THE BLOG
01/26/2015 06:17 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Democracy's Colleges: An Emerging Alternative

In the changing landscape of work and higher education there are signs of an emerging alternative to Ivory Tower detachment or scrambles to adapt. It was visible on Jan. 21 at the National Press Club, in an event organized by the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums, and Augsburg College, when leaders from higher education, business, labor, government and other fields gathered to launch a national conversation, "The Changing World of Work -- What Should We Ask of Higher Education?"

Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary of Education, kicked off the meeting, pointing toward the alternative by arguing for a return to John Dewey's idea of "tending to democracy."

In contrast, Richard Laine, director of education for the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices, proposed that the skills needed to be an engineer are the same as those needed to be a politician or a hedge-fund manager. In Laine's view, the task is to better align college and the emerging demands of the workforce.

Many heard the conversation this way since it fits conventional frameworks. As Casey Fabris put in in her coverage of the meeting in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this conversation focuses "on the question of how colleges should adapt to a working world changed by technology, globalization, and the aftermath of the recession."

But a composite alternative different than either Ivory Tower disconnection or preparing students to adapt is represented in the issue guide in option two, preparing students to be citizen leaders and change agents, and three, seeing colleges as "anchor institutions" with enormous resources that can be leveraged for community betterment. A strong presence in the day's discussion, it can be described as the reemergence of the concept of "democracy's colleges."

The democracy's college idea, like the issue guide, addresses troubling questions about work often glossed over in discussions which equate 21st century job skills and citizenship skills. The issue guide quotes David Brooks, who describes a workforce with "millions in part time or low wage jobs...and millions more in dysfunctional or unhealthy workplaces." It notes that employers "increasingly rely on a revolving cast of freelancers, independent contractors and temporary workers who receive little or nothing in the way of benefits or job security," a number expected to rise to 40 percent in 2020.

As long time community organizer Gerald Taylor and adjunct faculty with the Service Employees International Union -- one of the sponsors of the conversation -- observed in the meeting, these changes are sweeping through higher education. More than half of teachers are now adjunct faculty. In many departments they teach 60 or even 70 percent of the students.

Crucially, in the democracy's college idea schools are not objects of change but makers of change. They take a luminous ideal -- that the purpose of American education is about building a democratic society -- and put it to work in gritty collaborative public problem solving and publicly engaged teaching and scholarship on the ground.

The Democracy's College Tradition Then and Now

In historical treatments, the ideal of "democracy's college" was sometimes presented as devoid of conflict and politics. In his 1942 book, Democracy's College, the prominent historian Earle Ross argued that land-grant institutions, first launched in 1862 to provide access to men and women of the agricultural and industrial classes, "became the fullest expression of democracy in higher education."

In fact, as the intellectual historian Scott Peters details in a splendid chapter, "A Democracy's College Tradition," in the forthcoming Democracy's Education collection, land-grants even at their most democratic were full of rough and tumble politics, complexity, parochialism, and contradictions. But they also generated multiple examples of collective public work on pressing issues like rural health, schools, soil erosion, and economic development which brought together faculty and students with community members on an equal footing.

Overall the democracy college concept was animated by a vision of empowering education based on respect for the talents and intelligence of everyday citizens. Thus, Liberty Hyde Bailey, founding dean of agriculture at Cornell and a chief architect of the democracy's college tradition, argued that "Every democracy must reach far beyond what is commonly known as economic efficiency." Economic efficiency "could be accomplished by despotism and result in no self-action on the part of the people." Rather higher education should do "everything it can to enable those in the backgrounds to maintain their standing and their pride and to partake in the making of political affairs."

Such ideas were powerfully expressed on January 21st, with a live stream archive accessible here. Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark where most students, of diverse backgrounds, are the first in their families to go to college, proposed that the key to student success involves much more than service. "It's collaborating on projects and genuinely creating connections as well as problem solving that allow them to have a joint experience in building democracy." She described Rutgers as part of a network of "anchoring institutions creating democracy on the ground."

Byron White, Vice President of University Engagement at Cleveland State University, called for a shift from the question, "Are students college-ready?" to "Are colleges students ready?" Students need systems and relationships which meet them where they are and help them to navigate their education. "Then suddenly they are successful."

Both Cantor and White called for rethinking the role of adjunct faculty. "We have to reorganize to reward and give stability and reasonable life paths to people who are doing very hard on-the-ground collaborative anchor institution work," said Canter. White pointed to a coming revolution in teaching. "I ask faculty, do you really believe that people are going to pay tens of thousands of dollars to sit in a room for you to share something 90 percent of which they can get on their cell phone?" In his view educators of the future will be more facilitators of learning than transmitters of knowledge. Many adjuncts have just these skills.

Finally Andrew Seligsohn, new president of the 1100 member Campus Compact, a higher education association dedicated to higher education as a public good, argued the importance of the conversation as a way to prepare students to be civic leaders (many can be trained as moderators, for instance).

The next day Seligsohn, perhaps energized by the challenges to rankings through the day, took up the topic on his blog. "Rankings, however absurd, matter because they drive behavior. Right now, they drive behavior that undermines rather than serves public ends...institutions do well if they turn away most students and accumulate vast wealth." He called for "a broad coalition to take on the rankings."

Making change -- not simply reacting to change -- was definitely on the agenda.