Colleges take stock

This summer, Penn played host to the Campus Compact Presidents’ Leadership Colloquium, where higher education administrators discussed making their institutions “vital agents and architects of a flourishing democracy.”

At the Inn at Penn on June 26 and 27, top brass from over 60 colleges and universities traded ideas for making service learning more effective, getting students active in politics, and bridging gaps between universities and the communities around them. Self-congratulations were in full swing as administrators detailed their community development and service projects. Penn received particular kudos for initiatives in West Philly from UC Brite to the upcoming Penn-assisted public school.

But some attendees wanted to push the envelope a little further.

For example, during a panel about getting students involved in politics, several administrators lamented the cynicism of youth and fretted about how to reinspire students’ faith in the political system. Only John Bonifaz, executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute, offered an opposing view. Pointing to the “wealth primaries” and the inordinate role of money in politics, Bonifaz suggested that the political system needs to change in order to deserve students’ confidence and enthusiasm. “The right to vote doesn’t just start on election day,” he said. “As citizens, we need to make sure we have meaningful options at the ballot box.”

More debates came up at the colloquium’s final lunch, during a talk by Stephen P. Steinberg, executive director of the Penn Public Talk Project. Steinberg cited findings by the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community suggesting that universities, libraries, museums and foundations have replaced political parties, churches and labor unions as key centers of civic conversation.

Professor Ken Reardon of Cornell and the University of Illinois challenged Steinberg, pointing out that most commission members hailed from the institutions they named as new centers of discourse. Meanwhile, community-based voices, historically missing from both public conversations and the institutions named, had been left out of the commission as well.

President Judith Rodin defused the situation. “This effort has been, to this point, academic,” she admitted. “Our next step in this process is to learn from grassroots success stories.”


Originally published on August 31, 2000