The Civic Responsibilities of Colleges

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The democratic way of life is government "of the people, by the people and for the people." How do our colleges and universities contribute to this goal?

At the core, we need colleges to prepare students to work effectively with others--across differences--over long periods of time, and to build and sustain healthy communities, while also providing space for faculty and staff to do the same within their own communities.

There are three areas of focus that will enable colleges to make this happen.

1. Weave "the civic" throughout the student experience: In his classic essay, "Only Connect," William Cronon writes that liberally educated people can listen and hear, read and understand, and talk with anyone. They also can write persuasively, solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems, and respect rigor as a way of seeking truth. In doing so, they practice respect and humility, understand how to get things done, and nurture and empower people around them--seeing the connections that help one make sense of the world and act in creative ways to build the future.

Cronon's baseline skills, values and habits are the attributes we need in order to live democratically. This work starts in the classroom, by immersing students in a wide range of liberal arts disciplines. Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, put this well when she wrote that that democracies depend upon people who "inform themselves about crucial issues they will address as voters and, sometimes, as elected or appointed officials," and citizens who understand, appreciate and can work effectively with "people who differ from themselves." The liberal arts are crucial in this preparation, she added, because they educate students to be "complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements."

As the college campus becomes a laboratory for practicing the art of democratic living, people learn public work by doing public work. Public work can be defined as what happens when people take center stage in democracy. People come together in their communities and work with others over periods of time to do the work it takes to create and sustain healthy communities. It is an experiential process that requires coaching and training. At Denison this takes many forms.

  • Residential halls function as design studios for acquiring the skills for democratic living. Our student population is diverse in many different ways (e.g., race, ethnicity, religious practices, political views, geographic origins, class, sexual identity). This means that students bring into our residential halls an array of needs, likes and dislikes, passions, habits and goals. These differences create opportunities for students to learn to communicate more effectively, resolve conflict, and solve problems creatively to build and sustain community.

  • Student organizations are sites for learning the language of civic opportunity and public work, and for training students in the arts of organizing, goal setting, asset mapping, design thinking and other crucial skills of community-based problem solving. We partially do this through an array of leadership programs. We also do this informally, through mentorship of students as they lead organizations. (Some 75 percent of our students will hold at least one leadership position during their Denison experience.)
  • Student government allows us to think about what democratic decision-making looks like in the 21st century. Students want more direct representation, quicker and more responsive decision-making, and better communication. This generation will have to update current governing bodies that were created for much different time periods. At Denison, we are exploring better ways to be representative. In some meetings, for example, students have begun to replace the rules of formal governance with more deliberative styles of decision-making.
  • As part of this work, we also need to focus on career exploration. Students crave jobs that matter. For some, this means starting small-scale NGOs or seeking out companies that contribute to the social good. For other students, it means learning to work as professionals (e.g., doctors, lawyers, financial investors) with civic interests. And for some, it is about working for large companies that are taking on global issues. As we have come to recognize this more fully at Denison, we are creating a plethora of ways to connect our students with alumni who can discuss how they built careers blending their personal, professional and civic interests and responsibilities.

    2. Create free spaces for students, faculty and staff to engage in public work. To do this effectively, we need to ask a broad set of questions: Do we encourage faculty to get involved in local causes and projects? 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?

    Doing this work also requires an appreciation of and respect for conflict as a normal part of civic life. College campuses need to serve as free spaces where faculty, students and staff have room to share views, and recognize that those views sometimes may clash. Students, faculty and staff will raise issues that challenge how colleges operate and question how others think and act. Controversy should be seen as a normal and healthy part of democratic living and governance. In part, this is about creating room for students to acquire democratic skills and creating space for our faculty and staff to be civic actors in ways that benefit our local communities.

    3. Imagine ourselves as part of the local community around important public narratives: Political scientist, Harry Boyte talks about the power of public narratives. He references a call by Nancy Cantor, the Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, for colleges to engage in "barn raising" activities, where colleges are becoming anchoring institutions that create "shared communities of experts―between scholars and citizens, scientists and artists, students and teachers, not-for-profits and businesses, public agencies and private institutions" who come together to address community issues and needs and "where the voices at the table in our communities of experts now often include those who have sometimes felt relegated to the margins of our campus community."

    Boyte writes that this repositions colleges as "part of communities, not simply 'partners with' communities, overcoming the culture of detachment" that too often characterizes colleges and their locales.

    For example, Denison's extended community includes the nearby city of Newark with its historic Courthouse Square. Over the last few years, a broad coalition of community-based organizations, political officials, local businesses and entrepreneurs have united around the revival of the square. A public narrative of hope has started to emerge. The college has supported the renewal efforts by renting a storefront in a building that is being brought back to life; hiring people who are coming out of job retraining programs; sponsoring events; and supporting faculty and staff who are involved in the project.

    Establishing civic agency: Beneath every facet of this work is a focus on instilling within students notions of civic agency--the ability of people to act together on common problems across differences--while also giving faculty, staff, and local residents more opportunities to work in their communities. If colleges do not instill the skills, habits and values to do this work, while also fiercely protecting the principles required for this work to occur, we will have far less civic capacity than we need in order to address the challenges and opportunities we face.

    Recently, a group of college presidents have coalesced around the Kettering Foundation to explore these issues. We have created a leadership template with the goal looking beyond our administrative and fundraising roles to provide new leadership for civic engagement.

    As Denison Professor Steve Vogel concludes in his new book Thinking Like A Mall: "The world is nothing beyond us but also is nothing above or superior to us: it is something we are in as well as of, and that we make in all of our actions. Our duty is simply to make it together, and to make it well." One of the many things colleges can do well--and have an obligation to commit to--is to prepare students to do this work, while creating space for faculty, staff and local community members to do the same.