10/20/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

White House Civic Summit on Higher Education

Oct. 16 at Tufts University, the White House, working with the Department of Education, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Tuft's Tisch College of Citizenship, organized a gathering on higher education's civic purposes. It was called "The White House Civic Learning and National Service Summit."

Alan Solomont, former ambassador to Spain and now dean of Tisch College, gave an impassioned opening address on how democracy is endangered. Peter Levine, Associate Dean of Research and director of the CIRCLE research center, played a central role in organizing the meeting.

The meeting on Oct. 16 brought together about 50 White House aides, agency officials and staff, higher education leaders and community activists and civic leaders. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of citizen participation in the White House, and Robert Rodriguez, Obama education policy adviser, gave opening remarks.

The title of the gathering may have revealed a shrinking of the sense of possibility in the administration. The name of the event, "Civic Learning and National Service," is smaller than the earlier meeting on which it built, "For Democracy's Future," at the White House in 2012.

But the discussions were lively. Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary for Higher Education, made a strong pitch for the continuing bully pulpit role of administration officials in promoting change.

Studley chaired a panel which including Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and Richard Freedland, Commission of Higher Education in Massachusetts. Both discussed what has happened since the earlier White House meeting, January 12, 2012, when AAC&U unveiled the report, A Crucible Moment, commissioned by the Department of Education, calling for civic learning to become "pervasive" in colleges and universities. Perhaps the most significant development in the intervening time was the strategic plan developed among public universities in Massachusetts, which calls for pervasive civic learning and will evaluate presidents' performance based on progress toward that goal.

"For Democracy's Future" also launched the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), a one year alliance to commemorate the 150th anniversary of land grant colleges.

ACP developed strategies to revitalize the democracy story, purposes, and practices of higher education. In the breakout session I participated in, chaired by Andrew Seligsohn, new president of Campus Compact, I described these democracy initiatives. These include the initiative on civic science detailed in a recent blog, Citizen Alum, an effort to broaden alumni's roles coordinated by Julie Ellison of the University of Michigan, and the forthcoming book collection from Vanderbilt University Press, Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities.

They also included a conversation in communities across the country on the purposes of higher education, "Shaping Our Future," undertaken with the National Issues Forums, the Kettering Foundation, and Martha Kanter, Under Secretary for Post Secondary Education. We launched "Shaping Our Future" on September 4, 2012.

My take-away from the October 16th meeting was that the civic engagement movement in higher education has a more urgent sense of the importance of higher education's contribution to revitalizing and deepening the democratic story, purposes, and practices of colleges and universities than two years ago. My group strongly supported the proposal of Barbara Vacarr, past president of Goddard College, that presidents need to articulate a bold vision of their colleges' democracy role. Participants also agreed strongly with the remarks of Carolyne Abdullah of Everyday Democracy that faculty need to learn skills of collaborative partnership with communities, becoming democratic role models for students.

Today the democracy identity of colleges is largely counter-cultural. While many pundits express alarm these days about higher education and its purposes, few mention any relation to democracy.

In contrast, the Commission on Higher Education created by President Truman declared in its 1947 report, Higher Education for American Democracy, "the first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process." This reflected a broad national discussion growing out of land grant colleges, the City College of New York, community colleges and elsewhere that highlighted higher education's multiple public roles.

For all the service-learning projects, community research and other worthy efforts over the last two decades connecting higher education to communities and the society, the democracy history and purposes of higher education are now largely forgotten. Most institutions advertise themselves as tickets to individual success.

At the Summit I described "The Changing World of Work: What's Higher Education's Role?" the forthcoming dialogue on how colleges can be resources for communities in dealing with radical changes in work and workplaces. "The Changing World of Work" will be launched by the Kettering Foundation, Augsburg College, and the National Issues Forums on January 21 at the National Press Club.

Our earlier dialogue, "Shaping Our Future," and the listening process for "The Changing World of Work" have involved thousands of citizens. We found widespread sentiment that the current policy debate is too short term. It narrows the focus to immediate issues like student debt, distance learning, and vocational education and neglects ways in which higher education can prepare students for a rapidly changing world.

We discovered that public knowledge of the once vibrant democracy story of higher education has largely disappeared, but there is hunger for this narrative.

Participants in the White House civic summit on October 16 believed that it is imperative for higher education to reaffirm its democracy purposes and educate about the democracy-building story of higher education. Our discussions with citizens outside higher education suggest that people may respond.

This means that leaders and others associated with higher education will need to communicate a much deeper and richer understanding of democracy itself, in which citizens are the central agents.

As Solomont intimated, democracy's advance can no longer be taken for granted, in the United States or around the world.

Higher education needs to step up to the plate to help revitalize both the meaning and the practice of democracy.

Harry Boyte coordinated the American Commonwealth Partnership in 2011 and 2012.