Framing Statement at Colloquium

Framing Statement at Colloquium

John Saltmarsh


The question in the framing statement for this meeting is:


“Why has the civic engagement movement in higher education stalled and what are the strategies and priorities needed to further advance institutional transformation aimed at generating democratic, community-based knowledge and action?” 


I should tell you that when Ira and I conceived of this meeting last spring just after Dewey’s Dream had been published, there was a sense of urgency in our conversation.  Both of us had surveyed the landscape of civic engagement work in higher education and were concerned with fragmentation and drift. It was a concern shared by Matt Hartley and I believe many of you.


I should also tell you that the reason that you were invited to this meeting is that we were deliberate in assembling the group you see before you. We were discriminating in using a democratic orientation as a filter for the meeting.  Matt reminded me of Seth Pollack’s chapter in the service learning pioneer’s book in which he described several camps, one of them being those that were democratic in orientation.  That’s the group this meeting represents.  It is not a group intended to represent institutional or organizational orientations. We want to acknowledge that this group is only a portion (and probably a small one) of those who count themselves among the civic engagement crowd who come to this work from differing orientations – better contextual learning, improved disciplinary training, social justice mission of their institution, community responsibility, and others.  Our aim at this meeting is attention to how we link engagement to democratic education and democratic purposes. 


Before we leave, we want to do what we can to collectively formulate solutions, strategies, and priorities to advance the movement. The outcome of the meeting is to identify three to five strategic directions that will define civic engagement work in higher education to continue to build the movement for deeper civic engagement. 


The Virtual Forum, as a prelude to this meeting, has been a useful means of beginning our conversation by raising critical issues and instigating greater clarity and focus. Since January 22, 45 individuals have registered with the Forum, 10 people have contributed, 2 on multiple occasions. I want to thank everyone who has been involved in the discussion for their insights and thoughtful contributions.


In thinking through the dialogue on the Forum and the rich readings for this meeting, it is clear to me that this meeting is about a deficit in the dominant pattern of engagement work on college and university campuses, as my colleague Matt Hartley and others note—the predominant form of “engagement” on many campuses is fundamentally apolitical in nature. This has significant implications for how higher education conducts its business. It is a tremendous lost opportunity. 


As David Mathews notes in Agents of Change, the way in which colleges and universities are engaged with local communities “has implications for politics…colleges and universities have an understanding of citizenship that is implicit in nearly everything they do, including the kind of education they provide to undergraduates, the kind of leadership they champion in leadership programs, and the services they offer to their communities.” A central challenge for the movement is making those implications evident.


I would like to frame this meeting with the naming of the problem and then work to collectively unpack the implications of the problem. The problem on the table is the politics of academic epistemology.


When we talk about civic engagement, we are talking a language embedded with a particular set of values, practices, and methods. Engagement values “reciprocity” with all its implications.  As KerryAnn O’Meara and Gene Rice have written, “engagement requires going beyond the expert model that often gets in the way of constructive university-community collaboration…calls on faculty to move beyond ‘outreach,’…asks scholars to go beyond ‘service,’…What it emphasizes is genuine collaboration: that the learning and teaching be multidirectional and the expertise shared. It represents a basic reconceptualization of faculty involvement in community-based work.” This reconceptualization and its implications for transforming both our institutions and communities is central to our discussion here.


Expert-driven, hierarchical knowledge generation and dissemination is not only an epistemological position, but, as Harry Boyte so insightfully points out, a political one. The traditional academic epistemology, with its embedded values, methods, and practices, signifies a “pattern of power” relationships and a particular politics that is “the core obstacle to higher education’s engagement.” Not only is the power and politics of expert academic knowledge what he calls “the largest obstacle in higher education to authentic engagement with communities,” it is also “a significant contributor to the general crisis of democracy.” Its core negative functions,” he explains, “are to undermine the standing and to delegitimate the knowledge of those without credentials, degrees, and university training…It conceives of people without credentials as needy clients to be rescued or as customers to be manipulated.” In this way of thinking and acting, he notes, genuine reciprocal learning is just not possible.


If engagement is to advance in higher education – if it is to be a core value of the university – then reciprocity – as I said earlier – reciprocity with all its implications – will have to be enacted and in that process we need to be explicit about the power pattern inherent in traditional academic culture, a culture that fosters a hierarchical, expert driven politics. Alternatively, the power inherent in an engaged academic culture fosters what Harry has called “a new civic politics.”  


What does this mean for student in our colleges and universities? From the study of college student engagement done by Kettering and CIRCLE, Millennials Talk Politics, it is clear that students seek opportunities for political engagement defined in ways that are remarkably consistent with a new civic politics. They want space for democratic deliberation where multiple perspectives are negotiated and a common good arrived at, where citizens have voice and agency in the public sphere. They want authentic and genuine dialogue that respects the values, ideas, and perspectives of others.


·         While the civic engagement movement has many dimensions, the concern here is with civic engagement that is explicitly about a democratic, civic politics. And it is this dimension of the movement that perhaps is in need of new energy.


·         What does civic engagement – with politics made evident – mean for the core functions of the university in generating and disseminating knowledge, and in the core roles of faculty – scholarship, teaching and learning, and service?


·         What kinds of institutional changes are needed that address policies and cultures that provide a supportive environment for civic engagement?




The next session will begin with reflections on the state of the movement, using the comments from the opening speakers to start the discussion.


The following session this afternoon asks the question of where do you imagine the civic engagement movement to be in 10-15 years – what will it look like on our campuses?


Tomorrow will be devoted to the question of “What is to be done?” 


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