Shaping Our Future — How Can Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

The first Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, began far ranging changes in the landscape of higher education, previously the province of the wealthy. It democratized higher education by opening access, expanding the curriculum, and institutionalizing an ethos of public engagement.

Today, in a time of breathtaking changes the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP)  believes that we need equally fundamental change. ACP is a coalition of colleges, universities and others launched at the White House on January 10, the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act which established land grant colleges.

ACP is dedicated to the practical work of building democracy’s colleges for the 21st century throughout all of higher education.

The first large-scale ACP campaign is a national conversation using materials developed by National Issues Forums Institute, “Shaping Our Future.” Shaping Our Future will take place in communities and colleges, as citizens discuss the role of higher education in America’s future.

Early forums have shown its timeliness. New York State Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, Chair of the Legislative Commission on Science and Technology, says that the State Legislature rarely discusses the purpose of higher education. These conversations hold promise to help develop a narrative of higher education’s purpose, which Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, says is urgently needed to break the partisan gridlock.

The following is excerpted from the issue guide titled Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

The diverse system of US higher education–including public and private universities, smaller four-year independent colleges, two-year community colleges, for-profit schools, and others–already serves a number of important social purposes.  But this guide focuses on the future.  It takes up this fundamental question:  How should higher education help us create the society we want?  It offers three options to consider, each with benefits as well as drawbacks.

While it’s certainly possible for higher education to pursue multiple goals, it’s also true that colleges and universities can’t do everything.  To be effective, they need to focus their energies and set priorities.  As we envision higher education in the future, there are options and trade-offs, and it’s important to think and talk about them with our fellow citizens.  By doing so, we can begin to make tough choices about what higher education can and should be expected to do.

This issue guide presents three options for deliberation.

Option One: Focus on Staying Competitive in the Global Economy

Higher education should help ensure that our economy remains competitive in a tough global marketplace–and that means recapturing our lead in science and technology.  Countries like China are transforming their systems to educate more high-tech professionals, and we should too.  It’s our best chance to keep our economy growing.

Option Two: Work Together and Repair an Ailing Society

Many of the problems we face as a nation reflect an underlying crisis of division and mistrust.  Higher education shapes students’ views about the larger society, and it can do more to strengthen values like responsibility, integrity, and respect for others.  Students also need real-life experience in collaboration and problem solving.

Option Three: Ensure that Everyone Gets a Fair Chance

We call this the land of opportunity, but it isn’t that way for many Americans.  Because graduating from college unlocks the door to advancement, higher education and government should do much more to ensure that all Americans have an equal shot at getting a degree–without accumulating huge debts.

For the full list of Shaping Our Future materials, visit the National Issues Forums site.

Northern Arizona University Students Create American Commonwealth Partnership Organizing Team

By Sierra Jones, Student, Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University has been a highly active participant in restoring the democratic mission of higher education. Currently, there are eight Action Research Teams (ARTs) made up of undergraduate and graduate students as well as professors and community facilitators that have formed around specific issues in the community (such as weatherization, immigration, water conservation, education reform, local food systems, etc.). As we continue to evaluate our work, we often identify the need for expansion and recruitment. Although the groups are large and successful to begin with, our vision is much broader. Each student is increasingly passionate about the public work they are involved in and the immense transformations they have undergone, so we have decided to generate undergraduate house meetings to brainstorm how we can allow others to become engaged.

We have created weekly meetings that take place on Mondays under the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) Student Organizing branch that consists of undergraduate students who are interested in sharing their democratic vision with other individuals, schools and institutions. Our overall goal is to deeply embed community organizing and public work in all school settings with students of all ages. We plan to reach this goal by first broadening our support structure through recruiting more students. Three of us are giving presentations to all incoming freshman students during their orientation to NAU. We feel that moving forward the best way to establish this democratic university is to make our work more visible and encourage other students to join our leadership teams.

Student Highlight by Madison Ledgerwood, Northern Arizona University

I was not raised being told to recycle. I grew up in a conservative town where my actions and values did not seem to coincide and so it’s no surprise that I came to college a confused individual. I did not know who I was, what I believed, or what I should major in. Like most freshman, I knew I was meant to do something I just had no idea what that really meant. A few days before classes started, I joined a freshman seminar called “Democracy Social Justice and The Environment” taught by Rom Coles because the title sounded interesting. I never knew this class and the team I was part of would shape my entire experience at NAU and completely transform my life. This same year, I also became involved with the Weatherization and Community Building Action Team (WACBAT), a student-led group that focuses on community engagement to bring about culture change, policy change, and community building around saving energy, money, and jump-starting a greener economy based on local renewable energy.

My mind raced as people talked and my mouth wouldn’t stop moving as we had discussions. Topics about people, the earth and political action became so real to me. The class and group were helping me make the connection between ethics, culture, community, the earth, politics and action. I was finally able to put my passion for people, equality and justice into words. And I began to understand things I never had before. Looking back I am at a loss for words at how truly wonderful, overwhelmingly, inconceivably, phenomenal being involved with WACABT has been for me. Being able to go from feeling powerless and uninspired, to being a leader with a voice and the ability to make change has transformed my character.

WACBAT has improved my confidence to speak publicly and to meet with powerful individuals. It has also shown me what works and what does not work when trying to engage and motivate others. WACBAT is not only a support system that pushes me to strive forward it allows me to have hands on experience organizing, motivating, planning and problem solving. More importantly, WACBAT has helped me discover my passions allowing me to pursue what I loved.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.

Not In It to Win It, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Problem

By Rebecca Katz, Recent Graduate, Western Kentucky University

Polarization is rampant in America. The news anchors and political pundits demonstrate this state of affairs every day, bringing us stories of elected leaders refusing to budge on ideas, and demonizing the other side’s solutions. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort even looks at how Americans are self-segregating themselves into neighborhoods where many people think and act alike. It is easy to ignore other perspectives in these black and white homogenous bubbles. Have we forgotten the gray area? Does the other side have to be wrong?  In a time of late capitalism, Americans understand most things as zero-sum games and find it difficult to see anything else.  But if we continue relating to each other in black and white terms, we will push each other farther away.

Western Kentucky University is a relatively typical state school. However, WKU features a small gem among orthodox academia: the Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility (ICSR). The ICSR is a free space for civic engagement that promotes democracy and social change for the common good.  It is also where I have shaped my worldview and have learned how to be a problem solver.

One morning I arrived at the ICSR to see sullen student faces. “We have to leave. They’re kicking us out,” my friend said.

Moments before, the ICSR was informed that it would be displaced so that another department could take over its space. This department’s home was being renovated, so it wanted the ICSR’s space as its temporary home. However, the ICSR was not included in the decision-making process. I was devastated. This place inspired my entire academic career and, as a senior, was preparing me for my future. I felt like the university was about to take everything I worked for away from me.

It was clear that the leaders of the university could not solve this problem, so we students decided to solve it ourselves by organizing to salvage ICSR’s space and legacy. While we were concerned about the prospect of losing our space, we were excited for the opportunity to put to practice the very organizing skills we had learned in the ICSR.

After conducting many one-on-ones with students on both sides who would be affected by the move, the group concluded that it was definitely possible for both departments to share the ICSR space. We could share broaden our outreach, and collaborate on initiatives that no one had considered before. It would be innovative and unprecedented. We decided to ask the administration to create a student task force to determine how both departments could co-exist in the space.

In the end, we did “win.” The ICSR was allowed to retain its home. But this conflict was not about winning or losing. We were handed a crisis, but there was an opportunity to create something innovative from that situation. The ICSR shows us how to develop creative and sustainable solutions for the common good. This was a very formative experience for me. It was my first real opportunity to sincerely practice the organizing skills I had been refining for years.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.

Graduating with Hope and Fear: Six Tips for Students and Faculty During this Challenging and Exciting Time

By Cecilia M. Orphan, Co-Chair, Student Organizing Group and Ph.D. student, Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania

Ah, graduation season. This is supposed to be a time of great promise and hope in the lives of the 1,781,000 students graduating with bachelor’s degrees this year. Yet with the nation’s sluggish return to economic health and the high unemployment rates of young people (50% of people under 30 are unemployed!), many graduates are facing tough realities as they cross the stage and claim their diplomas. Subsequently, as Anya Kamentz found in her book Strapped: Why America’s 20 and 30 Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, many Millennials are delaying important milestones including marriage, children, and home ownership because they are not able to shoulder these costs in addition to the weight of student loan repayment.

This troubling economic and social picture may lead some to declare that undergraduate experiences should be focused on helping students develop job skills that will help them find employment after graduation. But this represents a false choice between providing students with professional or civic experiences. The civic skills developed through community engagement experiences are also important professional skills. These attributes include critical thinking, problem solving, communication, working with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. So what does this mean for us?


For students, it means that your civic experiences are also important professional experiences. The trick is learning how to translate them into resume bullet points. Below are a few ideas of how you can do just that.

  • Be concrete when describing your experiences. Include hours worked, students served, dollars raised, projects overseen, etc. This is a good way to show future employers that you are goal-oriented and get results.
  • Think about how your experiences draw on marketable skills. Did you organize a political campaign to ban the use of plastic bags in your town? This required project management, political knowhow, negotiation and communication skills. Did you plan and run a day of service for your university? This demonstrates logistical and event planning skills. Did you tutor elementary school children? This shows leadership and teaching skills. Did you help your university incorporate social media tools into it civic engagement? This shows that you have Web 2.0 savvy that many organizations are looking for. Think strategically about how your experiences have prepared you for the professional world and find ways to tell this part of your story.
  • While it’s nice to show that you have heart by listing your service experiences on your resume, it’s also important to demonstrate your ability to make commitments, follow through on deadlines, and work well with others. Many civic experiences require all of these abilities. Find ways to demonstrate these skills in your resume and during your job interview.

Faculty and administrators

For faculty and administrators, the harsh demands being placed on graduating students also requires something of you.

  • First and foremost, don’t fall for the false dichotomy between civic v. professional experiences. Students need opportunities to develop themselves for their future both as citizens and employees. Civic engagement experiences provide an avenue for both goals to be achieved. Many students are unemployed or underemployed. Work in the community and political realms are often students’ only opportunities to develop important professional and civic skills. These experiences are proven to develop student efficacy and agency that will in turn help them promote themselves when it comes to looking and interviewing for jobs.
  • When you work to engage students, help them locate their own self-interest in the engagement. Yes, it’s a nice thing to do. Yes, it’s even the right thing to do. But it also might help them get a job. Cheer them as they face a daunting job market and enormous loads of student debt.
  • Finally, and most importantly, these civic experiences will stick with them and improve our democracy and economy. This view of the student experience is somewhat less daunting and more hopeful than the one painted by abysmal employment rates. We must protect and increase civic experiences of students to strengthen our economic and democratic futures.

I salute the faculty and teachers who have helped get students to graduation day. Without your mentorship, guidance and encouragement, many would not be walking across that stage. And I wholeheartedly tip my hat to this year’s graduating class. I know how hard you’ve worked and how hard you will continue to work to secure happiness and financial stability. Be strategic about telling your story. Celebrate your success and make big plans for your professional and civic life. The future of our economy and democracy rests in your hands.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.

Youth Summit Hosted by Syracuse University and White House

By Timothy K. Eatman and Jamie Haft

A panel about solutions to societal issues with (from left to right) Ankur Bajaj, undergraduate student, Cornell University; Symone Campbell, student, Nottingham High School; Semaj Campbell, student, Nottingham High School; and Marion Wilson, faculty member, Syracuse University. Photo by Stephen Sartori.

At the January 10 White House launch of the American Commonwealth Partnership, Syracuse University was invited to be one of 17 campuses across the country to host a youth summit as part of the “White House Young America Series.” We seized the opportunity to rally high school and college students in Central New York. The event’s framework was Syracuse University’s call for Scholarship in Action, and the national coalition Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life’s vision to realize the democratic purposes of American higher education. The program planning committee included representatives from the Central New York Chapter of Publicly Active Graduate Education, Imagining America Engagement Fellows, and the student government associations of Syracuse and Cornell University. The April 18, three-hour event provided a platform for 150 students in the region to share their experiences partnering with communities to address local problems, and for students to engage two young White House representatives: Victoria McCullough, Office of Public Engagement, and Samuel Ryan, Department of Education.

Azhar Ali, undergraduate student, Syracuse University, speaking on what “inclusive urban education” means to him. Photo by Stephen Sartori.

Participants discussed race, class, and disability issues in the education system; environmental sustainability; and how the humanities, arts, and design can be used to positively affect these issues. To probe the issues’ complexity, a mix of formats was employed: panel discussion, personal testimony, presentation, spoken word performance, and dialogue with the audience. Using a Twitter hashtag, there was virtual exchange during the event among attendees and those watching via live web stream. To view the event video, go to

Recognizing that all organizing is reorganizing, Imagining America and Syracuse University are using the event’s energy to launch the contest, “From Story to Screen,” in which students submit narratives about their civic engagement. The winners will have their stories professionally produced as a short video for national distribution.

Attendees of the event, “White House Young America: Live from Syracuse University.” Photo by Stephen Sartori.

Other participants, too, are using the momentum to act on change, and discussing how to connect their efforts to the movement building of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

Timothy K. Eatman is research director for Imagining America and assistant professor of higher education at Syracuse University. Jamie Haft is communications manager for Imagining America and is completing her master’s degree at Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Click here for more stories about the work of the Student Organizing Group.

Action needed: Support Democracy in Education

Momentum is building in the American Commonwealth Partnership, and we have a unique opportunity to leverage support for our work. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship has a challenge grant that will match any new and increased gift made by May 31st!

The ACP strives to democratize higher education by opening access, improving curricular and co-curricular teaching and learning, and creating an ethos of  public engagement to make life better for all of us.

So far, generous supporters like you have contributed $13,785 . Help us reach our goal of $20,000 by making a contribution today. Please click here to make a contribution of $50, $100, or $250 today.

The skills needed in both the workplace and our society as a whole require cooperative and productive citizenship to build an equitable, sustainable democracy. To develop such capacities, higher education needs to tap the full participation of all, and integrate science with arts, humanities and design. This requires bold action. ACP develops strategies to help realize these goals.

Higher education must rise to the occasion, and ACP aspires to be the resource and a meeting ground for this great work.

Help us to build a better tomorrow for students and America as a whole. And please spread the word by sharing this link on Facebook,twitter and other social media.

Thank you,

Harry Boyte, National Coordinator, ACP

Town Hall Meeting – Occupy Wall Street

The room was surging with energy as members of Occupy Wall Street mingled with attendees at the town hall meeting.   Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan, organizers of the event and long time community organizers, invited students, colleagues, and all others interested in learning more about a variety of controversial social issues. This week’s topic: Occupy Wall Street.

The over-arching theme of all ‘Town Hall Meetings’ is the regular practice of democracy. It is assumed that all persons attending understand and respect the fundamental principle that guides the town hall meetings:  with democracy comes a responsibility as citizens, to learn about what is going on in this country and to delve into discussion and debate, freely, as we decide for ourselves what we believe in. Free and open debate, unhindered by intimidation nor disrespect is critical to the success of the meetings. The clock struckseven o’clock and it was time for the meeting to begin.

Mr. Donovan directed the crowd to chairs positioned in a circle, an arrangement intended to facilitate open discussion.  He began the meeting by emphasizing key points. “Democracy is argument,” he explained. He reminded the participants, “the freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted.  SeveralOccupy Wall Street [OWS] members interrupted his remarks to suggest changes to previously established discussion guidelines.  The OWS ideas were overruled respectfully, and the meeting resumed with the customary participant introductions. “We are the 99%… We are the 99%…” Attention was once again directed to a group of OWS members chanting in unison.  As their voices swelled, the room seemed to fill with a sense of unease and tension.  What was the reason for their behavior?  Did the group misunderstand the purpose for and principles of the meeting?  What were the motives?  Whatever the reason, the tenacity of the group was evident as members indirectly intimidated other speakers, challenged Town Hall motives, and criticized the Town Hall image as detrimental to its cause.

Sam, a college aged participant, had observed and listened intently to the interaction between the OWS members and the other attendees.  He was intrigued by the interaction and curious about how the OWS responded to several questions.  Finally, he could hesitate no longer, boldly raised his hand and was invited to speak:  “Currently, I am taking a history class designed to go over American history from 1945 to the present…with that said, it seems that your intentions are good, but it doesn’t seem like the OWS has clear goals and therefore, lacks in credibility. Also, the end goals they do have are not necessarily tangible.”  He paused in anticipation of a response.

A response soon followed. Scott, a self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of OWS, spoke candidly and passionately about his work experience and observations of the movement. “My experience during my first day with OWS triggered a ‘what do YOU want’’ question and made me feel like there were forty people and forty different messages… a bit of a narcissistic movement”.   Scott concluded by explaining that OWS had no other goal but to achieve active involvement. “We cannot all agree…the trouble is getting involved and the problem is the process”.

Harry Boyte, co-planner of the Town Hall Meetings and seasoned organizer, joined the discussion by acknowledging that the movement exposed very vividly the issue of inequality inAmerica. However, he warned the group about the inherent harm of fostering and furthering divisiveness.  Boyte used the example of a woman at the meeting. He described her emotions by saying that she “felt hopeless, OWS gave her hope”. He cautioned, “You cannot go about dividing the world into good and bad and expect to gain momentum and ultimate success”.

The discussion intensified and emotions heightened.  Respectfully, Oliver, a middle-aged gentleman, stood to respond to Boyte’s comment, “Polarization is incredibly dangerous. Yes. But OWS is bringing together a diverse group.  Although, I do not see a middle ground, there is an awful lot of one-liners and rhetoric flying as the gap is widening, and I am seeing a deep fractioning of society”. Likewise, another participant addressed the divisive nature of the “99%” chant.  “Why”, it was asked, do you eliminate the 1% from the discussion table? Isn’t it more productive to include the 100% in the conversation? You advocate for involvement, political change, and empowerment of the citizenry.  Why would you exclude 1% of the population? It has the image of divisiveness and hypocrisy.” The OWS member responded, “The reason why we do not invite the 1% to the table is because they own the table.”

Several participants voiced their opinions regarding the tactics used by the OWS to attract public attention. Hate speech and vulgar actions, it was noted, would eventually destroy the OWS public image and the group’s message. The OWS member placed blame on media’s reporting of events and the tremendous emotional response that ensues when confronting established power. “False media interpretation”, he said, “It gets intense when people go up against power”. Many who sat in the circle of chairs may have considered the OWS GROUP ‘intruders’. Yet, despite this unexpected and uncomfortable intrusion, those in attendance learned much about both sides of the issue. Discussion became intense at times. Yet, the non-OWS participants had an opportunity to hear the issues of the OWS first hand, observe their passion, and gain a better understanding of their position.

The OWS, on the other hand, was the recipient of excellent advice. They learned that the public was confused by the inconsistency of the message, impatient with the polarizing strategies and tactics used, and saw hypocrisy in the group’s policies and beliefs. It became clear that if the OWS movement is to continue and earn public attention and respect, it must achieve a very clear and consistent message, redesign strategies, and invite the 100% to the table.

As a witness to this event, this writer learned a tremendous lesson about democracy. Some participants may have left the meeting feeling angry and disappointed. They may have thought that the meeting had failed in its purpose due to the unexpected conflict and intense dialogue. Some may be disappointed because the meeting did not ‘come off’ as planned.  Others may get lost in determining who one or who lost. Many may be uncomfortable with the tenacity and persistence demonstrated by the participants.  However, this observer believes the meeting was a great success and it fulfilled its intended purpose.  Information was shared, opinions were discussed, and both sides were heard. All one has to do is review Mr. Donovan’s introductory comments:

“Democracy is argument. The freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted.”

 Sarah Sprayberry is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota and       a motivational speaker on the topic of public achievement, democracy and citizenship.