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Universities are vital to co-creating a resilient democracy

Ana Serrano, OCAD University President and Vice-Chancellor & Mohamed Lachemi, Toronto Metropolitan University President and Vice-Chancellor

Mar 25, 2023

Universities, in protecting a space for learning and expression and acting collectively for a better tomorrow, are helping to preserve the tenets of a democratic society.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns were announced, the university sector mobilized quickly to work together. University leaders met regularly, sometimes weekly, to support each other in navigating a volatile environment, but, more importantly, to determine how our hundreds of thousands of students, faculty and staff could be protected.

Our collective efforts to teach remotely, upgrade ventilation, mandate vaccines, encourage masking and exercise kindness, while ensuring students were given the flexibility to excel in such constrained circumstances, were the hallmarks of true public service. And they protected the public by fostering behaviours that would limit the exponential spread of the virus at that time.

We would not be exaggerating when we say that the actions of the post-secondary education sector in Ontario helped saved lives.

And just as we came together to fight the pandemic, today we need to stand together to help defend our democracy.

Our flourishing democratic future depends on resilient, well-supported and valued institutions that nurture the growth of our next generation of civic, corporate, artistic and public leaders, and lead by example. In other words: universities.

Today, young people are confronted by an increasingly uncertain world where a multiplicity of interdependent crises ⎯ ecological, economic, geo-political and sociocultural ⎯ are unfolding. At the same time, we cannot assume that a healthy democratic society in the future is inevitable.

To meet these challenges and prepare students to thrive in a more complex future, universities need to continue what we did during the COVID-19 pandemic ⎯ build meaningful human connection through collective effort and be exemplars of how society can flourish, and seed this expertise throughout the broader community.

That is why OCAD University and Toronto Metropolitan University, in collaboration with the Open Democracy Project, joined together to present the fourth annual DemocracyXChange Summit that is taking place from March 23 to 25.

We have convened close to 500 students, researchers, community organizers, economists, policymakers, educators and artists, including Armine Yalnizyan, Matthew Mendelsohn and Rajni Perera. They have been joined by elected officials and leaders from the public and private sectors, influential democracy advocates and international luminaries working to protect our democracy such as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, press freedom fighter and author Maria Ressa, author and journalist Anand Giridharadas, distinguished political theorist Nadia Urbinati, and community organizer Maurice Mitchell. All of whom are sharing their insights that are inspiring and strengthening this area of influence in civil society.

Universities, as public institutions, are places where we can foster a better future for all, while accommodating a plurality of voices that are sometimes in tension, sometimes aligned with each other, but nonetheless always heard.

We believe democracy is a set of practices that needs to be constantly exercised, evaluated, reimagined and tested in multiple spaces beyond the ballot box. Universities can be places for this practice ⎯ from evidence-based problem solving to persuading across divides, to co-creating models for the future with multiple, often competing, stakeholders.

To restore the promise of democracy, we need to be able to imagine it, to draw it in our minds and to find a way to build it together. Artists, designers, engineers, tech innovators, and students of the humanities do this innately ⎯ turning ideas into form and function, working with communities to develop concrete answers to problems, and in doing so they are creating a better future. And in helping young people strengthen these skills, we give them a newfound sense of control, drive and mindful balance so they are ready to solve the complex challenges of the day.

Presented by

DemocracyXChange is a collaboration of:
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