09/20/2013 11:01 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Beyond the Ivory Tower: Higher Education and The Franklin Project

Fall is a season full of hope and promise on college and university campuses when students arrive to begin a new academic year. They bring with them energy, talent and exuberance for their academic and co-curricular interests, and, increasingly, they bring a deeply held belief in their responsibilities to one another and their communities.

American higher education has a long and distinguished history of contributing to the public good through teaching and research in every imaginable field, inspiring forward thinking and creative ideas that have enriched our culture and added to civic life. Today, there is a particularly exciting shift toward thinking of, and implementing, public service as an essential part of the primary mission of higher education. A growing number of academics see community-engaged teaching and research as a pathway to high quality teaching and research.

Examples abound. In response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University dramatically expanded student volunteering, developed service learning in multiple disciplines, made community engagement a degree requirement for undergraduates in all fields, and took on major responsibilities for redeveloping and operating primary health care services in New Orleans. At Miami University, similar work is happening with the City of Miami with new initiatives that link faculty and students with service learning experiences that leverage the University's academic resources to shape solutions that improve civic life.

As president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., I have seen our students' desire to engage in meaningful ways and our faculty members' commitment to service learning courses and related experiential opportunities. Each semester, they partner with members of the Geneva community on a number of initiatives grounded in the principles of community engaged research. Recent projects have explored city-wide sustainable development, investigated the distribution of services to local veterans, facilitated a local advertising campaign that connected school attendance with public health, and created a teacher resource guide for our community's "Big Read." Faculty, students and community members have constructed a community playground, created a database for a local food pantry, developed a communications department for City Hall, and produced a comprehensive report on the wellbeing of area children.

Like Hobart and William Smith, Tulane and Miami, many colleges and universities across the country have become significant anchor institutions in their home communities. At every level of higher education - public and private, large and small, urban and rural - colleges and universities are making a difference by partnering with their communities to tackle real problems. They are moving beyond the ivory tower.

In my roles as a college president, the former director of the Peace Corps, and a board member of the Corporation for National and Community Service, I have been fortunate to work with the Millennial Generation and to see their talents and strengths firsthand. In my view, they are the most civically engaged and service-minded generation since the Greatest Generation of World War II. At Hobart and William Smith, I see our students' commitment to social justice and their strong interest to translate that passion into a life of consequence. I am pleased that so many of our graduates go on to join Teach for America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. And I am equally pleased that those who choose Wall Street, Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley or Hollywood, do so with a strong sense of idealism and commitment to making a difference. This is a generation with the capacity to create real change. Based on their qualities and characteristics, I am very optimistic for our nation's future.

We owe it to them and future generations to foster an environment that will maximize this spirit of engagement. The Franklin Project, brilliantly inspired by General Stanley McChrystal, seeks to capture this ethic by proposing at least one million civilian national service opportunities for young adults on par with the more than one million Americans serving active duty in our Armed Forces. It's going to require big, bold ideas, like The Franklin Project, that will cross ideologies, parties and generations to give this generation the skills they need to realize their ambitions.

As we look at the challenges of the 21st century, we would be well-served as a nation to organize ourselves to support this work. A commitment to The Franklin Project maximizes the Millennial Generation's spirit of engagement and in so doing embeds civic engagement into our national identity while uniting us all in pursuit of the common good. I look forward to the day when The Franklin Project has leveraged the efforts of one million of America's young people, allowing them to realize their dream for a better tomorrow through the power of service.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.