The American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) is an alliance of community colleges, colleges and universities, P-12 schools and others dedicated to building “democracy colleges” throughout higher education. A Presidents’ Advisory Council, composed of distinguished college and university presidents who have long been leaders in engaged higher education movement, offers continuing counsel and wisdom (see list below).
Launched at the White House on January 10th, 2012, the start of the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act which created land grant colleges, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, ACP uses the concept of democracy colleges from land grant and community college history. Democracy colleges convey the idea of colleges and universities deeply connected to their communities, which make education for citizenship a signature identity.
The work of building democracy colleges draws on a rich tradition, dating back to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency:
The White House meeting, “For Democracy’s Future – Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission”, marked a new stage of coordinated effort to bring about a commitment to civic education and education as a public good. It was organized in partnership with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Department of Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools.
At the White House, the Department of Education released its Road Map and Call to Action on civic learning and democratic engagement, described in remarks by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement released A Crucible Moment, a report to the nation on the need for a shift in civic learning from “partial” to “pervasive.”
ACP highlighted institutions that have taken steps toward becoming democracy colleges, including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, state colleges and universities, and research institutions. ACP continues to consult with Undersecretary for Higher Education Martha Kanter and her Office of Postsecondary Education on policies to strengthen higher education’s public engagement and is also helping to organize state level policy initiatives on the topic.
The ACP coalition promotes several initiatives including:
The Deliberative Dialogue Initiative, in partnership with the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), is organizing a discussion on campuses and in communities on higher education’s role in America’s future. It is to be complemented by a communications effort to convey the potential of higher education in teaching skills, such as listening, deliberation, teamwork, negotiating different interests and views, to work across differences on public problems. Research by NIFI suggests that the public is largely unaware of higher education’s contributions to such skill development – seen as an urgent need by citizens of many views and backgrounds in order to turn around the growing divisiveness and polarization in America.
Citizen Alum Initiative, directed by Julie Ellison of the University of Michigan, aims to change the framework of alumni relations, partnering with alumni as “do-ers” as well as donors. Citizen Alum aims to find the hidden treasure—the creative, civic, intellectual, and social capital of alumni – especially recent “gap alums” and alums who opt out of conventional roles, supporting them as contributors to their home communities and as allies in education.
Student Organizing Initiative is a campaign to deepen the civic identity of college students, develop skills of deliberative public work, and strengthen the DemocracyU social media campaign and website as resources for students to share their stories and address their concerns for America’s democracy. This initiative is also exploring strategies for putting cross partisan citizen-centered politics back at the center of the highly polarized election campaign of 2012.
Pedagogies of Empowerment and Engagement Initiative is an organizing effort spearheaded by Blase Scarnati of Northern Arizona University. It will identity and collect the details of effective pedagogies of empowerment and engagement across the country that teach skills to work across differences. The group will also recruit new sites and partners.
Public Scholarship Initiative is organized by Scott Peters of Cornell University, Tim Eatman of Imagining America at Syracuse University, and John Saltmarsh of NERCHE (UMASS Boston). The team have began a participatory research project with various institutions on the work of building democracy colleges in the 21st century.
Campus-Community Civic Health Initiative, coordinated by the American Democracy Project in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship, is developing ways to assess the impact of colleges and universities on community and campus civic health.
Civic Science Initiative is organized by John Spencer at the University of Iowa, Scott Peters at Cornell University, Molly Jahn at the University of Wisconsin, Rom Coles at Northern Arizona University, and Harry Boyte at Augsburg College and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. Civic science is a framework for understanding scientists as citizens, working with other citizens in ways that respect different ways of knowing, deepening collective wisdom on public questions, and developing civic agency.
ACP Policy Initiative, building on policy discussions with the Department of Education in 2011, focuses on state level policies strengthening engagement, and is consulting with the DOE on an ongoing basis about policies to strengthen engagement.
Presidents’ Advisory Council
Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Syracuse University
Brian Murphy, President, De Anza College
M. Christopher Brown, President, Alcorn State University
Thomas Ehrlich, President Emeritus, Indiana University
Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland Baltimore County
David Mathews, President Emeritus, University of Alabama
Paul Pribbenow, President, Augsburg College
Judith Ramaley, President, Winona State University
Inaugural Host Institution
Augsburg College, Minneapolis
Harry Boyte, Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship
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By Cornelius D. Harris
I travel the world working in music and entertainment. A few days before returning to the University of Michigan for fall classes in 2005, I was in Japan, watching Hurricane Katrina laying waste to several gulf states. The real disaster was on the human side, the governmental side.
As a U.S. citizen, watching from abroad, I felt estranged not only from my own country, but from reality. The actions (or lack of) did not represent any country I was a part of. So I returned to what felt a bit like a foreign country, feeling like a bit of a stranger, disappointed with this place and feeling angry over what I felt was an open betrayal against Americans. I returned to a class by Professor Julie Ellison that asked what it meant to be a citizen.
Part of my healing process took place in that class and the work with the artist/educator Sekou Sundiata also played a role. His work is around the notion of the American Dream, and it helped to drive home the idea that while things are NOT necessarily the way we would like them to be, our dreams and our sense of who we are, are how citizenship becomes personal and history is made.
The experience had me reconsider history and culture in the context of citizenry and this in turn colored my conversations with others about music, culture, and southeastern Michigan, specifically Detroit. I view myself as a global citizen yet that global citizenry informs my own local citizenry too. Seeing the world of possibilities elsewhere inspires me in my work here.
This past summer I worked with the city of Highland Park, Michigan, an economically depressed city in the center of Detroit, to program a music festival. We connected with the University of Michigan’s school of Art and Design via Nick Tobier, who brought a mix of experimental presentations involving technology and design to the event. In the same way that my exposure to different ideas and concepts while traveling inspired me, I wanted to offer others different ways of thinking and viewing the world from within their own city. I also think Teach For America does a good job linking students to the larger world, albeit post graduation. I’ve also done some work with Indiana University and the Archive of African American Music there because I think they are also places where there is a direct link between higher education and the ‘realy world.’
Unfortunately, this exchange is not the norm. Many community project based courses amount to not much more than glorified safaris and detract from the work being done by the organizations they use to offset “suburban guilt” or some other misguided idea. What makes things worse is the outdated notion that higher education equals a good job and a lot of money. That standard model of education doesn’t do enough to prepare students for life and how to get more out of it, politically, socially, financially, and creatively. But more than that, it starts to feels like there’s a hustle going on.
This extends to alumni support of student recruitment. I was one of many who would contact prospective students and talk about some of the great things the university had to offer in hopes of having them choose the Univeristy of Michigan for their education. I gladly did this for about two years. But I began wondering about the effectiveness of the campaign, so I asked if I could find out how many students I contacted actually chose my alma mater. The response was that it was impossible to get that information. Of course, I could get access to the student directory and find out if those students were there or not. I was being told that this most basic piece of information was “impossible.”
The upshot of this was that we were volunteering for work that might be completely ineffective, and the response to queries was dismissal. So I stopped. How could I be expected to advocate for an organization that would refuse to give me feedback? Mixed in with my mail requesting me to continue my involvement in the recruitment program were requests for money. I have yet to pay back money owed for this education, I’m volunteering to bring in more students, AND Im being asked to pay to support my “cherished memories.”
Sadly, recruitment isn’t about encouraging young people to get a great education, but about getting more money from as many young people as possible. New dorms have been built to accommodate more students, yet are there that many more faculty being hired to educate them? Will any of these students be able to get jobs after graduation? Will any of them be able to pay back the thousands spent to have the golden opportunity of future debt? I walked away from the recruitment program with more appreciation for what I got out of my time at university and more disgust with the grindhouse nature of what most will experience. I believe that post K-12 education can serve to open one’ss mind to incredible possibilities and position you to be a leader. However it can also be an expensive lesson in gambling on your future.
As I stated earlier, I consider myself a global citizen, but also a U.S. citizen. A country is only as strong as its people. If the people are poor, ill, undereducated, then so is your country. I don’t want to be from a loser country. Yet, if the educational misfires and inequalities continue, that will be the result. Again, I’m not certain what will change this, but I’ve got some ideas; plenty, to be honest, but that conversation is for a longer essay.
But it is the very conversation that we need to be having as a nation.
By David Mathews, President of The Kettering Foundation
At signal points in their history, American colleges and universities have encountered an aroused polity — a citizenry that would rule itself. These encounters have given the institutions a political sense of mission. This happened around the time of the American Revolution. Colonial colleges taught piety and the classics until politically sensitive presidents like Ezra Stiles of Yale encouraged students to debate the issues of independence. It happened in Jefferson’s time, when state legislatures began to charter universities to prepare leaders for the new nation. It happened in the late nineteenth century, when land-grant institutions were created to serve America’s working citizens—its farmers and mechanics. The mandates for historically black institutions and community colleges emerged from similar encounters.
In higher education, significant changes have come from linkages with political and social movements outside the academy. As colleges and universities have responded to democracy’s claims, the institutions have enriched their missions. And they have been reminded that they are part of the greater causes of liberty and self-rule rather than just businesslike organizations to be judged only by their efficiency.
Are academic institutions today in touch with the citizenry that is angry about being shut out of the political system? Is there any connection between the quest for more “engaged” universities and the efforts at public engagement going on in government agencies, schools, and civic organizations? Maybe there should be.
David Mathews is President of the Kettering Foundation, a leading center for partnership partnerships which explore how democracy can work.
By Harry C. Boyte
Today is the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Proposed by
Congress on September 25, 1789, the Bill of Rights – otherwise known
as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution — went into effect
after its ratification by Virginia, on December 15, 1891.
The Bill emerged from a fierce debate between “Federalists” and
“Anti-Federalists” about whether to ratify the Constitution itself,
which the historian Pauline Meier described as a national “dialogue
between power and liberty.” The dialogue continues in today’s
tempestuous arguments about the role of government, the dangers of
centralized power — and how to develop the authority and capacities
of the citizenry.
Supporters of the Constitution like Benjamin Franklin argued that
while “there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not
approve,” its adoption was necessary if the nation were to survive. It
seemed unlikely that anyone would be “able to make a better
Constitution.” Opponents warned of the dangers of centralized power,
citing examples through history. Brutus (most likely Robert Yates)
cautioned of the tendencies of government to produce “an absolute
state of vassalage.”
The Bill of Rights broke the impasse. It embodied civic agency in
content and process.
In the first instance, the amendments not only limit the powers of
government, but also, positively, enumerate and protect methods
through which citizens express and develop their civic capacities —
freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of
association, and freedom of the press, among others. These freedoms
also allow powerless groups like African Americans, the poor, women
and others to challenge the severe exclusions built into original
understandings of “citizen.”
In the second, the debate itself, taking place in taverns, homes and
congregations, schools, colleges, local governments and local media,
created a wide experience of ownership in the fledgling nation.
Discussions gave substance to the Constitution’s Preamble, which had
declared that “we the people” establish government as the instrument
of common labors and common purposes.
In the Information Age, colleges, universities, schools and
educational groups of all kinds have crucial roles to play as civic
centers in the life of communities. They are schools for citizenship
through which people develop the knowledge, dispositions, skills and
habits necessary for a flourishing democratic society while tackling
real world problems and making a common life.
The American Commonwealth Partnership, like the debates which produced
the Bill of Rights, puts citizens on center stage. It aims to
strengthen the capacities of education to help create a democracy “of
the people and by the people,” not only “for” the people.
ACP continues the dialogue between power and liberty.
Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is director of the American Commonwealth Partnership.