Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Heather Reisman, Ronald Daniels and J. Robert S Prichard in conversation at the Rotman special event, Nov. 18..

Heather Reisman, Ronald Daniels and J. Robert S. Prichard in conversation at the Rotman special event, held Nov. 18 online.

On Nov. 18, Faculty of Law Dean Emeritus Faculty of Law and alumnus Ronald Daniels (LLB 1986, LLD honoris causa 2014), president of John Hopkins University, was hosted by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to discuss his new book, What Universities Owe Democracy (JHU Press 2021).

U of T President Meric Gertler said in opening remarks that Daniels’ book has already proven to be highly influential. The Association of American Universities devoted a panel on the book at its fall meeting of university presidents in October. Gertler added it was also one of the core inspirations for his inaugural address as the incoming chair of Universities Canada, just a few weeks ago.

“Without anticipating today's conversation too much, let me say that even though the particulars of our context might differ, Ron's ideas resonate deeply here in Canada. As we gradually and thoughtfully return to in-campus activities the importance of modelling what healthy debate looks like, to quote Ron, has never been more clear and more important,” said Gertler.

Daniels was joined in conversation by fellow alumnus, U of T Law Dean Emeritus and U of T President Emeritus, J. Robert S. Prichard (LLB 1975), who presently serves as Chair of Torys LLP, Chair of the Hospital for Sick Children, and the founder, Chair and CEO of Indigo Inc., Heather Reisman (LLD honoris causa 2021).

Daniels said he began writing the book in 2016, which coincided with the start of the Trump presidency.

“As much as we thought the institutions, the documents, the laws that established and undergird American democracy were robust, all of a sudden you started to see through the Trump presidency the extent to which these arrangements were very much dependent on norms…,” said Daniels. “So many times the during the Trump presidency you really saw transgressive behaviour."

“It started to at least to give me a greater sense of the fragility of American democracy… But in truth, if one looks internationally, over the last several years you're starting to see a steady movement away from democracy throughout the world and towards authoritarian forms of government to the point where people are now talking about a democratic recession.”

Prichard agreed with Daniels' viewpoint that universities everywhere are fundamental to the nature of communities, society and the body politic of each nation. He asked Daniels, despite polarized politics in the U.S., “Isn't the bigger message awfully positive as to where the universities have gotten us today, and how universities are contributing today as to compared to an earlier era? “

"I think it's important to keep clear the distinction between where are our universities and where is American is right now…” replied Daniels, expressing concern regarding the American context.

“[Universities] do a lot of great stuff for democracy, but can we do more? Can we do more to stand up in this moment from a position of strength. We're in a good place, but we're in a good place to do more.”

In later discussing with Reisman the role of educators, Daniels added: 

“We can model [the] kind of behaviour. The conversations, the interactions, such that students see we can disagree vehemently with one another, but we can try and find the best in each other's arguments and see in some sense our common humanity.” 

Learn more about What Universities Owe Democracy