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Dan Porterfield, Institutions, and the San Francisco Moment

Dan Porterfield

Dan Porterfield

As noted in an earlier post, it was my pleasure and honor to attend the Inauguration of my dear friend, Dan Porterfield, as President of Franklin & Marshall College. His brilliant address raised a myriad of critical themes, so I urge you to read it in its entirety. But I want to highlight one particular section: Dan’s discussion of the role of institutions. He writes:

In America, we sustain work that matters through institutions, and as one, the liberal arts college offers resources as utterly distinct and as profoundly American as the iconic figures in whose names we do our work here. I’d like to discuss three of those resources.

First, you’ll notice that we’re including on our inaugural banners a signature line from the Supreme Court’s most influential decision, Marbury v. Madison, in which Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “It is, after all, a constitution we are expounding.”

With this decision, the Court established the coherent, grounding basis for making the Supreme Court strong and serious enough to serve as the ultimate legal interpreter of the document above all others-the Constitution-that would define our democracy.

In our way, liberal arts colleges are also defining institutions built to preserve defining values of a democracy.

For example, we pursue knowledge disinterestedly. We protect freedom of thought and freedom of speech. We are politically impartial. We try not to follow fads. We uphold high academic standards.

We commit to codes of ethics to protect the human and animal subjects of our research. We protect the rights of students and faculty to express unpopular ideas. We critique government and private interests.

As institutions, we practice democracy, we protect democracy and we promote democracy, intellectually and affectively, to each generation of students.

As institutions, we serve in another way. We want our students to learn to respect other institutions enough to help strengthen them, which is necessary for any democracy, and any civilization, to survive.

Not to belabor the obvious, but we have seen all too many institutions betray their own values with corrosive practices-from government to the media to the financial sector to organized religion-so it is all the more important that as an institution we model the John Marshall tradition of integrity and of not being for sale.

Beginning with Marshall’s classic claim for the role of the Supreme Court, Dan lays out a critical purpose of human institutions– to preserve values. In this particular address, he elaborates upon the role of his institution– a liberal arts college– and the special place it has in preserving certain core values, including academic freedom, impartiality, and integrity.

Dan’s address is important not just because it reaffirms the vital role that liberal arts colleges play in a democracy, but because it reminds us that all human institutions should serve as stewards of values. In the world of Plato’s Philosopher King, there would be no need of human institutions because the vision The Good would guide the leader to govern justly. But in the real world, a fallen world, there can be no such knowledge of The Good. And so, as even Plato himself understood in The Laws, human institutions are necessary to maintain the values of society.

Of course, we immediately think of the need for domestic institutions– for national governments, for laws. But in the world of the Twenty-First Century, international institutions are also necessary to preserve the broader values of humanity. And here is the challenge: What are the values of humanity? In a world of nearly 7 billion people, with vastly different cultures, histories, religions, and political systems, can it be possible to arrive at any agreement on those values?

In 2011, this question seems all but impossible to answer adequately. Yet, there are moments in history when human beings did answer it. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the delegates that assembled in San Francisco to draft the Charter of the organization made an effort to answer the question– an imperfect, flawed effort, but an effort nonetheless. The UN Charter was remarkable because it affirmed the traditional value of state sovereignty and, at the same time, recognized the rights of individuals, and of groups– described in the Charter as “peoples.”

Over the years since the Charter entered into force, there has been an uneasy tension among these values. Indeed, in the messy world in which we now live, the rights of individuals and peoples have been clamoring for priority over the rights of states. This, I believe, is a good thing. But we need a San Francisco Moment. The international system needs to step back and evaluate the relationship among international values and the roles of institutions in both preserving core values and providing for change.

Is it realistic to expect such a San Francisco Moment? It certainly does not look like it. With the international system in turmoil and the seeming lack of leadership, it does not seem reasonable to hope for such a moment anytime soon. But perhaps this is where the academy can help– and this brings us back full circle to Dan’s argument.

While academia cannot do the job of international governance institutions, academics can help chart the course. They can help develop a blueprint for building a consensus on international values, and they can advise of ways to implement such consensus. With a thorough understand of history, culture, and social science, academics can recommend the types of structures and policies that seem likely to succeed in sustaining a San Francisco moment. In short, by being true to their values, academic institutions can help global international institutions be true to theirs.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.