Putting the 'U' in Civic Engagement

Millions of our fellow Americans have spent the last few weeks engaged in that great act of civic duty -- paying taxes. We grumble as we do it, but no matter how big or how small we think government should be, taxes are how we pay for what it provides. Don't like how your taxes are spent? You're in luck, because you have another great civic responsibility to fulfill: voting. But that's another blog, for another day.

Those of us who work in higher education believe that instilling in our students that sense of civic duty is a critical part of our mission and essential to their well-being. Our students want to serve their communities and we need to give them opportunities to do so. As nonprofit institutions, we are keenly aware of how our communities support us, and we want to support them, too.

That's why I recently joined more than 350 of his fellow college and university presidents and chancellors nationwide in signing the Campus Compact 30th Anniversary Action Statement, affirming that all institutions should do what is in the public's best interests. The list of signatories includes small private liberal arts schools and large flagship public institutions, community colleges and technical schools -- even a medical school. We recognize that we must better prepare our students to be engaged citizens when they graduate, and we know we must bring our own research capabilities to bear to improve civic engagement for our students.

New, fresh ideas about civic engagement are spreading across higher education. The silos that separated civic engagement and the academic curriculum have been torn down. We firmly believe the new paradigm -- seeking the integration of student engagement into the curriculum -- benefits faculty, students, and our communities. Service-learning incorporated into coursework challenges students to address stereotypes about other groups, work collaboratively with people who are not like them, recognize the levers of power in a society, and to critically reflect upon what they have experienced.

Civic engagement is fast becoming integral to the curriculum at Robert Morris University. Our Student Engagement Transcript, for example, has become a hallmark of an RMU education. All undergraduate students must successfully complete at least two categories of student engagement, and many do so in the area of service. Students who complete activities in all categories of student engagement are honored at commencement with our Renaissance Award. Examples of our students' service include alternative spring breaks to Louisiana, New Jersey, and Tennessee to help people displaced by natural disasters or beset by poverty; nursing students providing health care to impoverished families in Nicaragua; and mentoring programs in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Yet we need to do more. Anthony, as director of the RMU Center for Innovative Teaching and Directed Engaged Learning, is reconvening a Service Learning Task Force to address how RMU can adhere to best practices in service learning and civic engagement. Like our peer institutions, we embrace civic engagement because it is in the best interests of our students: those who take part in these kinds of activities are more likely to persist in their studies and to excel. It puts us on the right side of history.

And we have the data to prove it. The Gallup-Purdue Index, which I wrote about previously for the Huffington Post, shows that students who are very active in extracurricular activities and who have strong faculty and staff mentors -- important components of any civic engagement and service learning program -- are more likely to experience personal and professional well-being. We have certainly witnessed this with our own graduates.

Having recently been reclassified as a Doctoral University, RMU, like our peers, is committed to conducting research that assists with determining the best practices in 21st century institutional civic engagement. For example, Campus Compact's The Research Universities Civic Engagement Network -- which includes Duke, Stanford, and Arizona State universities, among others -- explores the intersection of civic engagement, social innovation, and entrepreneurship. Institutions such as Drexel University, with its Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, are incorporating civic engagement into every aspect of campus life.

We urge more of our peers to follow their example and help our students make their communities better places than they found them.

Dr. Christopher B. Howard is the eighth president of Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh. Dr. Anthony Moretti is the director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Directed Engaged Learning at Robert Morris University.