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Reflections from White House Civic Summit on Higher Education

By Harry Boyte, American Commonwealth Partnership

October 16, 2014 at Tufts University, the White House, working with the Department of Education, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Tuft’s Tisch College of Citizenship, organized a gathering on higher education’s civic purposes. It was called “The White House Civic Learning and National Service Summit.” Alan Solomont, former ambassador to Spain and now dean of Tisch College, gave an impassioned opening address on how democracy is endangered. Peter Levine, Associate Dean of Research and Director of the CIRCLE research center, played a central role in organizing the meeting.

The meeting brought together about 50 White House aides, agency officials and staff, higher education leaders and community activists and leaders. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of citizen participation in the White House, and Robert Rodriguez, Obama education policy adviser, gave opening remarks.

The title of the gathering may have revealed a shrinking of the sense of possibility in the administration. The name of the event, “Civic Learning and National Service,” is smaller than the earlier meeting on which it built, “For Democracy’s Future,” at the White House in 2012.

But the discussions were animated and productive, and pointed to a crucial need for deeper dialogue with the public on the public aims and contributions of higher education.

Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary for Higher Education, made a strong pitch for the continuing bully pulpit role of administration officials in promoting change. Studley chaired a panel which including Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and Richard Freedland, Commission of Higher Education in Massachusetts. Both discussed what has happened since the earlier White House meeting, January 12, 2012, when AAC&U unveiled the report, A Crucible Moment, commissioned by the Department of Education, calling for civic learning to become “pervasive” in colleges and universities. Perhaps the most significant development in the intervening time was the strategic plan developed among public universities in Massachusetts, which calls for pervasive civic learning and will evaluate presidents’ performance based on progress toward that goal.

“For Democracy’s Future” also launched the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), a one year alliance to commemorate the 150th anniversary of land grant colleges. ACP developed strategies to revitalize the democracy story, purposes, and practices of higher education. In the session chaired by Andrew Seligsohn, new president of Campus Compact, I described these democracy initiatives. These include the initiative on civic science (described in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harry-boyte/civic-science-renewing-th_b_5950972.html ), Citizen Alum, an effort to broaden alumni’s roles to “doers not only donors” coordinated by Julie Ellison of the University of Michigan, and the forthcoming book collection from Vanderbilt University Press, Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities http://www.amazon.com/Democracys-Education-Citizenship-Colleges-Universities/dp/0826520367

They also included a conversation in communities across the country on the purposes of higher education, “Shaping Our Future,” http://www.nifi.org/issue_books/detail.aspx?catID=6&itemID=21640 . “Shaping Our Future” was launched at the National Press Club on September 4, 2012, with Martha Kanter, Under Secretary for Post Secondary Education, David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation, Muriel Howard, president of AASCU, Nancy Canter, then Chancellor of Syracuse University, Bill Muse, president of the National Issues Forums and other leaders.

My take-away from the October 16th meeting was that the civic engagement movement in higher education has a more urgent sense of the importance of higher education’s contributions to revitalizing and deepening the democratic story, purposes, and practices of colleges and universities than two years ago.  There is also great need, and new opportunities, to let people know about higher education’s public and democratic roles.

The group strongly supported the proposal of Barbara Vacarr, past president of Goddard College, that presidents need to articulate a bold vision of their colleges’ democracy role. Participants also agreed with the remarks of Carolyne Abdullah of Everyday Democracy that faculty need to learn skills of collaborative partnership with communities, becoming democratic role models for students. But today the democracy identity of colleges is largely counter-cultural. While many pundits express alarm about higher education and its purposes, few mention any relation to democracy. For all the service-learning projects, community research and other important engagement efforts over the last two decades connecting higher education to communities and the society, the democracy history and purposes of higher education are now largely forgotten. Many colleges and universities advertise themselves as tickets to individual success.

In contrast, the Commission on Higher Education created by President Truman declared in its 1947 report, Higher Education for American Democracy, that “the first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.” This reflected a broad national discussion growing out of land grant colleges, the City College of New York, community colleges and elsewhere that highlighted higher education’s multiple public roles.

In “Shaping Our Future” discussion and the listening process for a follow-up national deliberation, “The Changing World of Work: What’s Higher Education’s Role?”, on how colleges can be resources for communities in dealing with radical changes in work and workplaces, we have talked with thousands of citizens about their concerns.

We found wide sentiment that the current policy debate about higher education is too narrow and short term, focused on immediate issues like student debt, distance learning, and vocational education. These are important, but as people deliberate about options they express the conviction that today’s policy discussion neglects ways in which higher education needs to prepare students for a rapidly changing world and to make contributions to that world. We also discovered that while public knowledge of the once vibrant story of public contributions by higher education has largely disappeared, there is hunger for this narrative if people have the chance to learn it. The mood shifts from “me” to “we.”

Participants in the White House civic summit on October 16 believed that it is imperative for higher education to reaffirm its democracy purposes and educate about the democracy-building story of higher education. Our discussions with citizens outside higher education have shown that people will respond, but it takes a process of deliberation and discussion to acquaint the general public with this history and current examples.

Thus, there is great importance in the “Changing World of Work” deliberation. “The Changing World of Work” will be launched at the National Press Club January 21, 2015, by the Kettering Foundation, Augsburg College, host of the ACP, and the National Issues Forums.

Democracy’s advance can no longer be taken for granted, in the United States or around the world. Higher education needs to step up to the plate, communicating a much deeper and richer understanding of democracy in which citizens are the central agents, not simply elections where we select leaders to “do democracy” for us.

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