Civic Engagement and Our Responsibility in Higher Education

For public two-year college presidents, who serve nearly 1,400 communities, it is our moral responsibility to provide fearless leadership. We welcome the most vulnerable members of our communities.
08/21/2015 12:48 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2016

In my line of work, which is serving the public at a comprehensive community and technical college that provides post-secondary education to a very diverse group of men and women -- representing every age, race and ethnicity -- we are to be neutral and not endorse candidates, whether in local, state or national politics. We are cautioned not to meddle in hot political issues or take sides. However, I will take one side publicly, and that is the side of our students and their needs, encouraging them to find their voices and engage in every freedom they have. From that perspective, I will encourage every one of us, especially the leaders and caretakers of our educational institutions, to kick off civic conversations on our college campuses.

Just as Khalil Gibran wrote "Your children are not your children," I am very mindful that, in a similar sense, "our students are not our students" -- that we prepare them to go out into the world and make their own contributions. We have done our part well when our graduates become productive and valued employees and participate in the community that is around them. We must help students develop sensitivity and skillsets for civic engagement and action, to be a part of our society's solutions, and not just be bystanders. We must inspire leadership development in civic responsibilities. We must be active in our encouragement of their political involvement and participation in the democratic process, and provide the environment for learning critical thinking skills and how to engage themselves in the political world surrounding us all.

Our colleges are part and parcel of the social justice engines of our communities everywhere across this country, whether in urban, suburban, rural, homogenous, or heterogeneous environments -- we are there. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), enrollment in post-secondary 2-year, 4-year, public, private, for-profit and not non-profit institutions is well over 28 million people per year. What potential in these numbers! When I recently attended the Kettering Foundation Deliberative Democracy Exchange workshop, I was further inspired by my colleagues from two- and four-year colleges and universities from across the U.S. As college presidents, we were invited to offer fresh perspectives on higher education and involvement in the life of local and regional communities, working collaboratively for civic, social, educational and economic development. I applaud the Kettering Foundation and their exploration of what it takes to have a robust democracy, with citizens, communities and institutions collectively and actively involved. This experience cemented my resolve to be very deliberate and vocal about encouraging our campus community to be civically engaged and mindful of the opportunities everywhere around us to use our voices and be heard.

For public two-year college presidents, who serve nearly 1,400 communities, it is our moral responsibility to provide fearless leadership. We welcome the most vulnerable members of our communities. Our institutions do not have restrictive admission criteria; we are here to provide educational privilege to the underprivileged. In our role as presidents of these egalitarian institutions, we need to promote civic engagement opportunities for our students by inspiring our students in meaningful activism about democracy, democratic values, and the ingredients that have made this nation a great and compassionate great nation. These activities should take place inside and outside the classroom, as part of instruction, and as parts of student life activities. Beyond creating opportunities just to promote voting, we need to engage our students in making informed decisions and help them gain an understanding of the critical role they can play in the local, regional, and national political landscape. As the leaders of these institutions, we must be poised to advance the democratic values of our society. We need to be tireless advocates for our students and our communities, devoting resources to promote civic engagement even during the current difficult fiscal times. We must do this for the sake of democracy to avoid hypocrisy.

How we lead has great civic and economic impact. According to the NCES, two-year public institutions train roughly 10.5 million students each year. Community colleges had a net impact on the U.S. economy of $809 billion in added income, with an additional economic benefit of $285.7 billion in increased tax revenue as graduates earn higher wages (American Association of Community Colleges Report: The Economic Impact of Community Colleges). Our responsibility is to ensure this vitality continues. We should never forget that we are not only training the future workforce of our community and the U.S., but that it is our responsibility to provide a platform for civic engagement, ensuring that our students are capable of making and justifying informed moral and civic judgments, and taking actions when appropriate. This legacy should be perpetual and on-going.

Democracy and the democratic process are important to me. More than three decades ago, I arrived in Minnesota as a young teenage immigrant and found a safe place. It soon became my 'home' as I transitioned from being a teenager to becoming a young college graduate and professional. The people of Minnesota infused in me a strong work ethic and my resolve for helping others. The idea that none of us can do it alone will drive us to continue to be a great nation.

What an honor, what a privilege, and what a great opportunity it is to advance civic engagement and promote democracy in our institutions, and in so doing, in our communities.