Many experts and respected organizations have warned that democracy is in danger. This is true both in the USA and across the globe. The causes of the threats to democracy are numerous and interlinked. Sometimes they can be difficult to identify. In a time of democratic uncertainty, colleges can contribute to safeguarding the future of systems that ensure everyone can have a say in their government. Some American colleges have been particularly successful in ensuring that democratic freedom has survived and that it can be strengthened in the future. The 30 American colleges in this ranking are all strong examples.
Colleges based in America have an especially strong responsibility to promote democracy, both domestically and internationally. The USA was founded on the principle of creating a government that served to support the interests of its citizens. And strongly linked to this concept was the idea of creating universities. In fact, President George Washington spent one fifth of his first State of the Union Address discussing the creation of a national university. Therefore, every American college should be dedicated to strengthening the systems of a government that allows them to not just exist but thrive.
As strengthening democracy is a prolonged and evolving process, this ranking has given precedence to the colleges that can demonstrate ongoing active participation in pro-democratic initiatives and are likely to continue indefinitely in the future. The more active the school is, the higher it places in the ranking.
Any one of the 30 colleges ahead is a strong choice for a student who wants to study within an institution that proactively protects and expands democracy. However, it’s also possible that none of the colleges here are right for you. If that’s the case, then this ranking can still be a vital resource in your college search. Each entry has a detailed summary that explains the college’s pro-democracy efforts. These have been included for you to compare and contrast with your own college options. If any college that you’re considering is advocating for democracy like the 30 ahead, then that’s a strong sign that it’s the right college for you.
The initial research for this ranking comes from two types of sources. The first type is journalistic work that highlights the work of colleges that have made an effort to promote and protect democracy. The other type lists colleges that are members of pro-democracy organizations. These sources are as follows:
- The Atlantic, Universities Are Shunning Their Responsibility to Democracy
- EdSurge, American Democracy Is Sick. Can Colleges Be Part of the Cure?
- Inside Higher Ed, Academe’s Neglected Responsibility
- American Democracy Project, ADP Participating Colleges and Universities
- College Civic Learning, Shared Commitment Signatories and Partners
- Democratic Erosion, Participating Universities
After identifying the colleges from these sources, we then conducted further research to identify other ways in which each institution was conducting pro-democracy projects. This research formed the final basis for inclusion in this ranking.
The ranking criteria for the colleges ahead are as follows: Evidence of a wide range of pro-democracy efforts, evidence of historical pro-democracy efforts, evidence that the college will expand its pro-democracy efforts in the future, evidence of innovation in conducting pro-democracy efforts, and total number of mentions on the methodology sources.
The final ranking, from 30 to one, is as follows:
30. Wesleyan University
One of Wesleyan University’s proudest achievements in recent years was encouraging 77% of eligible students to vote in the 2020 election, a 10% increase compared to the 2016 election. This increase resulted in the college being given a Gold Seal by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. The college’s Jewett Center for Community Partnerships also partners with government organizations to engage communities. Inside Higher Ed also praises Wesleyan University’s president, Michael Roth, for proactively speaking out against attempts to dismantle democracy.
29. Antioch University
Culver City, California
In 2015, Antioch University expanded its PhD in Leadership and Change program into an entire graduate school, allowing it to increase its democracy efforts. In 2021, this school managed to gain funding to create dialogue around equity and democracy. Also in 2021, the college’s chancellor, William Groves, and a former professor of the college, William G Tierney, called for higher education institutions to do more to protect democracy. They provided examples to those many who work in the field on how to do so. Inside Higher Ed later praised William Groves for his efforts to promote democratic activity among colleges.
28. The University of Texas at Austin
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at The University of Texas at Austin has the goal of ending racial inequality through reshaping government policy. The ways in which it does this include maintaining a student fellows program and running events, such as speaker series. Outside of this center, the college’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs runs further events that have a focus on democracy, such as hosting civil dialogues on the future of voting. The University of Texas at Austin is also a research partner for College Civic Learning.
27. Carnegie Mellon University
The Center for Informed Democracy & Social – Cybersecurity at Carnegie Mellon University works to fight disinformation, hate speech, and extremism on the internet. Some of the ways in which it is achieving this include analyzing polarized Twitter behavior during protests and hunting coronavirus conspiracy theories. The Institute for Politics and Strategy at the college also provides undergraduate and postgraduate education, in addition to conducting research efforts. Since 2010, this institute has published the Carnegie Mellon University Journal of Politics and Strategy. Carnegie Mellon University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
26. The George Washington University
The Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at The George Washington University is proactive in supporting initiatives that improve the understanding of threats to democracy. For instance, it assisted New York University in developing a tool that would allow the easy analysis of political ads. More broadly, this institute conducts investigations into pernicious content, runs the Mis/disinformation Lab, and pursues research into how online narratives affect the democratic opinions of people of different demographics. In recent years, this institute has also extended its reach across the globe. The George Washington University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
25. Arizona State University
One of the core programs of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University is Delivering Democracy. This program has been running since 2014, and it has since become one of the most popular events across the college. Every year, it involves a number of individuals who have been key in addressing challenges that persist within race and democracy highlighting their work and how others can support democratic equality. In 2022, the distinguished speaker of the event is the Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and author John Quinones. The college also has the Center for Work and Democracy. The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership also runs an annual program titled The Future of Arizona Democracy. Arizona State University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
24. American University
In 2021, American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential studies was able to receive $1.4 million in external grants to support democratic activity. This money went into a program aimed at helping policymakers negotiate more effectively and a partnership with Purdue University to create incentives to broaden the perspectives in American governance across a wider range of demographics. The college’s Sine Institute of Policy & Politics also acts as a base to promote pro-democracy initiatives across disciplines, “to fuel and facilitate ongoing dialogue and debate to gain insights and engender knowledge.” The Center for Latin American and Latino Studies has also performed extensive work in strengthening democracy throughout Latin America, such as running community councils in Venezuela. American University is also a participant in Democratic Erosion.
23. Duke University
Durham, North Carolina
Sine 1973, Duke University has run the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. It analyzes how media and policy interact, supporting, “watchdog and accountability reporting in the US and around the world.” The college also runs a program named Democracy at Risk, which works with organizations based in Washington DC that aim to preserve and defend American democracy. Additionally, the Hard Leadership Program runs The Democracy Lab, which allows students to participate in programs that make democracy more representative. Duke University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
22. University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana
In early 2022, the University of Notre Dame announced that it had created a major new initiative, the 1-6-25 project. This initiative has the primary goal of understanding and averting threats to democracy. It is being run by The Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, which has the mission of researching critical issues facing the USA’s democratic system. Additionally, one of the core focuses of the college’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies is researching democracy around the world to facilitate human welfare. Inside Higher Ed notes that the University of Notre Dame’s former president, Father Ted Hesburgh, was a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
21. University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Since 2008, the University of Michigan has housed The Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. Over the course of this center’s existence, its activities spread from focusing on countries in Europe and Eurasia to across the world. And in 2021, the center received a major boost when a member of its policy board, Damon Wilson, was named the president of the National Endowment for Democracy. The college also runs Democracy & Debate, a university-wide initiative that promotes free speech and the responsibilities of democracy in the Michigan community. Edsurge consults with Charles H.F. Davis III, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, for information on how colleges can promote democracy.
20. Stanford University
In 2021, Stanford University announced that it would no longer be scheduling classes on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every year. Instead, students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to participate in work that promotes democracy. On the first “Democracy Day,” the college held a range of events, such as discussions with senators to encourage democratic activity. And in 2022, the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law launched a news digest with the purpose of analyzing politics, economies, and societies in the Arab world. The college also runs the Center for American Democracy, the Center for Deliberative Democracy, and the Democracy and Polarization Lab. The Atlantic highlights how Stanford University both collaborated with other colleges to promote democracy in the 1980s and is piloting new democracy-focused courses.
19. George Mason University
In 2021, George Mason University launched Democracy Lab, a first-year learning community. In its inaugural year, this community has brought together 60 students, who live together with a shared commitment to finding opportunities to learn about and participate in the promotion and protection of democracy. The college’s Center for Social Science Research also has a project focusing on building democratic participation locally, named Democratizing NOVA. It hosted a summit in April 2022. George Mason University is also a member of Democratic Erosion and the American Democracy Project.
18. James Madison University
The primary base of democratic promotion at James Madison University is the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement. The center’s focus is on inspiring people to address public issues and create an inclusive democracy in a nonpartisan manner. One example of this center’s work is the Woodson Martin Immigration and Democracy Initiative. The initiative educates its communities on immigration issues, assists immigrant and refugee communities with democratic engagement giving marginalized groups a greater voice, and more. James Madison University is also a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
17. University of Louisiana at Lafayette
The Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Public Policy Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette assists democracy by conducting policy-related research. It also hosts events to advance policies and assists policymakers with its expertise. Former Governor of Louisiana Kathleen Babineaux Blanco spearheaded the development of this center. Recent research that this center has published includes an analysis of Louisiana’s coastal financing and a policy brief on the adequacy of the state’s transportation infrastructure. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is also a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
16. University of West Georgia
The Center for Future Democracy at the University of West Georgia has the mission of sponsoring, “educational and research activities that promote a knowledge and understanding of popular participation in governing.” It does this via conferences, seminars, colloquiums, published works, and sponsored speakers. In addition to this, the college also runs the Thomas B. Murphy Center, which is a non-partisan organization that partners with students, faculty, and other community members to create political, social, and economic changes. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
15. California State University, Dominguez Hills
In 2003, the government of California signed into law what was then named the California African American Political Institute. Since this time, the institute, which has now been renamed the Mervyn M. Dymally African American Political & Economic Institute, has been based at California State University, Dominguez Hills. In the present day, this institute runs a number of events that promote democracy, such as those that demystify the defunding of the police movement. California State University, Dominguez Hills is a member of Democratic Erosion and the American Democracy Project.
14. The Ohio State University
The leading center of democratic endeavors at The Ohio State University is The Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability. This center works to mobilize the college’s resources to improve the public good on a local, state, national and international level. Some of this institute’s current projects include the Connecting to Congress Initiative, which aims to create engagement between members of Congress and their constituents, and the Common Ground for Action Ohio: The Opioid Crisis, which aims to assess public opinion on Ohio’s opioid epidemic. Edsurge consults with The Ohio State University’s professor of educational administration, Matthew J. Mayhew, to discuss how colleges can improve democracy. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
13. Tufts University
The signature project of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education is the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. This study initially collects student voting information from over 1,100 colleges in America. The final study then informs educators on how to teach democracy and increase political learning opportunities. Additionally, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, “studies and promotes the civic and political engagement of young people.” In September 2021, this college hired a new dean, Dayna Cunningham, who aims to run a number of initiatives that support American democracy as the nation becomes more demographically multiracial. Edsurge highlights that Tufts University’s director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education is active in discussing political issues with students. The college is also a member of College Civic Learning.
12. Johns Hopkins University
In August 2021, Johns Hopkins University held its first-ever Democracy Day, which was, “designed to prompt students – first- and second-year students in particular – to think critically about the political world they inhabit and their own rights and responsibilities as citizens and democratic actors. This day included pop-up seminars, voter registrations, and informal discussions on the importance of voting in every election. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the college also created The Democracy Project, which involved the college’s scholars examining threats and opportunities to democracy. Both The Atlantic and Inside Higher Ed praise Johns Hopkins University’s president for authoring the book What Universities Owe Democracy.
11. The University of Memphis
In 1996, the civil rights activist Dr. Benjamin Hooks opened The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at The University of Memphis. Ever since, this center has worked in an interdisciplinary manner to frame and solve community problems. Many of its activities have promoted democracy. For instance, in 2019 and 2020, it ran an exhibit that highlighted how African Americans fought for the right to vote in Tennessee. The University of Memphis is also a member of Democratic Erosion and a member of The American Democracy Project.
10. Salem State University
In 2019, Salem State University opened the Frederick E. Berry Institute of Politics and Civic Engagement. Its primary aim is to inspire a diverse range of learners to pursue careers in political and public service. It also conducts a range of other activities, such as driving voter engagement and awarding scholarships. Additionally, the college has also been home to the William H. Bates Center for Public Affairs since 1969. This center has a number of objectives, including fostering government and political academic excellence, providing the local community with political resource access, and more. Salem State University is a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
9. University of Pennsylvania
The Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement exists to engage its fellow citizens and ensure that the gains of a globally engaged world are shared. The center recently worked with the George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House to run The Democracy Project, a survey of American attitudes to democracy and US initiatives that promote international democracy. The college also runs The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. This institute was formed in 2017 to continue to work of the college’s Penn Program for Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism. In the 2021-2022 academic year, this center is focusing on social changes and the global aspects of the Middle East. The college’s Annenberg School for Communication also runs the Democracy and Information Group to explore how political communication impacts society. The University of Pennsylvania is also a member of College Civic Learning and Democratic Erosion.
8. Loyola University Chicago
In 2021, Loyola University Chicago announced that it was opening the Rule of Law Institute thanks to a $6 million gift. Of all the activities that this institute is running, what is likely to be the most effective in safeguarding democracy is The Center for Policy, Legislation, And Governance. In late 2021, the college also hosted its 12th annual Constitutional Law Colloquium, which featured Richard H. Pildes as the keynote speaker, who, “is one of the nation’s leading scholars of constitutional law and a specialist in legal issues affecting democracy.” Loyola University Chicago is also a member of College Civic Learning. Edsurge consulted with one of the college’s professors in its article about how colleges can strengthen democracy.
7. Columbia University
New York City, New York
One of the major areas of focus of Columbia University’s Columbia World Projects is democratic renewal. In recent years, this focus has produced some significant work in promoting democracy. For instance, it compiled a report named “Building Trust: Election Administration and the Role of Higher Education” by bringing together bipartisan experts, such as lawmakers of four US states that were key in determining the outcome of the 2020 election. The college also runs the Constitutional Democracy Initiative, which currently leads a number of pro-democracy projects. The college has also launched a conversation series called Awakening Our Democracy, which features a number of democracy-focused thought leaders, advocates, journalists, and scholars. The Atlantic notes that Columbia University has run a democratic citizenship course for over 100 years. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
6. Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana
The James F. Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship has been based at Purdue University’s School of Education since 1994. Some of this center’s current programming includes creating an event to celebrate Constitution Day, running workshops on Holocaust remembrance, running a competition for students to create plans of action to address local issues, and assisting people to successfully apply to become US citizens. In late 2021, the college was also proud to announce that the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge had named its voter engagement action plan as the best compared to peer institutions. The college’s partnership with Indiana University also runs the Center for Service & Learning, which creates the Educating for Democracy Series. The Atlantic notes that Purdue University has made civic literacy a requirement for graduation. The college, through its partnership with Indiana University, is also a member of the American Democracy Project.
5. University of Virginia
In 2018, the University of Virginia launched the Democracy Initiative, which works to bring together, “scholars, government leaders, and practitioners to study and advance the prospects of democracy around the world.” And in 2021, a $50 million gift to the college led to the creation of the Karsh Institute of Democracy. This institute functions by identifying new collaboration and project opportunities across different departments within the college. Edsurge highlights the University of Virginia’s new democracy institute. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion and College Civic Learning.
4. The University of Chicago
Three institutes within The University of Chicago exist to support democracy, The Chicago Center on Democracy, The Institute of Politics, and The Center for Effective Government. The Chicago Center on Democracy has been especially successful in forming partnerships with other universities by becoming the administrative home of Bright Line Watch, which collaborates with political scientists from Dartmouth College and the University of Rochester to monitor democratic practices and their threats. The Institute of Politics focuses on ensuring that the college’s students engage in US democracy. It is also collaborating with a number of organizations to promote democracy. For example, in April 2022, it hosted a conference on disinformation and democracy in collaboration with The Atlantic. The primary efforts of the Center for Effective Government are to strengthen democratic institutions and find ways for the government to solve public problems. In 2022, the center announced that it had created the Data & Democracy Initiative with the college’s Data Science Institute to provide information, tools, and software to help the work of those attempting to strengthen democracy. Inside Higher Ed notes that in the 1930s and 1940s, The University of Chicago’s president was an important figure in strengthening democracy. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
3. Georgetown University
In 2002, Georgetown University founded the Center for Democracy and Civil Society. In the two decades since, the center has conducted a range of research, advocacy and partnership efforts. Currently, it is running projects that range from assisting the Tunisian people in building a stronger democracy to highlighting different perspectives through theatrical performance. Students have also published an annual journal named Democracy & Society since 2004, which features points of view from a range of political leaders and scholars. The Atlantic notes that, in the 1980s, Georgetown University was a founding member of Campus Compact, which promotes civil service, and by 2019, Campus Compact had grown to over 1,000 institutions. Edsurge highlights the work of the college’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s 2020 report that focuses on using education to combat authoritarianism. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion and College Civic Learning.
2. Indiana University
To date, the Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University has worked with reform leaders in nations across the world, including Myanmar, Libya, Ukraine, Yemen, Vietnam, and the USA. The center has three major focuses, namely promoting gender equality, fostering accountable government, and enhancing the college’s community. The college has also housed the Center on Representative Government since 1999. This center organizes a number of pro-democracy initiatives, such as conducting annual surveys on congressional performance and creating apps that highlight the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Indiana University’s School of Education is also a member of College Civic Learning. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion and various campuses within the college are part of The American Democracy Project.
1. Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island
In 1986, Brown University opened the Swearer Center, which had the focus of bringing public engagement into the college curriculum. In the present day, this center runs a number of programs that allow students to engage in pro-democracy efforts. For instance, it has the Brown in Washington Summer Signature Program, which pays students to intern with a public agency or think tank. The center is currently forming a strategic plan for the future. And since 2003, the college has run the Political Theory Project, which aims to create an informed debate between people with different beliefs. In 2020, because of the growth of the initiative and in anticipation of future expansion, The Political Theory Project moved to a new building. Other departments within the college also run initiatives that focus on democracy. For example, in 2020, the college’s Office of the Provost held a talk called Race & Democracy in America, which brought together professors of different backgrounds to discuss the issue. The Atlantic praises Brown University for its work with other colleges in the 1980s to form the political service-oriented organization Campus Compact, which had grown to over 1,000 institutions by 2019. The College is a participant in Democratic Erosion. The college’s Swearer Center is also a member of College Civic Learning.
This concludes our ranking of the 30 Colleges Strengthening Domestic and Global Democracy 2022.
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