Framing Statement prior to Colloquium

The question guiding this colloquium is the following: 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?  The outcome of this meeting is to identify three to five strategic directions that will define civic engagement work in higher education in order to build the movement for deeper civic engagement. 


For the purpose of framing the discussion for the Colloquium, the term “engagement” specifically means “civic engagement.”  In our framing, “civic” has to do with the activities of citizens, particularly with their rights and duties as members of communities and as members of a democracy.  Someone engaged with a public issue gives it deep and careful consideration that leads to a deliberate response to the issue and intentional contributions to the public good (Brint and Levy, 1999, p. 164). Engagement means expressing agency in the co-creation (with other members of the community) of public goods and for building the public realm.  In the context of higher education, “civic engagement” means creating opportunities for civic learning (civic knowledge, skills, and values) that are rooted in respect for community-based knowledge, experiential and reflective modes of teaching and learning, active participation in American democracy, and institutional renewal that supports these elements. Civic engagement occurs in the context of students’ active experience with communities in efforts that seek to positively impact those communities. 


Over the past two decades a host of initiatives have been launched aimed at promoting the civic purposes of colleges and universities.  However, there is a growing sentiment among many that the movement faces the very real threat of dissipation and decline.  A 2004 Wingspread report entitled, “Calling the Question” concluded: “Unfortunately, a decade of ‘calls to action’… has not produced a flowering of transformed institutions… engagement has not become the defining characteristic of higher education’s mission nor has it been embraced across disciplines, departments and institutions.”[1]   The President’s Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, crafted at a meeting of college and university presidents in 1999 (and subsequently signed by more than 500 others), notes:  “We are encouraged that more and more students are volunteering and participating in public and community service… However, this service is not leading students to embrace the duties of active citizenship and civic participation…  This country cannot afford to educate a generation that acquires knowledge without ever understanding how that knowledge can benefit society or how to influence democratic decision making.”  On many campuses what has emerged are remarkably apolitical “civic” engagement efforts.


Like all movements, the civic engagement movement has struggled to find conceptual and operational coherence.  Disparate strategies have produced internal tensions.  One key question has been whether the movement should confront and challenge or accommodate the status quo?  For example, in the mid-1990s a number of service learning proponents argued that the surest means of anchoring it in the core work of the academy was to adhere to academic norms.  While this helped engender widespread legitimacy of the practice, it also has come to mean that on many campuses the premise of service learning is identical to that of field or clinical placements—the emphasis is squarely on the professional and disciplinary learning of students and by chance the community benefits.  In the extreme, one scholar has advocated for focusing service learning on the theorizing of community and the “disciplining” of service learning into an area of study within the academy subject to the existing norms and strictures. On many campuses what passes for “engaged scholarship” is largely indistinguishable from applied research.  Even the language of recent declarations points to tensions.  Should engagement be predicated on “academic neutrality”[2] or should institutions foster the notion of faculty as moral agents whose “moral and civic imaginations” are directed at public work?[3]   From an operational standpoint, the field is fragmented.  Important efforts aimed at promoting civic learning such as diversity initiatives, democratic deliberation, global citizenship, as well as community-based learning and research operate in isolation from one another.  Few campuses actively seek to wed such efforts.     


The goal of the colloquium is to explore these tensions more fully as we consider what is to be done in order to ensure that civic engagement becomes a core value of higher education in the 21st century for the purposes of fostering democratic renewal.  


Some questions to frame the inquiry are:


1.    Are current civic engagement efforts transforming higher education or have they been adopted in ways that do not fundamentally challenge the dominant cultures of higher education institutions and American society?  How can the movement best navigate the inherent tension between challenging the status quo and securing legitimacy through accommodation?

2.    How can colleges and universities cultivate caring and creative democratic citizens and advance democracy in schools, universities, communities and society?

3.    What sort of institutional commitments are needed to fostering civic engagement among students and among academics in order to advance participatory democracy on campus, in the community, and the wider society?  How can scholarly practice help realize the democratic purpose of higher education? 

4.    What are the next steps for the movement?  Who are the most relevant potential partners?   What three to five strategic directions does the movement need to take to move forward?





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