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Reflections on the Public Purposes of Our Work

By George Mehaffy, Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change, AASCU

In the midst of all that we are involved in, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the purpose of our work.  It is widely acknowledged that our public institutions are increasingly viewed as a “private good.” Students and their parents, understandably, are focused on college as career preparation.  Yet the last 9 years of the American Democracy Project have convinced me that we, as higher education leaders, need to be forceful advocates for a college education that does more than simply prepare one for a career (important as that is).  We need to advocates for developing students who can be informed, engaged citizens in our democracy.

Here are three simple arguments about why our public institutions must continue to focus on the “public good” of preparing citizens for our democracy.

  • First, you only have to think about the dysfunction in Washington to worry about the future of our democracy.  Increasing polarization, growing inequality, and a failure to confront and address our most pressing problems threaten our way of life.  A recent campaign to get all companies to contribute 1% of their profits to environmental protection ended with an ominous note.  When asked why companies should contribute, the response was: “Because there’s no business done on a dead planet.”  In a similar vein, do we really want to live, work, and have our children and grandchildren grow up in a country where democracy has been profoundly weakened?
  • Second, involving students in civic work is highly engaging. Civic work, well done, leads to higher levels of student engagement, resulting in greater student success, greater retention, and higher graduation rates.  In other words, civic work can contribute to both student and institutional success.
  • Third, the argument that we can’t do civic preparation because it takes away from career preparation is a false dichotomy.   As I read the Business Roundtable or National Association of Manufacturers reports about the problems of recent college graduates, they never say: “she doesn’t know enough Biology,” or “he doesn’t know enough about Accounting.”  Instead they complain about the lack of 21st century career skills: working with people who are different, listening to others, organizing to achieve a goal, communicating effectively.  In fact, these 21st century career skills are also civic skills; indeed, some of these skills are best taught in civic engagement activities. So preparing students for careers and citizenship can be done simultaneously.

In our American Democracy Project, we have continuously stressed the importance of “institutional intentionality.”  Every campus has some imaginative and creative civic project underway.  However, most of the time, these projects are isolated, idiosyncratic, and episodic.  What we need, it seems to me, to realize the goal of producing informed, engaged citizens are institutions committed to having a civic impact on ALL students.

As we approach ADP’s 10th anniversary, I encourage you to reinvigorate your campus’ civic education and engagement efforts. I continue to be passionate about the need for American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) members to carve out a distinctive mission at a time when our institutions are challenged as never before about their mission and purpose.  I believe that the civic mission is not only a distinctive mission for AASCU institutions but one that is critical for our students, for our own success, and for the success of our country.

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