A University’s Responsibility in a ‘Fragile’ Democracy

In 1966, 60 percent of all incoming college freshmen stated that it was “important” to keep up-to-date on current events. By the end of the 1990s, that number had dropped to about 25 percent.

“That is not great news for a democracy,” says Matt Hartley, an associate professor and chair of higher education at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

In a video outlining his thoughts on the issue of civic engagement and higher education, Hartley calls the democracy in the United States “fragile” since awareness depends on individuals. He says that it becomes incumbent upon anchor institutions such as universities to “figure out what are experiences that we can provide for students so they can, in a way that makes sense to them, engage in meaningful ways about dialogue, about important issues, about political events, and so forth.”

Hartley’s research examines the ways in which colleges and universities strive to meet their educational missions. He also studies the civic purposes of higher education. His written work includes the 2010 paper, “Reconcilable Differences: Factors Influencing Conflict and Collegiality in a Unionized Environment,” and “Reclaiming the Democratic Purpose of American Higher Education: Tracing the Trajectory of the Civic Engagement Movement,” published in 2009.

Hartley notes that addressing the most pressing problems of the day—poverty, homelessness, and difficulties in urban schooling—won’t be solved when universities work alone.

“Higher education is not going to solve those problems for other people,” he explains, “but they may be able to solve some of those problems alongside other people.”

Text by Heather A. Davis
Video by Penn GSE Video Lab