The Democratic Mission of the University

18 Pages Posted: 8 May 2013  

Owen M. Fiss

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: February 5, 2013


The university is a self-governing institution dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. As a historical matter, universities were not borne of the democratic impulse and many of their grandest achievements are wholly unrelated to the furtherance of democracy. Yet today they function in such a way in the United States so as to enhance and strengthen the quality of its democratic system.

Democracy is a system of collective self-governance in which the people shape their public life. The leaders of government are chosen by citizens and then held accountable for their actions through a series of periodic elections. In this way, democracy exalts popular choice. It also presumes, however, that this choice is enlightened. Citizens need to understand the nature of the choices that they face, and must possess the capacity to evaluate the policies and practices of the government and its leaders. Although unenlightened choice is still a choice, that kind of choice and the democratic character of the political system that it supports are not especially inspiring or worthy of our admiration.

The university plays an important role in the process of enlightenment that democracy presumes.

Academic freedom is an important source of individual freedom, but not the only one, and the recognition of its jurisdictional limits; to confine it to the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn might strengthen its force when the free university comes under threat.

Keywords: academic freedom, freedom of speech, democracy, Garcetti v. Ceballos, Sweezy v. New Hampshire

Suggested Citation

Fiss, Owen M., The Democratic Mission of the University (February 5, 2013). Albany Law Review, Vol. 76, No. 1, 2012/2013; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 287. Available at SSRN:

Owen M. Fiss (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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