Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Kettering Foundation’s Deliberative Democracy Exchange and participated in the work session College Presidents and the Civic Purposes of Higher Education. What a great group of personable, thoughtful, engaging presidents, whose campuses reflected the diversity of American higher education. The two-day session challenged the presidents to reflect on revitalizing democratic narrative, expanding public understandings of democracy beyond elections, politicians, and formal government, and becoming deeply woven into the life of their communities and regions. More so, KF challenged us to restore the role of the president to one of public philosopher – such a vital role, missing from our national dialogue. Where are the college president pundits?
I understand why KF continues to bring the civic purpose of higher education topic to the forefront. I, too, think it is imperative that college and university presidents ensure their campus ecosystem challenges students to develop a deep sense of civic purpose. There’s no better place than on a college campus to instill in student development and learning the acquired knowledge and skills to be effective citizens and, ultimately, the protectors and leaders of democracy. More so, as anchor institutions in communities, higher education is perfectly positioned to build educational, economic, and civic partnerships. Imagine the positive influence on humanity if 21st century college students graduated with a heightened commitment to local, national, and global social justice.
While the presidents in the KF work session wished to restore civic purpose to their pulpit or the president to the civic pulpit, a reality emerged that speaking out on civic issues can be detrimental for some presidents, especially those at public institutions in conservative states. When did improving health and human welfare, ensuring community prosperity, and educating citizens on the value of deliberative democracy become partisan?
Nonetheless, it is unfortunate to think that a president’s job security might be threatened if he or she increased speaking publicly on civic issues. I’m hopeful a situation as such is an anomaly instead of a common fear of presidents. And I am driven by wishful thinking that we will see an uptick in presidents who are inspired by the KF challenge and, therefore, speak often on the civic purpose of higher education – like Rassoul Dastmozd, President of Saint Paul College, did recently in the Huffington Post, Civic Engagement and Our Responsibility in Higher Education – a public philosopher is born!