Higher Education Leaders: Reconstructing the Public Purposes of Higher Education

Notes and Reflections on the July 2019 Meeting 

By Keith Melville and Derek Barker

Numerous challenges facing our society demand that the citizenry be able to work together toward common goals. However, the current moment is one of heightened division and mistrust. While a divided public poses a critical challenge for our democracy, it also poses a challenge for higher education. When the public is divided, there can be little agreement on the public purposes of higher education. In this context, higher education is often seen as serving private, or even partisan, interests. While better public relations messaging could help, what higher education needs is a public mission coming from the citizenry. 

What are the public purposes of higher education in a moment of division? As an institution that educates the next generation of citizens and leaders, what can higher education do to both better serve democracy and reconstruct its public mission? Building on previous exchanges, as well as the release of the forthcoming volume edited by William V. Flores and Katrina S. Rogers, Democracy, Civic Engagement, and Citizenship in Higher Education (Lexington Books, 2019), a group of higher education thought leaders, including presidents and trustees, gathered in July of 2019 to reflect on these questions while identifying a set of action items for the next year.

Over several years, the group has met with a purpose and ambition not only to question how higher education can fulfill its civic mission but also to clarify how college presidents and other leaders in higher education can act as catalysts for reimagining its civic purpose and committing their institutions to the task of preparing students to play an active role in democracy. As Jon Alger put it, “No sector in our society is better positioned to lead the renewal of civil society than higher education. The work of renewing civil society is a calling, an opportunity, and an educational imperative.”
This research exchange, which involved ten college presidents and other leaders who share a concern about higher education’s civic mission, was the most recent in a series convened annually by the Kettering Foundation since 2015. For the first time, the group was joined by former and sitting trustees. In the conversation, the group reflected on the public purposes of higher education that are recognized in the mission statements of most institutions but sidelined in the day-to-day activities of most colleges and universities.
Public Purposes in a Time of Polarization

A sense of increasing urgency about the importance of renewing and rebuilding higher education’s civic mission was readily apparent in the opening segment of our conversation, sparked by comments made by David Mathews, Kettering’s president. In his remarks, he commented on “a future endangered by a loss of public confidence in government, as well as an outbreak of hyper-partisan polarization and every conceivable form of divisiveness.” He reflected on the importance of understanding the role of citizens in a democracy, implications for the democratic skills that college students need to learn, and ways in which educators can affirm their public purposes while avoiding the charge that they are partisan agents.
The main point, he said, is for higher education to prepare citizens as producers of public goods. As Mathews writes in a chapter that appears in Democracy, Civic Engagement, and Citizenship in Higher Education, it will require considerable experimentation on the part of educators—working with formal and informal civic groups—to discover what kinds of experiences encourage active civic engagement and to demonstrate what we can accomplish together.
Participants echoed Mathews’ concerns. Many spoke to a sense of heightened urgency around the tone of public discourse and the inability to reach compromise. Moreover, they increasingly see a direct connection between the polarization and divisiveness of the political environment and declining public confidence in higher education. The more divided the public, the more colleges and universities are experiencing conflicts and accusations of partisan bias on their campuses. Indeed, they admitted that the accusations are not wrong: several participants reported significant gaps between the diverse political views of students and the majority liberal views of faculty, suggesting that their institutions are contributing to partisan divides even as they are trying to bridge them. 

What Happens in Civically Engaged Colleges?

Throughout the morning, the group’s discussion consisted of a lively exchange about efforts on various campuses to encourage an active and engaged sense of citizenship. As one president commented about undergraduates on his campus, at a time when the nation seems to be increasingly polarized, “The vast majority of students are somewhere in the middle. They want to participate in public life, but in different ways.”
The group described several ways they have infused a civic dimension throughout the undergraduate experience while avoiding the pitfalls of partisan politics. The first is to weave a civic dimension throughout the student experience. Civic learning should not be narrowly focused on any one activity, such as voting, nor should it be featured mainly in the experience of students who choose majors associated with public life, such as political science. Instead, civic learning should be broadly understood as a set of attitudes and practices involving shared decision-making, understanding how to get things done, how to work with people who are different, and how to nurture and empower others. Part of the exchange focused on efforts to restore the link between work and citizenship by training professionals who are not just technically proficient but who also respect civic ways of knowing and who know how to map power relationships, participate with citizens in public problem-solving, and engage with communities in change processes.
A second dimension consists of creating “free spaces” for students, faculty, and staff to engage in public work. The college campus, in this sense, becomes a laboratory for practicing democracy, a place where people come together to solve problems, work collectively on solutions, and learn how to cope with controversy and conflict.

A third dimension of a democratically robust campus is that it instills a sense of civic agency, namely the ability of people to work together on common problems across differences. Democracy depends on a sense of shared ownership and shared responsibility. When people have a sense of ownership, they are far more likely to take responsibility for fixing it.
The group made the case for a more urgent focus on how colleges and universities are instilling democratic habits and dispositions. They are redefining the relationship between higher education institutions and the communities of which they are a part. At various points, discussion turned to the ways in which universities can cultivate a core democratic skill: the ability to participate in community problem solving in deliberative ways. Democracy requires a well-developed faculty for reflective judgment. Over the past generation, one of the most promising experiments with new forms of education for democratic life has been the rise of the deliberative democracy movement, specifically, efforts on hundreds of campuses to introduce deliberative pedagogy. A key challenge for leaders in higher education is to recognize that citizens’ collective problem-solving skills are an integral part of democratic life. Especially at a time when discussion about political differences often degenerates into personal attacks and shouting matches, learning how to engage in deliberative exchanges about contentious issues is a key civic skill, which should be prominent on the list of learning objectives for every college student.
While higher education typically adopts a defensive posture when it comes to making the case for itself as a public institution, the group seemed ready to accept responsibility for reclaiming their public mission. Instead of attempting to defend or better promote what higher education is already doing, the group expressed readiness to explore how colleges and universities might change fundamentally and do more to act as civic institutions in a time of division. As one participant noted, for higher education to succeed, democracy cannot be an “abstraction” or “just another task,” but rather woven into the concrete experiences that help students thrive. Others noted the persistent pressures to focus higher education on workforce preparation and the need to highlight the benefits of civic education in the workplace.

A Broader Conversation

Finally, a common theme in the conversation was that higher education cannot go it alone in reclaiming its public purposes. As Mathews has stated, “Higher education cannot give itself public purposes.” Rather, public purposes of higher education are defined by all who have a stake in it: policymakers, employers, students and their families, and society at large. Institutions are unlikely to shift meaningfully until democratic skills and habits are widely recognized as central to the public purposes of higher education by all of these stakeholders. As one president noted, “The future is outside higher education,” which points to the need for a broader conversation with civic leaders from other sectors who have similar concerns and may see higher education as part of the solution. 

Action Agenda: What Can We Do to Serve as Catalysts for Civic Renewal?
While the morning session consisted mainly of a discussion of the role of citizens in a robust democracy and reports on what some colleges and universities are doing to weave a civic dimension into the college experience, after lunch, the group’s discussion focused on developing a list of potential action steps. There was a shared sense that after several years of meeting to discuss shared concerns about the erosion of democracy and higher education’s role in addressing it, members of this group are ready to commit themselves to specific actions in their own institutions as well as joint initiatives in which members of the group act as catalysts for renewing higher education’s civic purposes.
Drawing on a discussion that took place prior to this meeting among members of a working group that consisted of Jon Alger, Bill Flores, David Wilson, and Katrina Rogers, Rogers began the afternoon session by laying out a series of challenges: 

  • How might we organize ourselves across our networks for public speaking and publications in which we articulate the need for a recommitment to higher education’s civic purposes and talk about what is happening on some campuses to achieve this goal?
  • What other means do we have—individually and collectively—to make this work of democracy visible, explicit, and intentional?
  • What best practices can we share that will inspire other leaders to join us in this work? 
  • What can be learned from colleges that have devoted considerable energy, time, and resources to become civically engaged institutions?
  • How can we, as leaders of higher education institutions, encourage the development of occasions for deliberation about important national and community issues?
  • What national associations and initiatives can we connect with to create broader platforms for advancing civic education and making the case for public engagement that extends beyond voting and volunteering?

As Rogers reminded the group, the anthology that she and Flores put together, and to which a dozen or so members of this group contributed, contains a series of snapshots of what is being done on various campuses to respond to democracy’s crisis. In the conclusion to that book, Rogers and Flores offer a list of recommendations and descriptions of what college presidents, working with others on their campuses, are doing. 

Among the action steps presidents can take on their own campuses, these were some of the points discussed in the afternoon session: 

Presidents should embrace the importance of leadership by affirming their commitment to civic education, calling attention to core principles and practices of democratic governance by their personal example in speaking out about issues, and by raising the visibility of public engagement across campus and in the community. 

  • Presidents can promote campus dialogues and deliberation about important public issues—both national and community issues. They can do so, for example, by becoming part of the National Issue Forums’ efforts to engage people in nonpartisan discussions about pressing issues and by emphasizing the importance of learning to disagree in civil and constructive ways.
  • Presidents can play an important role in recognizing and supporting civically engaged faculty, staff, and students and their efforts.
  • Presidents can promote a campus culture of civic involvement that includes voting and volunteering but extends beyond those activities into such activities as campus conversations about key issues and disputes.
  • Presidents can take the lead in becoming a partner in community problem solving. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) has produced an excellent guide to how colleges and universities can become engaged in their communities in a report entitled Stepping Forward as Stewards of Place.
  • Presidents can work with faculty to ensure that the curriculum for all students, regardless of their academic discipline or preprofessional track, is embedded with democratic values and principles. 
  • Presidents can take the initiative to join national efforts and events such as AASCU’s American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment. Campus Compact convenes national meetings and sponsors an Education for Democracy Initiative, whose goal is to “help heal and reinvigorate our democracy.” 
  • Presidents can promote the development and use of Civic Action Plans. Campus Compact provides resources for colleges to develop these plans as well as a collection of existing plans for various colleges and universities, which includes a wide variety of examples and best practices for civic engagement. 

In the course of the afternoon’s discussion, the group also began to lay out a series of joint activities that members of this group can initiate in our collective role as catalysts for national action. Among them, there was particular interest in the following initiatives:

  • Plan stand-alone events to feature new books that advocate intentional civic engagement on college campuses. (A book launch will be held at the National Press Club in September, including a panel discussion with Alger, Flores, Wilson, and Rogers.) 
  • Purchase Democracy, Civic Engagement, and Citizenship in Higher Education and share with colleagues in our networks. 
  • Work actively in concert with other kindred organizations such as Points of Light, Campus Compact, national education associations, and others to support and contribute to their efforts to feature new forms of civic engagement.
  • Work with national groups to develop the curriculum for civic engagement to include in their annual meetings. 
  • Ask for slots on the meeting agendas of national organizations (such as the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges) and professions (such as public administrators) in which one or several college presidents talk about efforts in higher education to recommit to its public purposes.
  • Work with specific professional groups, such as engineers, to help them develop curricular emphases on civic professionals. 
  • Work with groups that are involved in designing the training curricula for new college presidents. 
  • Draft and distribute template text for a letter to organizations that run presidential training programs, sketching out a proposed curriculum for a half-day crash course to stimulate interest and knowledge about how college presidents can lead efforts to reinvigorate their institutions’ civic engagement efforts. (See the proposed draft text and its listing of topics that might be included in a module on presidential leadership and the public purposes of higher education.)