The Greatest Aspirations of Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is often described by individual or collective action, conducted with a systematic approach, designed to address issues of social concern. Grounded in democratic governance, it is a means by which balanced and measured decision-making for the public good determines the policies by which decisions are made or reform is enacted when it does not meet the common good. Are colleges meeting this great democratic aspiration with the proliferation of centers for civic engagement?

Civic engagement, shaped by activities and programs, are often couched in the college or university organizational hierarchy as a center. The Center exists in physical and cyber space serving as a connecting point for students and faculty that might be most inclined to become civically engaged. It provides the safe space for cultivation of ideas for those interested in experimenting with some form of engaged learning. In most cases the Center becomes another silo politicking for scarce funds, using the rhetoric of the institution’s founding purpose, to call upon funders, internal and external, to answer the call to action. Many times, a small and dedicated cadre of renegade professors, feeling themselves marginalized, get a morsel of funding to experiment with pedagogy. These centers are generally good and safe for the keepers of our organizations and governance. A new center, while a slight strain on existing resources, also brings with it the appeal of something true to core mission while not altering the existing structure of the University. The new Center can get in line with the others and make their pitch. It does not require the institution to change its operating system. This model is proliferated across colleges and universities and in most cases lauded for its outreach, clothed in the vocabulary of community partnership, mutual benefit and reciprocal learning.

Centers that provide programs and services are flourishing. They tell a good story of the student experience. Quantifiable are meals served, children tutored, houses built. It’s the cheap and easy way for colleges to “do civic engagement” and it looks good on the web and on paper. It resonates with service-oriented donors, prospective students and families. The problem is the academic core of the college, the space where students actually learn something about engagement, suffers. Decades worth of faculty, staff and students have advocated for a change in the system that shapes the academic culture of the entire organization, removing the now stale argument against service-learning or community based research, in favor of the more familiar publish or perish, teaching, research and committee work professional reward system. Civic engagement pushes against the dominant framework of singular expertise. Colleges hire experts, in very particular fields, and expect that the person become even more expert over decades, through a combination of research, writing and reflection. The persistent framework rewards the familiar – a new center that mirrors a successful one; a tenure review process that stays the course. A consistent messaging of what we’ve done and will continue rewarding

In this era of rapidly eroding financial support for public higher education and tuition increases that outpace inflation, the prospects for attainment of an education that teaches with civic engagement in the bulls-eye of the educational framework, is increasingly difficult to attain. Simultaneously public opinion of the mission of higher education is increasingly perceived as a market-driven institution existing for the economic benefit of the individual, the upward mobility of a social class and in turn further sedimentation of the class hierarchy. Now, more than ever, colleges and universities should take the hard road, but the path that has meaning and purpose, where engagement means fixing the system that created our national conundrum.

The Institution itself, charging for services, instantly creates the inequity divide. Outreach can inadvertently perpetuate that chasm, making the handout become the habit rather than the obstacle toward real progress. Our nation is in desperate need of effective, deliberate, developmental socio-cultural, economic and political discussions and shared understandings. Various publics are increasingly expecting financial reward for financial input. If an individual pays a larger share for a good and service, they expect a larger financial reward. Problem is, colleges are not, at their core, career factories. They resist, with varying success, the increased pressure from their customers to focus primarily on training for a vocational skill.

The history of higher education in the first part of the 21st century is partially written and it does not read well for civic engagement. The dominant form of civic engagement that has emerged in higher education is rich in outreach and handouts. It is largely deplete of the democratic virtues our nation is so desperate to recapture. Many colleges and universities are touting their most noble mission as that of reciprocity and yet the systems and structures have yet to change. If a college were to be bold in the face of an eroded or vacant trust in the civic mission of their work, a remodeled system would include new goals, strategies and roles for its faculty. A new way of reward would abandon tyranny of the top tier journal, of review of peers, by peers, and instead be dominated by assessment from community peers. If a college were so bold as to remain wholly dedicated to its civic mission and to embark on the difficult task of culture change focusing on shared understandings, community engagement, common frameworks for discovering within and with community, that college could take back the first part of this century from market-driven pressures.

Colleges devoted to their civic mission, do not educate for a job, they educate for citizenry and for citizenship. Job training skills can be acquired outside of an expensive assortment of buildings. The framework that will allow our society to persist, to exist through this turmoil of the first part of the century, is the framework of civic engagement. The public needs colleges and universities to train for constructive exchange of ideas, peaceful cooperation among a diverse citizenry with myriad perspectives on hard-to-solve problems.

The staffs in centers that promote civic engagement are themselves, called to action. A systemic approach to changing organizational systems could be the great work of the first part of the 21st century, the lasting legacy of the great democratic aspiration of civic engagement in higher education.

Categories: Academics, Community Engagement & Service, Faculty & Staff Blogs, Student Leadership Development

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