Leaning In & Learning From: WCU’s Relentless Effort to Redefine & Advance Civic Engagement
By Lane Perry, Director of the Center for Service Learning, Western Carolina University (N.C.)
According to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), collegiate student voter engagement increased from 45.1% in 2012 to 48.3% in 2016. While clearly increasing, these rates still did not cross the 52% threshold achieved in 2008. While nationally there was clearly a percentage increase in college-level voters in 2016, Western Carolina University (WCU) experienced a decline. There were exceptional and sustained efforts through the institution’s preparation and response to the 2016 election (e.g., with support from the Andrew Goodman Foundation, N.C. Campus Compact, Campus Vote Project and many other organizations there was a successful petition for the first-ever on-campus polling place with record level voting, registration efforts that registered over 2,500 voters, over 50 educational programs on candidates, issues, and the voting process, a marketing campaign which included billboards, voter tip videos, bi-weekly newsletters, a “get out the vote” video by our Chancellor, and more). Despite the Student Democracy Coalitions best efforts, these concerted efforts could not keep up with or overcome the divisive, disengaging political climate or the nearly 20% increase in the size of the Catamount student body from 2012 to 2016 (note: according to NSLVE data, student enrollments went from 8,945 eligible student voters in 2012 to 10,462 eligible student voters in 2016, which represents an 18% increase).
This reality led to a gut check for me and critical reflection on our efforts. It sometimes feels like there is a cooling of our political climate. Meaning, that while current, peer-reviewed scientific research points to the extreme warming and unprecedented changing of our earth’s temperatures, there seems to be specifically a cooling of our political climate. In this analogy, we want our students to be (or become) warm to the idea of civic engagement. On campuses across the US there is a concerted effort to do this; that is to instill the imperative values associated with active civic engagement. But, like how Band-Aids will not heal a broken arm or how donning a tank-top in November will not ameliorate global climate change, voter registration drives and polling places on campuses, alone, will not address civic engagement or our democracy. What we need is a shift from an “I the person…” mentality to a revitalization of a “We the people…” mentality, which can lead to a more appreciative understanding of the experiences within our community. Parker Palmer notes as a foundation of America and our politics, “that conflict and tension, rightly held, are the engine, not the enemy of a better social order. By holding our differences with hospitality instead of hostility, we can act on that premise, rebuild our civic community, and hold power accountable to the will of the people.” While this statement was made in 2012, it could not be more relevant in our current climate.
In response to WCU’s NSLVE report and concomitant reflection, the Center for Service Learning prepared a Special Report on Student Voting Habits from 2012 and 2016 Presidential Elections with the greater intention to lean into and learn from our data. This report utilizes data from the NSLVE report on voter registration and voter engagement rates to determine WCU student participation in these elections as evidenced by voting. Furthermore, this report serves as a resource that has shaped current and will shape future conversations around WCU’s commitment and response to student civic engagement.
To move beyond responding to symptoms and to try and move closer to the actual source of the challenge, WCU developed the Civic Action Plan, which explicitly institutionalizes and advances student engagement within a civic context through the Student Democracy Coalition, the Critical Cultural Competence Certificate, and the Faculty Institute on Community Engagement (see WCU’s CAP for descriptions of these programs).
WCU’s CAP is framed by the five Principles from Campus Compact, which serve as a set of stars, and together a constellation, for assisting institutions in navigating both charted and uncharted waters by illuminating and responding to a core purpose of higher education – preparing an engaged citizenry for a lasting democracy. This plan essentially builds on a decade of collaborative work between WCU and the American Democracy Project that strives to prepare graduates who are committed to engaging in meaningful actions as citizens of our democracy. In this, universities do what we are qualified and called to do. We do what works best. That is, we clarify goals, organize support and resources, engage, engage, engage, and ultimately lean into and learn from our experiences and the collective experiences of others.