Unresolved Challenges

Eleven Sticking Points:

Priorities for the Future of Civic Engagement in Higher Education 


By Derek Barker, The Kettering Foundation

(Reflections provided on the second morning of the Colloquium)


One of the key objectives of the colloquium was to survey key leaders and practitioners in the civic engagement of higher education and solicit their frank assessments of the current state of the movement.  This list brings together eleven sticking points that were mentioned during the first day of the plenary.  Some participants emphasized good news over bad news, while others used a variety of terms, such as stalled, plateaued, or fragmented.  Despite these differences, a number of key unresolved issues emerged as priorities for the next generation of civic engagement work in higher education.


1. Articulate a democratic epistemology. Higher education civic engagement must provide an alternative to the technocratic and expert model and show that citizens can play an active role in the production of knowledge.  At present, the movement has developed a coherent critique of the limitations of positivism, expert knowledge, and the implied technocratic politics of excluding citizens from the production of knowledge.  However, the democratic alternative has not been fully articulated.  This would require more concrete examples of knowledge that is produced with the active participation of citizens.


2. Connect civic engagement of higher education institutions and professionals to larger civic politics.  Higher education institutions and professionals often speak of civic engagement based on their perspectives and when it serves their interests.  Wanting to serve the public is not enough if the public doubts that the institution serves the public good.  Communities must have a reason to partner with institutions, but we do not know whether the civic engagement efforts currently supplied by universities are really in demand by citizens. 


3. Diversify the civic engagement movement. Although both civic engagement and multiculturalism are each receiving attention in higher education, at present these efforts are largely independent of one another. However, civic engagement cannot serve democracy if it is not inclusive of diverse groups and perspectives.  At the same time, diversity initiatives cannot have an impact outside of institutions if higher education is irrelevant to society. Proponents of both civic engagement and multiculturalism should recognize their interdependence and common aim to improve democracy.


4. Politicize civic engagement, especially beyond “service.”  The civic engagement movement has developed a coherent critique of the idea of service.  It has shown that service tends to be interpreted apolitically and in ways that are consistent with expert or technocratic approaches.  However, proponents of civic engagement must do more to articulate, document, and evaluate the political benefits of their work.


5. Connect local civic engagement to global issues.  Citizens and college students are not currently prepared to engage politically on highly complex and large-scale social problems.  Although civic engagement must begin locally, it must ultimately aim at the global level if citizens and students are to make a difference on the most pressing problems. 


6. Make the democratic role of higher education explicit as the top institutional priority.  Although many institutions have incorporated civic engagement rhetoric, established centers, or implemented projects, in most cases the democratic role of higher education is not infused throughout the institution.  Individual projects and programs are not enough to generate culture change.  Instead, colleges’ and universities’ commitments to civic engagement should integrate reforms in a variety of areas, including promotion and tenure, disciplinary norms, curriculum design, pedagogy, student life, and institutional governance.


7. Unify the language of civic engagement.  Civic engagement reflects a diverse assortment of goals (diversity, social justice, citizenship) and methodologies (dialogue, deliberation, community organizing).  However, there is a sense that the movement is fragmented as a result.  Often programs adopting different labels compete with one another for funding and attention, giving the appearance of fundamental conflict.  While proponents will rightly emphasize different aspects of democratic politics, the movement could make greater progress by articulating the common impulse unifying all the practices and constituencies of civic engagement.


8. Organize faculty for civic engagement.  Faculty have led the way in innovating and promoting civic engagement.  Despite being marginalized in their fields and discouraged by their institutional reward structures, their passion has been the key driving force behind the progress that has been made.  However, a major obstacle to change is that faculty are trained to think as intellectuals, not as organizers.  The next stage of civic engagement will require faculty to learn a new set of skills enabling them to transform their institutions.


9.  Address the disconnect between theory and practice, rhetoric and reality.  The basic principles of civic engagement are almost universally recognized.  They have been reflected in the language of institutional mission statements and espoused by leaders at the highest levels.  Although this is an important indicator of progress, the real practice of civic engagement does not always match the rhetoric.  To show that they are serious about civic engagement, institutions must commit significant resources to match their rhetoric.  


10. Resist the assimilation of civic engagement by bureaucratic institutions.  Institutions and practitioners alike are talking about ways to enhance the legitimacy of civic engagement projects.  This is in itself an important indicator of the progress that has been made.  However, civic engagement initiatives are implemented in the context of institutions that have powerful incentives to copy “best practices” and meet evaluation criteria imposed from above rather than engage in genuine democratic experimentation.  In order to move forward, civic engagement efforts will have to gain credibility in the eyes of institutions without losing their essential democratic character.


11. Model democratic politics in the internal governance of higher education institutions.  Although some institutions have made conscious efforts to involve the community in their strategic planning, the democratic mission of higher education is in profound tension with the reality of hierarchical and bureaucratic governance.  President-centered leadership continues to be the norm in higher education.  Students and communities will not learn to take democracy seriously if universities do not model democracy in their own governance. 


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