on Baltimore rarely has intersected with the university’s democracy-oriented courses and programming. According to the inventory, of the 71 democracy-oriented courses students took over a two-year period, only three involved the city of Baltimore in a meaningful way.

Of the 42 democracy-oriented campus events discussed in the report, only five involved Baltimore. When the university focuses on democracy, it is most often talking about events on the national stage.

Democratic Culture: One critical path to inculcating in students a sense that their voice matters in democracy is to ensure they have a voice in their university, the institution that issues rules most immediately governing their lives and that they interact with most as they come into their identity as civic and political actors.

Our review indicated that 32 percent of the membership of university-policy advisory committees from the past eight years were students or postdoctoral fellows. And 26 percent of the membership of advisory committees where students sat alongside faculty and staff were students or fellows.

Even so, in surveys and interviews, a number of students reported a sense of disconnect from the university. These students said that they felt there were limited avenues through which they can communicate with the administration about university-policy issues of importance; and even when their voices are heard, they felt the administration does not act upon concerns raised.

In interviews and surveys, many students and faculty underscored the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity to a democratic culture on campus. All democratic-engagement efforts should have the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity at the forefront by centering historically underrepresented voices and ensuring that students understand the true history of democracy and racial oppression in this country and in Baltimore specifically.

I am hopeful that the report catalyzes a broader conversation on deep democracy within JHU, and the broader higher education landscape. Too often, universities proclaim to care about democracy without looking at their own internal practices. I am grateful that JHU has put in resources to ensure that this report occurred- it is critical to ensure that the report does not just gather dust but becomes a veritable way of pushing for concrete action.

Scott Warren, a visiting fellow at the SNF Angora Institute at John Hopkins University, is founder of Generation Citizen, a national youth civics organization.

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