CCP spreads gospel of civic engagement

Ira Harkavy began by acting locally, but now he’s thinking globally. Penn’s director of the Center for Community Partnerships (CCP) has embarked on a hugely ambitious project that aims to do nothing less than give universities primary responsibility for civic education. Not coincidently, it spreads the Penn gospel of community engagement and community service to a worldwide audience.

Harkavy has helped create the International Consortium on Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy to explore the actual activities of institutions of higher education that support democratic values and practices, assess their capabilities and examine how the use of university resources can improve the contributions of higher education to democracy on campus, in the local community and in the wider society.

The Consortium’s first proposal is called “The Universities as Sites of Citizenship and Civic Responsibility Project.” Its sponsors include the 45- member Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization at the ministerial level dedicated to the promotion of democratic values, and the U.S. National Science Foundation. The leadership of Harkavy, Emeritus Professor of History Lee Benson, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology Frank Johnson and Political Science Professor Henry Teune has placed Penn at the center of this innovative global initiative.

In recent years, social scientists have been monitoring a steep decline in political participation by the young. Research has also shown that the college years have become the critical period when young people’s attitudes and opinions about civic engagement are formed.

With the expansion of higher education opportunities in most countries, students and faculty in universities have become more diverse. In Harkavy’s view, education for democratic citizenship can no longer be left to chance.

“ Universities are the strategic institutions for the development of democratic participation,” says Harkavy. “They are a source of knowledge about how democratic institutions can be constructed and they are the incubators of global citizens and leaders.”

A pilot project completed in 2000, included participation from institutions in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Korea and South Africa.

The first phase of the expanded program will map what universities around the world are doing in civic education for students, community and society at large. Benson sees this as a revolutionary new approach to social science research. “The great advantage is that the work will be done on a collaborative basis,” explains Benson. “Developing a questionnaire on democracy [we can] say, ‘How would you change this for your country…or change it generally?’ Rather than have Americans parachute in, bringing their own cultural biases with them.”

This fall, students at Penn, under the guidance of Harkavy and other members of the faculty will begin to fill in the blanks on the U.S. portion of that map.

Another goal is to promulgate “best practices.” Harkavy looks forward to the day when CCP’s signature programs—the Urban Nutrition Initiative and university-assisted schools—are replicated around the world.

“The outcome of this isn’t just the issue of global [civic] engagement and research,” he said, “it is the development of policy. It isn’t just studying, but studying in order to make it better. We really see this as having impacts on the policy level from the individual university to universities in their communities to higher education in society and finally to having a global impact on higher education.”

Originally published on September 4, 2003