the new civic mission in higher education

Wrapping up my guest blogging stint, I thought I’d take a look forward at my new project on deep democracy initiatives in higher education. I didn’t touch on the important role of higher education in the public engagement industry much in DIY Democracy—in part because it felt like a whole other topic, but largely because leaders in deliberation and democracy centers, initiatives, and networks in the academy (including Martin Carcasson, John Gastil, Peter Levine, Nancy Thomas, and Tim Shaffer) are doing so much great research on their own efforts. Since there’s already an Initiative for the Study of Higher Education and Public Life, the lesser-studied elements of the public engagement industry seemed worth exploring first.

But eventually I became convinced that there was an interesting organizational story to tell about these democracy initiatives and the contexts of their emergence. On the one hand, the landscape appears to be populated by lots of local, small, diverse organizational projects—Centers for Civic Life, Public Life, Civic Engagement, Democratic Engagement, etc. at colleges and universities of all sizes and types. But at the same time, deep democracy initiatives are promoted at the national level by higher ed associations, foundations, and the federal government. Here, for example, is video from the White House’s January 2012 “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission” Forum.

The discourses of center mission statements and national democracy initiatives regarding what higher ed civic engagement should look like are remarkably similar, recognizable from Nina Eliasoph’s “empowerment projects” and the deliberative democracy initiatives in my own book. For example, see Imagining America’s Undergrad Civic Professionalism Project. By invoking democracy and engagement, these projects seek to produce civic action that is:

accountable to all stakeholders

appreciative (asset-focused)


























This demanding list obviously reflects a sensitivity to critiques of the shallow, paternalistic, short-term community service projects of the past—and even to critiques of “service learning” as superficial or inadequately integrated with the curriculum and the community. Civic engagement in this conceptualization goes beyond service to include various kinds of student leadership, activism, democratic participation and social entrepreneurship. In addition, assessment is central to today’s civic engagement in higher education—and even this assessment must be conducted democratically and with community input. Needless to say, accomplishing all of this is a tall order for directors of civic engagement centers.

What is your sense of the organizational interests and anxieties motivating this 21st-century version of civic engagement for millennials and their professors? How do these differ from prior popular missions in the American academy? How similar are these values to those in initiatives for civic engagement in higher ed in other countries? Drawing on Eliasoph’s work on the ways empowerment projects’ values may clash, where do you see room for potential conflict or difficulties in achieving all of these ideals at the same time? For those early risers who can’t get enough of this topic, come to the Political Discourse panel at 8:30AM this Saturday at ASA!

Written by carolinewlee

August 18, 2015 at 5:20 pm

Posted in academia, activism

4 Responses

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  1. Nice post, Caroline. I think it’s really worth underscoring how closely these kinds of initiatives are endogenous to the expansion of academic administration over the past few decades. Media accounts usually talk about that as only (or at least mainly) having to do with runaway salaries for university presidents, deanlets, and the like. But a lot of it has to do with the university becoming more “participatory,” “accountable,” etc. And that sets off a lot of self-reinforcing tendencies, garbage-can solutions in search of problems, and the like.


    ed walker

    August 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm

  2. Reblogged this on Concierge Librarian.


    Fashionable Librarian

    August 18, 2015 at 5:47 pm

  3. I’ve just been nibbling at the edge of this topic. I do a lot of community work and think (mostly unsuccessfully) about how to involve students in it. And I’m involved with alumni outreach efforts that are trying to develop a “service” outreach component; as we’ve had these discussions in our program, my email inbox has received several announcements about “days of service” from the schools I’m an alumna of. This post makes me realize just how deep this box is.



    August 18, 2015 at 6:05 pm

  4. Thanks, Ed. I think that’s such a great point. A lot of critiques of higher ed today focus on market interests displacing the (formerly democratic) mission of the university, but what I am interested in is just how seriously and frequently higher ed actors from Arne Duncan to college presidents on down discuss deepening engagement, and how closely today’s “deep” democratic mission is intertwined with accountability. Civic engagement must be demonstrably authentic now, and that takes a lot of work to produce. This goes WAY beyond just counting community service hours. There’s a whole software industry devoted to documenting and tracking community benefits and engagement activities within institutions, in part because of the reporting demands of Campus Compact, Carnegie Classification, and the President’s Honor Roll.

    OW—Really interesting comment, too. Tufts/Tisch College’s CIRCLE website does a great job of showing just how extensive the research on this topic is. I can’t recommend their stuff highly enough as Nancy Thomas et al. really are the experts on the subject and I am just a nibbler too. I think those who try community work know firsthand just how hard it is to do well. This is why I love that Eliasoph’s research focuses on what implicit lessons are learned and who does the work when ideals clash on the ground.

    You might be interested in ACP’s Citizen Alum, “a framework for a national network of campus teams” that envisions alumni as “agents and architects of democracy.” Why the focus on alums all of a sudden? I immediately think of Ed’s work on for-profit college’s use of their alums in grassroots lobbying efforts, and the emails I get from UC about contacting the CA legislature about budget appropriations. Deepening student and alum engagement can have big payoffs in terms of loyalty, legitimacy, and giving too– and asking alums to do more than tailgate is certainly appealing. But interestingly, and as Ed’s case shows, student/alum activism can be much more controversial than the more benign-sounding “civic” engagement, depending on the context. Here’s one example.



    August 18, 2015 at 8:47 pm

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