The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why authoritarian regimes attack independent universities

Outside the American University of Afghanistan in 2020. The site was secured by blast walls after a 2016 attack by the Taliban killed 15 people. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
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Ronald J. Daniels is the president of Johns Hopkins University and the author of the new book “What Universities Owe Democracy.”

One of the first institutions to fall when the Taliban entered Kabul in mid-August was the American University of Afghanistan. For a time the country’s only private, nonprofit, independent university, AUAF opened in 2006 with international support and was intended to serve as a linchpin of Afghanistan’s nascent democracy.

Taliban militants had attacked AUAF twice in August 2016, first by abducting two professors (they were released three years later in a prisoner exchange) and then with a car bomb and automatic weapons, killing 15 people. But the university carried on, with fortified blast walls.

Now, the once-vibrant campus in the heart of Kabul has been commandeered by the Taliban. Its students — nearly half of them women — and faculty have largely fled the country or gone into hiding.

The Taliban’s fury at the university is unsurprising. It was a place where young people were not only educated for lives of service and professional fulfillment, but also inculcated with the core values of both higher education and democracy: expressive freedom, critical thinking, tolerance for the experiences and ideas of others, and open debate.

Time and again, history shows that autocratic regimes cannot abide independent universities.

This was true throughout the 20th century: Benito Mussolini forced Italian faculty to take loyalty oaths in 1931, and the Polish secret police in the 1970s harassed and arrested students in the “flying university” that covertly held lectures in private homes and apartments.

Present-day authoritarians are similarly arrayed against universities. Only a few years ago, Central European University — a private, international research university then-headquartered in Budapest — was the subject of a vicious smear campaign waged by Hungary’s increasingly autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban. The university in 2019 was forced to move to Vienna. As authoritarians tighten their grip in Turkey, Russia, Brazil and elsewhere, attacks on universities have proliferated.

Independent universities unnerve authoritarians because everything that these institutions strive to achieve is inimical to the autocrat’s devotion to the accumulation and arbitrary exercise of coercive public power.

By their very nature, universities are committed to free speech, open dissent and unfettered information. When universities fall short, they have an obligation to strive harder to realize such ideals. These institutions also are underpinned by facts and reason — an antidote to the authoritarian reliance on disinformation.

The fates of democracy and universities are intertwined. Universities cannot truly thrive under the threat of authoritarian censorship or attack. Such threats stifle thought, inhibit discovery and chill speech.

But, by the same token, no democracy can prosper without independent universities to forge a bedrock of objective fact, to preserve and interrogate the nation’s collective past, to cultivate diverse and pluralistic communities, and to educate students in the skills necessary for active and engaged citizenship.

Democracies require bulwark institutions to thrive, including a robust news media, competitive political parties and an independent judiciary. Too often, universities are left out of the conversation about democracy. Given their foundational importance, those of us who lead and inhabit universities cannot be complacent in the face of the growing threats to democracy.

When threats to democracy have been most acute, American universities have stepped up in defense of the democratic project. It was true at the country’s birth, when the founders called on higher education to train citizen-leaders. And it was true during World War II, when university administrators and faculty helped lay the foundation for the government-university research partnership that endures to this day and brought hundreds of scholars fleeing Nazi Germany to their campuses.

Today, American universities are working with partners such as the international network Scholars at Risk to help Afghan academic researchers and professors and their families find sanctuary — personal and intellectual.

This is but a beginning. With democracy imperiled in many nations around the world, including our own, universities in the United States must act vigorously in the defense of the ideals they represent. Universities must rededicate themselves to educating democratic citizens. They must confront mounting skepticism of science by bringing expertise and rigorous facts to bear on contemporary social and scientific phenomena. They must renew their commitment to the idea of equal opportunity in admissions and financial aid. And they must model for students how to engage with one another across a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and beliefs.

If universities fail to take these challenges seriously, they endanger their role as beacons of free inquiry, dialogue across difference, and human flourishing. They will put at further risk the democratic societies they serve and help to flourish.

As the tragic saga of the American University of Afghanistan shows, universities truly committed to inquiry, dialogue and truth-seeking rise and fall with democracy — and democracy rises and falls with them.