Adam Weinberg, President of Denison -- An Eye for Civic Agency

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The election is important but the country needs vision from leaders far beyond formal politics. Kettering Foundation’s College Presidents and the Civic Purposes of Higher Education project explores how presidents can “take leadership on themes of democracy and civic engagement on their campuses and with their stakeholders.” I am honored to be working with the group.

Here I profile Adam Weinberg, President of Denison University and long-time colleague. Before coming to Denison in 2013, Weinberg served as Vice President and Dean of the College at Colgate University and was president of World Learning, an organization which runs educational and cross-cultural programs for 10,000 young people from 140 countries.

Adam Weinberg breaks the mold. Training in social sciences and humanities prepares academics to know about – to “see” -- and analyze structures, injustices, and patterns of oppression, and social problems. But their schooling does not usually equip them to see -- or know much about -- civic agency. As Philip Nyden, co-chair of the Public Sociology Task Force of the American Sociology Association observes in his essay in the Civic Studies collection, academics are problem oriented, not solution oriented. Sociology departments have courses on “social problems,” not “social solutions.” In contrast, Weinberg advances a lived way of knowing in which we learn to see, know, experience, and foster collective empowerment.

Adam Weinberg comes from a Jewish family in the South. In some ways he sees his family as privileged. His grandfather ran a clothing store. His father was a prominent doctor, the first to diagnose patterns of manic depression among adolescents. His family simultaneously experienced discrimination because of their faith and culture.

They also pushed back against racial and other injustices. “My father spent a lot of time trying to get schools to understand that the problem wasn’t with kids who couldn’t sit still but the problem was the structure of schools. If the schools were student-centered rather than administrator centered the kids would thrive.”

In college at Bowdoin and graduate school at Cambridge and Northwestern, Weinberg was mentored by academics who were straddling the line between academics and deep engagement in communities. “They were civic professionals. I loved what they were doing. Their example filled both of my needs, for deep intellectual work and involvement in civic life.”

“When I left college, I was deeply interested in what it means to be a citizen of a democratic place and under what conditions people have the capacity, opportunity, and desire to act as citizens. I was also passionate about the ways the sociological imagination can help us both better understand these social processes and act on them to create more space for democratic ways of living.”

He came to Colgate as a young faculty member in the sociology department when the college was getting involved with citizens in the area working on economic and social revitalization. Experiences in this work showed him ways to be an engaged citizen and a scholar. “My research, teaching, and community work came together in unexpected and exciting ways that reinforced each other.” He also learned the importance of different kinds of knowledge. “People without formal education had a lot to teach me.”

When Weinberg became Dean of the College, he and his colleagues organized to change the pervasive consumer paradigm on campus. Their effort transformed an entitlement culture to one where students were “innovators, creators and problem solvers.” The college shifted from a professional service model “where staff solves problems for students.” This involved learning new ways to think about where civic learning can take place, “We were sending students out into the community to do community work when in fact the campus was laboratory of civic learning opportunities.” They began to see opportunities “in campus controversies, residential halls, student organizations, and other places where students learn skills, habits and values of public work.”

At Denison, Weinberg found a college that had long been committed to service-learning, community service, and community engagement. This strong foundation in civic work has allowed Weinberg to work with faculty, students and student development staff to push into new territories.

Weinberg and his colleagues are focused on campus life as a laboratory of civic learning. “I think that residence halls are the most underleveraged asset that we have for developing a new generation of citizens with civic agency. Students coming to our colleges are diverse in so many ways from race and ethnicity to religious practices, political views, geographic origins, class, and sexual identity. For example: ninety percent of our students who arrive at Denison have never lived in a diverse neighborhood. Residential halls are places to learn to work effectively with people you don’t know (and may not even like) to do the public work it takes to build and sustain healthy communities.” Conversations like this are taking place around student organizations, student government, and a range of other facets of campus life.

Adam Weinberg’s concept of what colleges can contribute to civic life has greatly broadened by rethinking “democracy.” “I went into the president’s role focused on how students and faculty could do more service learning and how we could fund more investment in the community. But I came to understand that we need a deeper, richer view of democracy, civic agency and the role that complex organizations like universities play in the local community.”

Asking “what is Denison’s relationship to a deeper democracy?” highlights many other dimensions of civic mission. “Do we encourage faculty to get involved in local causes and projects? Do we support them when they want to blend their teaching, research and civic work? Do we allow staff to attend civic meetings that take place during the workday? How do we treat faculty and staff when they take public stands that might not benefit the college? How do we respond when students raise important public issues on our campus?”

Colleges and universities are often large and influential employers and presences. “We play a much larger role in the life of our communities than we think. We can be real forces for developing civic agency. For instance, when important decisions are being made in the local community it’s usually the politicians, developers, bankers and other prominent leaders. As a college president I can get people involved who typically don’t get invited to the table when decisions are made.”

Weinberg question is, “How do we harness the power of complex institutions to create more opportunity for public work in the local community?” He is convinced that Denison can develop new models for interaction with communities with questions like, “How do we create more public spaces, more free spaces, more civic agency?”

He has an unusual view of the work of presidents. “So often presidents take a traditional political view. They figure out how to move constituencies who are aligned with them to push through whatever agenda they’re trying to push through.” In contrast, “if you think about change as a community building process, you purposively find those who disagree with you and find ways to work together across differences over a longer period of time to get to the right outcome.”

When he arrived, Denison was faced with writing a new anti-harassment policy. The early drafts bumped up against academic freedom policy. There were sharp disagreements about the policy. “There was real nervousness that if you start to chip away on academic freedom it will have a chilling effect among faculty. At the same time, others focused on the need for a policy that protected a more diverse student, faculty, and staff population from harassment, bullying and other unacceptable behaviors.”

These conflicting views on campuses seemed impossible to resolve. But Weinberg was convinced that “the multiple sides want the same goal, they just have different approaches.” Denison undertook a deliberative public work approach. “We got people around the table who had very different views. The biggest faculty skeptics were there along with our university attorney. They stayed at the table long enough for them to really work together. And when it finally got to the faculty floor one of the faculty who had been most skeptical said, ‘I don’t agree with everything in this policy, but it’s the best we can create and it’s been the most democratic process I’ve ever been a part of.’”

The policy upholds free speech and also stresses creating a community which recognizes difference and is based on respect. “It shifts to a relational and cultural approach, saying we will only be as strong as the community we create. We have to consciously work at that every day.”

“Over the years my interest has remained focused on the relationship between colleges and universities and civic agency, but I have come to expand beyond my original focus on teaching and research to also think about campus life and university operations as also being overlooked and potentially very powerful.”

He sees the implications of a “civic agency epistemology” as immense. “There are all sorts of things administrators can do that don’t require raising hundreds of millions of dollars or passing national laws. They require administrators and colleges thinking about how to do normal things differently, pushing boundaries in good ways.”

Weinberg concluded, “what has connected all of my work is what you (Harry) are now calling an epistemology of agency, which I take to mean a lived theory of knowledge. I like the way you are encouraging us to develop a praxis that allows us to learn to experience, see, and foster civic agency. As a president, I am interested in the role colleges can play in helping broaden what we mean by citizen and how we address the question of- what citizens can and should do to address the roles our institutions can play in the multifaceted and ongoing process of building a democratic way of life."

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