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Posts tagged ‘Civic Agency’

At the Forefront of Change: The Work of Building Democracy Colleges

Note: The American Democracy Project is a partner in the new American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP).

By Harry C. Boyte, American Commonwealth Partnership National Coordinator

At the forefront of change will be a monthly online newsletter about activities and developments in the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP). ACP is an alliance of colleges and universities, schools and others dedicated to the democracy college ideal for all higher education. Democracy colleges have a signature identity of strong connection to their communities, where students learn skills of working across differences on public problems and discover the democratic possibilities of America.

I’ve just come back from San Antonio. Blase Scarnati, director of the First Year Seminar at Northern Arizona University, and I did a featured session on the American Commonwealth Partnership at the Academic Affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). This biannual meeting once simply involved provosts, but in the last several years larger teams have come to help facilitate change in their institutions.

We had intense conversations about ACP, within our session as well as before and after. Overall, the weekend underlined both challenges and opportunities for the sustained work of “building democracy colleges.”

We reported on results from field testing and focus groups organized by the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), ACP’s partner in launching a national discussion on higher education’s role in America’s future. The discussions in communities and on campuses will begin in April and continue through the year. The Department of Education has suggested several ways in which they might help.

Research last year on public views toward higher education and the first tests of the framework to be used in the discussions have generated important findings.

The draft framework presents several alternative roles for people to consider and discuss: higher education as an engine of economic growth; as a path to the middle class for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and as a contributor to communities and the democracy. People want to integrate all three, not choose among them.

But most people also seem unaware of ways in which colleges and universities can play this third role. Since the last two decades have seen significant civic engagement work in higher education, this finding suggests a communications challenge, also highlighted by sympathetic participants from outside of higher education at the White House gathering, who commented that phrases commonly used to describe engagement – civic mission, civic engagement, and others – would not be easily understood by broader publics.

When the third option is illustrated with examples of higher education’s helping students and faculty learn skills and habits of collaborative work across differences on public problems, it generates surprise and animated discussions. Few people are aware that colleges or universities can play any role in teaching such skills. But across many differences, Americans are worried that “we are less and less able to work across differences to get anything done,” and fear for the future of the nation. Citizens are alarmed by Congress, but see polarization, inflammatory rhetoric and gridlock extending to every level of society and to all sorts of issues, from local zoning changes to reconstruction of the nation’s electrical grid.

Powerful forces feed the polarizing dynamic, including the formula, with roots in 1970s activism, which dominates most civic and political campaigns: identify an enemy; define issues as good versus bad; and use inflammatory language to shut down critical thought. Talk radio, cable news and the internet are potent operationalizing tools.

At San Antonio, there were strong examples of developing capacities for collaborative work that push back against such polarization. Blase Scarnati described the curricular innovations at NAU which involve hundreds of students in interdisciplinary Action Research Teams as part of the First Year Seminar. Students undertake public work projects on issues – immigration, weatherization, school bullying and others – in ways designed to teach such skills and build public relationships with diverse groups, connected to interdisciplinary learning.  Over supper one evening I heard a rich account from Dayna Seelig, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Morehead State University in Kentucky, about her own work over many years in teaching such skills and habits to students, faculty and staff of the university.

But such stories are rarely told in describing engagement efforts, and I believe that most examples of teaching and learning collaborative public work remain invisible. There is a need to shine a spotlight on education for such efforts. There are also strong institutional incentives for doing so in a time of public alarm about the fraying of American society and ebbing public support for higher education.  The initiatives of ACP (deliberative dialogues, student organizing, Citizen Alum, civic science, pedagogies of engagement, community civic health, public scholarship, and policy) all help to foster education for collaborative public problem solving. But it will take sustained effort to make such teaching and learning central to institutional identity.

What might a “Democracy College Morrill Class” look like dedicated to this task? We suggested the possibility of a cohort of colleges and universities that make an explicit commitment for sustained collaborative learning to deepen curricular and co-curricular engagement in civic work. It is now only the seed of an idea, but even without detail there was considerable interest. Several administrators said that their institutions would definitely like to be involved.

Find more information about ACP here.

For Democracy’s Future: Higher Education Reclaims our Civic Mission

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Obama Administration officials and education leaders from across the country – including the American Democracy Project’s George Mehaffy and Jennifer Domagal-Goldman – to launch a national conversation about the importance of educating all students, from grade school to graduate school, for informed and engaged citizenship, which will ultimately strengthen America’s democracy and economy in the 21st century. The event, “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission,” was held in the South Court auditorium at the White House on Tuesday, Jan. 10.

The live stream video of “For Democracy’s Future” has been archived on the White House YouTube channel, and can be viewed here  (part 1) and here (part 2).

Northern Arizona University and Western Kentucky University representing their important civic agency work.

Secretary Duncan remarked on the importance of connecting college, career and citizenship. The efforts of Northern Arizona University and Western Kentucky University – two American Democracy Project schools – were highlighted in the panel presentations. George Mehaffy, Vice President of Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and founder of the American Democracy Project, led a breakout session about building and strengthening community-campus partnerships. AASCU President Muriel Howard was featured in a video that was screened talking about colleges and universities acting as stewards of place.

The event coincided witCrucible Momenth the release of A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.  The report, which was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, argues for civic learning across the curriculum and offers a call to action to colleges and universities to renew their long-standing mission to educate students for informed, engaged citizenship.

The event also marks the release of the Department of Education’s own report, “Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action,” and highlights the American Commonwealth Partnership, which brings together schools, colleges, and other civic partners to promote civic education and civic identity throughout American education.

The new American Commonwealth Partnership aims to bring together thousands of universities, colleges, community colleges, schools and other civic partners to promote civic education, civic mission and civic identity throughout all of education in the United States.

Campuses and community partners are encouraged to host their own conversations about how higher education can reclaim our civic mission. Institutions are welcome to use the following discussion guide to frame their conversations:

Email to learn more about the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to advance education for citizenship and democracy or to share your own ideas about this important topic.



Check out the new DemocracyU website, the internet home to the American Commonwealth Partnership of which ADP is a partner. The website highlights the inspiring work that engaged students are achieving at universities, colleges and communities across the country. The site includes students’ personal stories of off-campus activities as well as discussion and debate on the evolving role of university and college students in engaging in public work that benefits society. DemocracyU will officially launch in January at the White House as part of a project called the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), but is live now.

DemocracyU is asking students to sign up for their newsletter to stay in touch with the initiative. They are also are asking that students to answer this question: What problem most urgently needs addressing where you are and how can students make a difference? Share your stories, thoughts and ideas on Facebook and Twitter @DemocracyU and inspire other students to do the same. Also take a look at the DemocracyU blog! Spread the word about DemocracyU !

If you’re interested in sharing your ADP and other civic engagement work on the DemocracyU blog, contact Karin Kamp at

Blog posts should be a few hundred words and focused on civic work on and off campus.  These questions can serve as a guideline for their posts:

Briefly describe the type of civic initiatives are you working on.

  • Why is this work important to you?
  • What have you learned through the experience?
  • Why is it important for students to be engaged in civic initiatives?

The ACP is part of a coordinated effort with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Department of Education, to begin a year of activity called, “For Democracy’s Future – Reclaiming Our Civic Mission.” It will kick off on the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, another year of crisis in the nation. The Morrill Act created colleges known for their commitment to democracy. As part of the initiative, the Department of Education is preparing a policy initiative to strengthen civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education and education broadly.

ADP joins American Commonwealth Partnership focused on Civic Mission of Higher Education

The American Democracy Project is proud to join the American Commonwealth Partnership, a collaborative national effort to advance the civic mission of higher education. In the guest blog post below, longtime ADP partner and civic learning and democratic engagement advocate Harry Boyte describes the initial partners, goals and efforts of this partnership.

I encourage American Democracy Project students, faculty, staff and community partners to consider submitting short videos or ideas for guest blog posts for the social media campaign that Harry outlines below. I’d love to see ADP efforts spotlighted in this endeavor to ensure that higher education is preparing informed, engaged citizens for our democracy and embracing our role as stewards of place. Please email me directly at with any materials you’d like me to pass on to the new DemocracyU website that will be launched next week as part of these collaborative efforts.

All my best,


Jen Domagal-Goldman, National Manager, American Democracy Project

American Commonwealth Partnership For Democracy’s Future: A Coordinated Effort to Reclaim the Civic Mission of Higher Education

By Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship

American colleges and universities attract millions of students from across the world. As Anthony Grafton writes in New York Review of Books (11/24/11), “at every level…dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems.” Yet Grafton’s review of recent books with titles like Academically Adrift and Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life, also tells a sobering tale. These books detail declines in teaching, detachment from communities, and re-branding of higher education as a ticket to private wealth not public contribution. “The hordes of forgotten students who leave the university…uninspired by their courses, wounded in many cases by what they experience as their own failures, weighed down by their debts, need to be seen and heard.”

On January 10th, the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) will hear these students. ACP is a broad alliance of higher education, P-12 schools and educational groups, philanthropies, businesses and others, part of a coordinated effort with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Department of Education, to begin a year of activity called, “For Democracy’s Future – Reclaiming Our Civic Mission.” ACP’s role is to “deepen the civic identity” of educational institutions, moving engagement from activities to strong commitments to education as a public good.

The American Commonwealth Partnership, launched on September 7th in New York at a meeting hosted by Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, grows out of the American Democracy Project, as well as work with the National Conference on Citizenship, The Democracy Commitment among community colleges, Campus Compact, Imagining America, NERCHE, the Anchoring Institutions Task Force and other engagement efforts. It stresses the role of colleges and universities as stewards of place and anchoring institutions within diverse local ecologies of civic learning. ACP was organized over the past six months by Harry Boyte working with Cantor and other presidents, including Brian Murphy, President of De Anza College, M. Christopher Brown, President of Alcorn State University, Tom Ehrlich, President Emeritus of Indiana University, Freeman Hrabowski, President of UMBC, Paul Pribbenow, President of Augsburg College, and Judith Ramaley, President of Winona State University. It is coordinated by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, a long time partner with ADP in its Civic Agency Initiative.

The launch will showcase “champions of change” across higher education and among P-12 partners, including leaders in Public Achievement, a youth civic empowerment initiative, from Western Kentucky University and Northern Arizona University. The launch will also release a report, Crucible Moment – Civic Learning and Democracy’s Future, which AAC&U and its advisors have prepared for the Department of Education. The report calls for civic learning to become a “pervasive ethos,” not a marginal activity.  ACP activities will unfold in the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act which created land-grant institutions, once “democracy colleges.” ACP champions the democracy spirit for all of education. Three initiatives are already underway:

Social Media Campaign:  Working with JumpStart Productions, producer of NOW on PBS, ACP is developing a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, beginning December 7th, with the DemocracyU website on CIRCLE, the youth civic research center. ACP will sponsor a national competition of student/faculty-produced short (5-min) videos, each profiling a civic initiative. Coaching for video teams will be provided using an interface on YouTube. Finalists will be chosen by a distinguished panel, and online voting will determine the winner. ACP will leverage connections made through the project to cultivate vigorous dialogue on its website and through social media platforms. The social media will also support the deliberative dialogue campaign.

National Deliberative Dialogues: ACP will organize deliberative dialogues in partnership with the National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation on higher education’s role in American society, building on research by Public Agenda, about public opinion on higher education. The deliberative process will include an easy to use toolkit; online and onsite training and work with schools and associations in advance; a designated time period in Spring 2012 for discussions, and many ways to report back the results to the nation.

Civic Science and STEM Education: Planning is underway with the Delta Center at the University of Iowa, Molly Jahn with the College of Life and Agricultural Sciences at U-WISC and former deputy undersecretary for education at USDA, and Joel Thierstein, Senior Advisor on STEM initiatives at DoED, for a Civic Science STEM initiative, promoting curricular and co-curricular reform that combines STEM and civic agency education.

For a more detailed description of the goals, aims and contexts of the American Commonwealth Partnership, take a look at this Word document: For Democracy’s Future Star Diagram.

The White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge

By Jen Domagal-Goldman, National Manager, American Democracy Project

The White House Office of Public Engagement and mtvU are sponsoring the first ever Campus “Champions of Change” (CCC) Challenge, and I want to encourage each of our American Democracy Project (ADP) campuses to submit an application!

This new program is intended to highlight stories and examples of how college students are representing President Obama’s vision for “out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world through projects and initiatives that move their communities forward.” Examples might include campus sustainability programs, campus-community partnerships, voter registration drives, etc.

The CCC Challenge “invites college and university students from across the country to demonstrate how their student led project is improving their campus community and helping America win the future.” Five finalists will be named and honored at the White House. The finalists will also work with mtvU and MTV Act to create short video features about their projects that will be featured on The winning team will host an episode of mtvU’s program, “The Dean’s List.”

The process:

  • Complete the online application detailing your student-led program at
  • The White House will select 15 finalists based on input from a panel of judges.
  • The public will then have an opportunity to weigh in and vote on the top five projects they think best embody the President’s goal to win the future.
  • Submissions are due by Friday, December 9, 2011.

To find out more about the CCC Challenge, follow this link.

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