Can universities cure political indifference? Yes they can, according to York Professor George Fallis. “Universities must address the democratic deficit,” said Fallis, this year’s Giambattista Vico Lecturer. They can play a critical role in confronting the democratic deficit pervading politics at every level – declining voter turnout, strident and polarizing debate and public decision-making dominated by business elites and experts.
Right: George Fallis
In a lecture titled “Democratic Deficit: Universities and the Future of Democracy”, delivered Feb. 15 at Founder’s College Assembly Hall, Fallis, who is professor of economics and social science in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), argued that the problem of political indifference must be confronted not just by political parties and parliaments but by universities. Universities are not just institutions of teaching and books, not just institutions of the economy, but institutions of democracy, he said.
The current disconnect between the interests of citizens and those in positions of power, Fallis believes, creates widespread skepticism towards our institutions and a lethargy around political participation – known as “the democratic deficit”.
In examining the sometimes-uneasy relationship between universities and the growing movement towards democracy over the centuries, Fallis stated that universities initially resisted democracy: “Democracy and the university did not develop in parallel.”
“The background is great economic change. We’ve moved from an agricultural to industrial, then service-based and now a knowledge-based economy,” said Fallis.
These momentous economic changes moved the university from a more peripheral role – preparing a small number of elites – to the new role of central engine to the economy, providing mass education. This transformation has resulted in the phenomenon of the “multiversity”, with no central theme but many diverse responsibilities.
|Above: Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Dean Martin Singer introduces Fallis to the capacity crowd at the 2011 Giambattista Vico Lecture|
While originally seen as a democratizing force, especially in the decades immediately following the Second World War, Fallis argues that this mission creep is now forcing universities to all but abandon their role of preparing highly engaged political citizens. Instead, universities’ movement closer to government and to business has created a meritocracy ruled by a class of new patricians – highly accomplished and successful individuals who feel less responsibility for the general population because they have “earned” their status through intense competition. He describes these new patricians as moving within a privileged Davos culture – named for the Swiss town where political, business and academic elites retreat each year for the World Economic Forum.
An edited recording of Fallis’ presentation is posted on the LA&PS YouTube channel.
The fifth annual lecture in the series, it was sponsored through an endowment created by Elvio DelZotto, his brothers Angelo and Leo DelZotto, and other friends and family members. The lecture was created as a tribute to the late Fred Zorzi, Elvio DelZotto’s friend and law partner.
Fallis has published widely on housing, urban policy and constitutional reform. His current research focuses on universities: their roles and responsibilities in the 21st century; the value of undergraduate liberal education; and the role of university-based research in national innovation. His most recent book is Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy (University of Toronto Press, 2007).
At York, the Princeton-educated Fallis has served as chair of economics, dean of the former Faculty of Arts and chair of the Senate Academic Policy & Planning Committee. He has been academic colleague on the Council of Ontario Universities and an auditor of degree programs at Ontario universities.
The annual Giambattista Vico Lecture was named after an 18th-century Italian philosopher of history, culture and myth whose ideas had a profound influence on the humanities and social sciences.