Previous column | September/October
Contents | Gazette Home
Civic Engagement in Higher Education
The role of the university defined. By Judith
campuses are among democracys most active laboratoriesplaces
where students test theories of governance, both personal and institutional,
and where they learn the joys of free expression, as well as the need
for careful thought. It is within the university community that students
first take on the mature responsibilities of civil discourse and citizenship.
Universities, hence, must
take seriously their role as models of community and civic engagement.
While they educate future doctors, lawyers, poets and physicists, they
also show their students how a society may function through the operation
of their campus rules, customs, modes of behavior and discourse.
Last month, in a speech
to a leadership colloquium for university presidents co-hosted by the
American Council on Education and Campus Compact, I defined three aspects
of civic engagement that I believe will be vital to higher education in
the century to come. I would like to share them with you.
The first is that of the university as a strong
and lively "discourse community" forged from the crucible of
intense engagement by its members over issues of personal and public moment.
As I see things, we can only create real, solid community by debatingeven
arguingwith each other over important matters, not by ignoring or
suppressing them, especially when we disagree. This principle applies
equally to life on campus and to a universitys relations with its
Led by this conviction, I convened the Penn
National Commission on Society, Culture, and Community in 1996a
group of 46 scholars, political leaders and shapers of public opinionto
consider ways to foster a more robust and reasoned public discourse.
The commissions work has called into question
assumptions that "civility" and "mutual respect" are
preconditions of productive, deliberative discourse on university campuses
or in any other setting. The commission has closely examined communities
that create dialogue, engagement and a sense of shared consequences across
serious group boundaries. They emerge less often from a controlled, "civil"
conversation and more often from the raw, ragged interactions required
when people are thrown together with some common task, "with work
to do together," to use historian Tom Benders phrase.
What are the common tasks in which university
communities must engage? We must form communities of conversation around
the most important and compelling issues of the day, whether those be
race, affirmative action, immigration and health care, or the stresses
and strains of town-gown relations and economic development.
In doing so, we will demonstrate our recognition
that we cannot legislate away bad behavior and incivility with codes,
policies and regulations, either on campus or in larger society. We will
offer our students valid experiences of active, engaged public discourse
and civic involvement that will serve them as life-long personal and societal
The second form of civic engagement that I identified
at the leadership colloquium is the commitment that universities, as citizens
themselves, must make to the quality of life in their neighboring communities.
In the cities and towns in which their campuses are located, universities
bear extensive civic duties, and the manner in which they perform those
duties is an example, once again, to their students and to other institutions.
The willing participation of universities and their neighbors in the conversations
of democracy which are rarely smooth and rarely easyis the
only way to gain the long-term benefits of mutual trust and understanding.
Several years of these conversations with our
West Philadelphia neighbors have helped Penn contribute in major ways
to the revitalization of University City. Rather than blunder ahead with
a "Penn knows best" attitude, we have listened to our neighbors,
considered alternatives and argued various points at length. The result
is a shared commitment to secure five broad goals, including: safe and
clean neighborhoods; excellent public schools; high-quality, affordable
housing; vibrant retail-shopping opportunities; economic development and
the creation of new jobs.
Much progress has been made on each of these
fronts, and the conversations continue all the while. I believe they must
never stop. Comprehensive and sustained community partnerships will help
define successful universities in the 21st century, and such partnerships
will fail in the absence of a continuous civic dialogue.
A third and final aspect of civic engagement
involves our students most directly and is grounded in our core academic
mission. As Penns founder, Benjamin Franklin, put it: "The
great Aim and End of all Learning" is service to society. Franklin
recognized that education and research cannot exist in a vacuum and that
a university must instill a thorough sense of this in its students.
Penn and other universities have found that
one of the best ways to do this is to develop academic "service-learning"
courses that find synergy in the combination of scholarship and service.
Penn currently has more than 100 such courses that feature a direct and
conscious link between public service activities and the academic core
of the University.
This year, for example, Penn undergraduates
in Anthropology 210 learned about anthropology and biomedical science
while, in a service-learning component of the course, they helped local
middle-school students, teachers and parents learn more about healthy
eating through the development of a for-profit food stand, building a
body of practical knowledge for social-service agencies, school districts,
hospitals and others to draw upon.
This and other service-learning courses that
have evolved at Penn are some of the choicest fruits of the discourse
community on our campusa community in which students and faculty
feel free to express social consciousness, political objections, academic
aspirations and practical consequences. Ideas for service-learning courses
have emerged from this campus community, and they have succeeded and will
continue to grow through still more discourse with neighbors in University
Free and robust discourseand a culture
of civic engagementwill be hallmarks of great universities in the
21st century. I look forward to their continuous, active presence at Penn.
Previous column | September/October
Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 8/23/99