Campus Organizing to Reclaim Higher Education’s Civic Purpose

By Kevin Bott, Associate Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life at Syracuse University

The large-scale, collaborative effort of the American Commonwealth Partnership turns my thinking to the organizing that’s required to foster a “movement” to reclaim higher education’s civic purposes. Last September, participants at Imagining America’s national conference in the Twin Cities were asked to consider their own role within higher education’s civic engagement movement. But while some considered, others questioned: Is this really a movement? Is there anyone besides the people at this conference who think of what we’re doing as a movement, or is it more likely people think of this as a passing fad?

At Imagining America, our response is of course, “yes, it is a movement!” Granted, within the great landscape of higher education, it’s a relatively small one. And although the idea of education serving an important function in a healthy democracy has been part of American rhetoric since colonial days, what many now think of as a “movement” to reclaim the civic and democratic purposes of higher education is also relatively young. Depending on which lineage one traces, we can find advances and new forms of an “engaged” scholarship springing up in the United States for at least 150 years: with the passing of the Morrill Acts in 1862 and 1890; during the 1960s, a period that saw the expansion of both whom entered the university, and who and what was studied in it; and from the 1980s through the present, when in addition to Imagining America organizations like the AAC&U, AASCU, America Democracy Project, Campus Compact, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, Project Pericles, and the Bonner Foundation continue to push for richer, more critical, and more ethical praxes to address real-world issues.

(It is also worth noting that many Imagining America consortium members identify with artistic, cultural, and humanistic movements to expand democratic engagement that are wholly separate from higher education. Much of our focus for the past several years has sought to bring those many strands of knowledge together – but that’s a topic for another blog!)

So this movement is afoot – of indeterminate size and maturity – and it aims to transform colleges and universities in such a way that it expands our notions of higher education’s role in democratic society. It is a collaborative movement that includes many other prominent national higher education, policy, government, community-based, and funding agencies.

Yet, no movement can reach its potential without an organizing strategy to connect a large and overarching vision and values to the day-to-day concerns of the movement’s stakeholders (us). With that in mind, here are some questions exploring what it means to organize within this movement:

  • How can organizing help leverage the local knowledge that’s generated in campus-community partnerships to address real-world issues so it can serve to advance a broad, national, and perhaps international agenda?
  • Does organizing suggest the development of one or more campaigns around particular issues so that we are not organizing for something so broad (“the transformation of higher education” or “civic engagement”) that our efforts gain no traction by dint of being disconnected from specific, concrete concerns?
  • How can we organize around particular issues in a way that is resonant with all the movement’s stakeholders?
  • How can we forge greater alliances with other higher education and community-based organizations who share similar values?
  • Are there allies to the movement that we are inadvertently overlooking? And how can we listen to the perspectives of those who might oppose our aims?

It seems this blog is an apt forum for thinking through the questions about campus organizing in the context of the many different types of higher education institutions that often have very different aims. I’m looking forward to the ongoing discourse!

Kevin Bott is associate director of Syracuse University-based Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, the national consortium of 90 colleges and universities dedicated to advancing the public and civic purposes of humanities, arts, and design. Bott holds a PhD in educational theater from New York University, and has led numerous community-based and applied theater projects in the U.S. and abroad. He currently directs The D.R.E.A.(M.)3 Freedom Revival, a campus-community performance project designed to encourage active democratic participation in Syracuse and Greater Central New York.