College Presidents As Stewards Of Democracy

In a time of challenge, many are calling for college and university presidents to speak out on controversial issues. Scott Sherman, writing in The Nation, makes the case in "University Presidents - Speak Out!" He argues that "because American higher education is plagued by severe difficulties on many fronts - from soaring tuition and runaway student debt to the loss of public funding, the endemic corruption of college athletics, and the erosion of the liberal arts the time has come to demand more from them and to hold them to more elevated standards."

Presidents sometimes show courage on controversial issues, such as the three hundred and sixty presidents who signed a letter calling for gun control legislation after the Newtown massacre in December, 2012. But it is also naïve to overlook the constraints. Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, points out that presidents are "inhibited by demands of their office, the need not to offend folks in different quarters."

Work with a group of 15 past and present college and university presidents interested in developing an alternative "democracy voice" in higher education, convened by the Kettering Foundation, has made me aware of another role for presidents beyond issue advocates: stewards of democracy who revitalize the idea that citizens are co-creators of educational communities and of a democratic way of life.

Many issues roil our public culture, from gun violence to conflicts between black communities and police, from immigration to climate change and growing inequality. The difficulties in addressing them also dramatize the crisis in civic life itself. As Tryve Throntveit, editor of The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies, puts it recently in an essay, "What Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Can Learn from William James," in Time magazine, beyond particular issues, "the only sustainable remedy for bad policies is good citizens [who] embrace the hard work, moral humility, and imperfect compromises that make an inclusive common life possible."

At the Kettering Foundation meeting in Dayton, Ohio, last July 10-11, presidents were eager to think about the hard work of preparing citizens.

Katherine Persson, president of Lone Star College-Kingwood, observed that presidents' experiences in negotiating different interests and conflicting demands can develop considerable political skill (understanding politics in the older sense of engaging diverse views and interests, not partisanship). Such skill, employed for survival, can also prepare presidents for the role of stewards of democracy's future.

David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation has described what it means to think about this future. Thus in Ecology of Democracy, he points out that problems of democracy --polarization, technocracy, distrust of institutions, feelings of powerlessness and others-- are system-wide problems, "problems behind the problems." They undermine our collective capacities to respond to problems in democracy, whether race relations or inequality. Problems of democracy include shrinking ideas of citizenship, politics, power, purpose, and democracy itself.

In the Kettering College Presidents' Initiative, presidents are exploring how to address problems of democracy through proven practices. Leading Democracy Colleges and Universities, a statement which Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg College, Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University and I co-authored for the group, lists five: the civic story of each institution; cooperative excellence; vocational and professional training which prepares students to take leadership in transforming institutions; opportunities for students to learn skills of constructive engagement with those with who are different in backgrounds and views; and colleges as "citizens of a place not on the sidelines studying it," as Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University - Newark, puts it.

All address problems of democracy, beginning with the shrinking of citizenship.

In common parlance, citizenship has come to mean little more than voting and obeying the law, supplemented by off-hours acts of voluntarism. Helping drive this shrinking are institutional practices which turn citizens into customers. The now dominant civil service and government practice in the US and around the world, called the New Public Management, puts the idea of market choice at the heart of government. As the intellectual historian Ben Fink has shown in his recent dissertation, Organized Ideas, there was nothing inevitable about this idea. It is the outgrowth of decades of intellectual organizing described by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe in The Road from Mont Pelerin - The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Harvard Press 2009).

Citizen as customer has spread to education, where "student as consumer" shapes curriculum and student life.

Those who champion students as consumers have good intentions. They want colleges to be "students-centered," more responsive and accountable. But the model has devastating effects. It focuses on students' wants, not their capacities. It undermines the agency of those "served." It reinforces the idea that "experts know best." It creates cultures of high entitlements and low expectations, generating a race in which schools offer ever more lavish perks, from extravagant gyms to water parks.

When Adam Weinberg was Dean of the College at Colgate University in the early 2000s, he and his colleagues showed that it is possible to change the consumer paradigm, what they called the "Club Med" culture. Weinberg described the experiences in an interview, "Public Work at Colgate," for the Kettering publication, Higher Education Exchange.

Colgate created a campus culture where students thought of themselves as "innovators, creators, and problem solvers." The school moved away from a professional service model where staff solve problems for students. Recognizing that civic education can take place "in campus controversies, residential halls, student organizations campus planning and other places," staff and faculty helped students to learn skills and habits of public work, work with a mix of others for common ends. This also changed identities, from consumers to co-creators of campus culture.

For instance, residence advisors became coaches and mentors who helped students to organize teams to solve their own problems, whether dirty dishes or racial conflicts. When a conflict broke out over dirty dishes in a sink, a student coordinator, brought everybody together and led a group brainstorming session. They put Styrofoam in half the sink. There was no place for dirty dishes.

Obstacles quickly emerged. Many parents said they didn't care about civic skills; they sent their child to college so they could get a good job. The staff and faculty spent time talking with parents about the purpose of education. Almost all came around. Weinberg's experiences convinced him that below the clamorous consumer culture are wellsprings of interest in revitalizing democracy as a way of life. "People are wiser and care much more than we give them credit for," he concluded. "People care about democracy. They understand that colleges and universities need to produce citizens."

Weinberg has taken these insights to Denison. They also help to inform the Leading Democracy Colleges and Universities statement. For instance, students learning the skills of public work and deliberation is linked to the idea of developing a college civic narrative. Last academic year at Augsburg College seven of us, drawing on Paul Pribbenow's idea that each college has a "saga," researched and wrote a story of Augsburg's democracy journey.

Uncovering the narrative of Augsburg, warts and all, made visible the work of a legion of faculty, staff, students, and community partners, known and not well known, who created the school over many years. It brought to life the idea that students and others are co-creators of the college.

If the idea of citizen as customer is the outgrowth of a long process of intellectual organizing, it can be also reversed by intellectual organizing. Long ago, the African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois argued that humans are "co-workers in the kingdom of culture" (quoted in Jerald Podair, Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer). Today the idea of citizen as co-creator is at the heart of the new transdisciplinary field of Civic Studies.

America is in great need of leaders who rise above everyday routines and bitter controversies to become stewards of democracy. I have come to believe presidents, among others, can take on this role.

Harry Boyte, an advisor to the Kettering Presidents' Initiative, was national coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition invited by the White House to mark the 150th anniversary of land grant colleges in 2012.