Reflections on the February 2018 Presidents’ Group Meeting at Denison University

After two and a half years of animated discussion and work in an ongoing research exchange with the Kettering Foundation, a group of college presidents concerned with the civic mission of higher education gathered at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, on February 15 and 16, 2018, at the invitation of Denison’s president, Adam Weinberg.

Weinberg welcomed 15 presidents and other guests to the exchange. He defined the purpose of the presidents’ group as “moving beyond administrative and fundraising roles to provide new leadership for civic engagement – to act as ‘public philosophers’ for institutions.” He said, “The value of these meetings is having a chance to share ideas and perspectives with other presidents and thought leaders on themes of democracy and civic engagement on our campuses and with various stakeholders.” He added that, over the last year, “the work seems both more important and more complex.” Weinberg said the meeting was intended, in part, to highlight case studies of “citizen professionals.” The meeting, located in a swing state that is relatively evenly divided along partisan lines, also brought a new focus to how higher education might respond to the current climate of heightened divisiveness and polarization.

To begin the meeting, I described several elements of citizen professionalism from the stance of public work. The idea of citizen professionalism is based on an emphasis on the civic dimensions of professions, where professionals learn to work with other citizens in relational and empowering ways, rather than on them or for them.  Bill Doherty and his colleagues and students at the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota have pioneered in the practices and theory of such citizen professionalism. Adapting public work concepts and practices to family and health sciences, their citizen-professional approach begins with the premise that solving complex problems requires many sources of knowledge. Doherty often says that the greatest untapped resource for improving health and social well-being is the knowledge, wisdom, and energy of individuals, families, and communities who face challenging issues in their everyday lives.  

Denison University has conceived campus life as full of civic learning opportunities.  Laurel Kennedy, vice president for student development, liked the vision of campus life as rich with potential for civic learning. Even before Weinberg’s arrival, the student affairs staff was “thinking much more about our students as unique individuals with different cultural backgrounds, health questions and other qualities.” Student affairs sought to make a philosophical shift away from seeing staff as entertainers and residential advisors who maintain order and rules.  “We wanted to create a vibrant student life. What does that look like? How can we learn in the process?” They anchored changes in what Kennedy called “Denison legacy strengths,” which were identified as leadership development, civic engagement, creative problem solving or social innovation, and appreciation for diversity of thought. They also identified challenges, especially in the residence halls. “We shifted ‘residence life’ to ‘residence education,’” with the hope that education grounded in the concept of student well-being and persistence would create places where students could learn life skills.  The truth is we had a hard time getting that off the ground. Residence halls were ‘tired spaces’ [old facilities with many structural problems] and staff got sidelined on facilities issues.”

The vision, Kennedy said, is to “build a model of residential communities that resonates with Denison’s unique culture, values, history, and student body.” She listed components like cultivating the skills of democratic living by co-creating communities in which students find a sense of home and which are respectful, fun, safe, and interesting. If it works, she added, “we’ll have both lived into the mission of the College and met the exigencies and challenges of the complex world our students are facing.”

Erik Farley, Denison’s dean of student leadership and community engagement, stressed the importance of experiments that teach skills of living in communities. “’How do communities build community?’ is key,” he said. “It’s a mistake to assume that folks have rapport. But a foundation of knowing each other’s stories has real potential to mitigate violence and vandalism. People can learn not only to have knowledge of each other but also to respect the people they share space with.” Farley believes that practices like one-on-one meetings and civic deliberations, which Dennis Donovan, international organizer for the pioneering “action civics” initiative Public Achievement, has been teaching student advisors and student affairs staff, “are just what students are asking for. Students fumble around with people who are unlike themselves, afraid to make a mistake, be seen as homophobic or something else.” Farley pointed to the potential of creating different kinds of deliberative spaces, woven into the fabric of everyday life (quotes from Boyte et al., Awakening Democracy through Public Work, Vanderbilt University Press, forthcoming 2018).

Kennedy, Farley, and two of their student affairs colleagues described the effort to reconceive residence halls as diverse neighborhoods in which students develop a strong sense of stake and also learn the skills of working through differences and conflicts. Though it is at an early stage, with fumbles and setbacks, the work has already clearly impacted the student culture of Denison.
The meeting was also an opportunity to consider higher education’s response to the current climate of divisiveness and polarization. The Better Angels organization was created after the 2016 election. Bill Doherty, who is a senior fellow with Better Angels, described his own developing approach as a citizen professional and presented a case study of his work with the organization to create communications and relation-building across partisan divides. They organized two weekend meetings between “red” and “blue” voters in rural Warren County, Ohio, located between Cincinnati and Dayton. Greg Smith, a Trump voter interviewed for a documentary before the meeting, said sometimes he wished he could speak with “someone who is not a conservative, someone of a different color,” but it was hard to imagine how it might happen. “I feel afraid to open my mouth.” Kouhyar Mostashfi, a Muslim Iranian immigrant, expressed a fear that if “this culture of animosity continues to grow it might give groups a blank check to touch upon violence.”  At the end of the second meeting, all agreed to a written statement that read, “A number of us on both sides began our meetings convinced that the other side could not be dealt with on the basis of rational thought. We say unanimously that our experiences of talking with rather than at or about each other caused us to abandon our belief.” Smith and Mostashfi described how they now regard themselves as friends and colleagues. Doherty also noted the challenges of dialogue work in the current climate, including that many view “dialogue” language with suspicion. Following the presentation, several of the presidents committed to work together to bring Better Angels training and conversational approaches to their campuses and communities.

David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, followed with a challenging set of comments. In the current climate, higher education has been unable to demonstrate its public purposes. As the public becomes increasingly polarized, citizens are unable to imagine a common purpose for higher education, and, even worse, suspect that higher education reflects ideological biases. Without a public purpose, the default is to view higher education purely in terms of private and economic value, which in turn feeds into declining public funds. The problem, Mathews said, is that higher education cannot give itself a public mission; only the public can. If that is the case, the only option for higher education may be to focus on doing what it can to help bridge larger public divides, for until then, we are likely to see higher education suffer along with our democracy.

Lynn Taliento, chief program officer for the Obama Foundation, introduced the group to the mission of that organization. She recounted the former president’s process in settling on civic engagement as the focus of his foundation and shared his deep commitment to empowering the next generation of young leaders. The foundation wants to provide citizens with the skills and tools they need to change their communities, and it is currently in a very active learning phase as it develops its approach. 

Jon Alger followed with a case study of work at James Madison University, where he serves as president. Under his leadership, the campus has established the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, which coordinates a variety of community engagement and dialogue programs inspired by James Madison, the “father of the constitution.”

The meeting took up several other topics:

Keith Melville and I described our project that includes writing profiles of college and university presidents and invited other interested presidents to participate.

Bill Flores, professor of political science and social sciences at the University of Houston-Downtown, and Katrina Rogers, president of the Fielding Institute, reported on their book project, which makes the case for dialogue and deliberation as well as service-learning at their institutions. The preface, written by Neil Bush, chair of the board of directors of Points of Light, echoes the group’s calls for deliberation across partisan divides: “[O]ur country seems to be on the verge of being torn apart by the politics of bullying and name-calling . . . and by deep divisions around our differences. But it is wrong to think that differences inevitably lead to divisions. In fact, when we celebrate our differences – differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, age, geography and, yes, politics – we are united by our faith in our common humanity.”

Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact, described the work he and Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg University, have been doing to impact the training of new college presidents to include their public roles as “public philosophers” and leaders in strengthening the civic mission of colleges and universities.   

I recounted the challenges and lessons at the University of Minnesota, where a process of interviewing senior faculty across the institution led to a two-year task force charged with developing strategies to strengthen the public dimensions of teaching, research, and public engagement. It involved “breaking a silence” that developed over years about public purpose, as faculty members were increasingly shaped by norms of detachment and purported “objectivity” that put themselves outside civic life.

About the Authors

Harry C. Boyte, is senior scholar in public work philosophy and co-director of the Public Work Academy at Augsburg University.

Derek Barker is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation.