Diversity and Democracy

Supporting and Sustaining Cross-Divisional Civic Collaborations

We all know it when we see a transformative education unfolding—an integrative, multifaceted learning experience that takes the seed of a student’s early inspiration and nurtures it so it grows incrementally into accomplishments and opportunities beyond what seemed possible. When this type of exceptional experience not only changes an individual’s life but also inspires action toward the broader social good, one of the fundamental and enduring ideals of American higher education comes to life: that of instilling the values of service to community and democratic participation. But how often does this type of educational experience occur by design? To what extent do campus environments ensure that all students, not just those who are the most entrepreneurial or the most privileged in their precollege preparations, experience this level of personal and civic engagement? How often do colleges and universities structure professional roles—in both academic and student affairs—to make the confluence of personal development and civic engagement the prevailing norm, not the exception?

At Oregon State University (OSU), questions like these have prompted us to coordinate our work in support of civic learning across student and academic affairs. In these efforts, we have drawn inspiration from the ongoing national conversation on civic learning and democratic engagement, embracing the definition recently offered by Martha Kanter and Carol Geary Schneider: “By ‘civic learning and engagement’ we mean educational experiences that prepare students for democracy by developing their civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions through learning and practice. In the 21st century, civic learning needs to address both US and global developments related to democratic principles and freedoms, as well as global movements for greater self-determination” (2012, 8). To this definition, we have adjoined particular emphases on (1) fostering students’ deep understanding of the relationship between personal values and social and community well-being; and (2) translating this understanding into lasting participation and engagement in communities, in democratic processes, and in global justice.

Our cross-divisional work in these areas draws on the understanding that while college campuses are a part of “the real world,” they also can serve as microcosms and models of “how communities comprised of cultural, economic, religious, racial, political and other forms of diversity can function in a healthy and productive way in spite of differences …. and how to connect our democratic principles to our day-to-day relationships” (Roper 2012, 1–2). Civic learning in college should involve not only knowledge (of history, world cultures, and democratic values) and skills (such as critical thinking and communication), but also civic habits of mind: deeply internalized practices and beliefs that guide a person’s values-based approach to building community, managing disagreements, developing relationships, and facilitating understanding across differences. Establishing civic habits of mind for all students should be a central aim of partnerships between academic and student affairs educators. Oregon State University is remapping organizational boundaries, instituting shared ownership, and convening conversations among colleagues to make this aspiration a reality.

Remapping Organizational Boundaries

How an institution positions the roles of academic faculty and student affairs professionals, both organizationally and in relation to governance structures, determines how the educators in these roles align their actions and priorities, how they view the scope of their influence, and how they define their professional identities. Organizational positioning also affects the range of people with whom individual educators interact, share ideas, and find inspiration. Yet across higher education, it is not uncommon to hear student affairs and other support professionals speak critically of campus organizational hierarchies in which they feel like second-class citizens. The practice of excluding these professionals from planning and decision making undermines the institution’s overall ability to provide integrative, pervasive, multifaceted educational experiences that produce high levels of student achievement. It also undermines the institution’s ability to construct a “civic ethos governing campus life,” identified in the 2012 report A Crucible Moment as a core quality of a civic-minded campus that guarantees “the infusion of democratic values into the customs and habits of everyday practices, structures, and interactions” (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 15).

With the need to remap organizational boundaries in mind, OSU has opted to define support staff roles in ways that create an inclusive community that values the diverse contributions of its members. Following traditional practices for tenure-line faculty nomenclature, OSU designates nonclassified (non-union-represented) staff in student affairs and academic affairs support units (e.g. academic advisors, learning specialists, support program administrators, and assessment coordinators) as “professional faculty.” Professional faculty serve on OSU’s Faculty Senate with the same voting rights as tenured and tenure-line academic faculty, bringing their expertise in student development and experiences to bear on each question of educational policy and programming the senate addresses. Professional faculty also sit on all senate committees, where they engage in frequent conversation with academic faculty. These formal cross-campus collaborations have given rise to many innovations, including new advising and curricular exploration tools, a campus-wide service-learning and community engagement initiative, and expanded professional development opportunities focused on serving OSU’s international students.

OSU has also sought to redefine organizational and relational boundaries to foster shared ownership of student learning. Recognizing that new student orientation should address the total student experience (not just student life or academic expectations), OSU’s strategic planning committee and provost recommended creating a joint report across student and academic affairs for the Office of New Student Programs and Family Outreach. The joint report has catalyzed expansion of the university’s fall orientation program, which now features a dedicated day of academic success orientation and a new residential peer-mentoring program focused on facilitating campus and community collaborations. More broadly, the report has enabled professional and academic faculty to collaborate in substantially redesigning and revitalizing the university’s central first-year experience course, which now includes experiential and service-learning components interwoven with improved identity and community development activities.

OSU has also found ways to create regular opportunities for knowledge sharing between student and academic affairs professionals. For example, OSU’s Council on Academic Counseling, which meets once each academic quarter, convenes some fifteen student and academic affairs professionals who work with traditionally underrepresented or at-risk populations to share approaches to student mentoring and support. The council has developed best practices for aiding student identity development that include engaging students in high-impact practices and providing holistic support when challenges arise. Drawing inspiration from publications like High-Impact Educational Practices (Kuh 2008) and A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012), the council also works to foster academic and civic engagement for students who may enter college without the advantages often available to students of privileged backgrounds.

Sharing Responsibility for Civic Learning

By virtue of their participation in the educational planning discussions described above, OSU’s professional faculty are well-informed about essential institutional learning goals and empowered to reflect and reinforce these goals through cocurricular programs and services. Indeed, the faculty senate opted to formally charge both student and academic affairs faculty with the responsibility for student learning when it adopted OSU’s Learning Goals for Graduates (LGGs), a local version of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Essential Learning Outcomes, in 2010. The legislation mandates that the LGGs “encompass all components of the undergraduate experience, including the major and the Baccalaureate Core, as well as co-curricular, residential, and social experiences” (Oregon State University 2010). Four LGGs align particularly well with the support units’ missions and expertise as they relate to civic learning: Social Responsibility and Sustainability, Pluralism and Cultural Legacies, Collaboration and Self-Awareness, and Lifelong Learning.

Reflecting their shared commitment to supporting professional faculty as they advance these LGGs, the student affairs and academic affairs divisions decided to create a new cross-divisional position funded by student affairs and housed within academic affairs’ Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The assistant director for cocurricular learning develops and implements workshops and consulting services that support both professional and academic faculty as they design new cocurricular pedagogies. In February 2012, the assistant director for cocurricular learning launched Professional Faculty Learning Communities focused on a variety of topics, including pedagogy in the cocurriculum, learning assessment methods, and professional development for graduate students serving in paraprofessional staff roles.

The divisions of academic and student affairs have also worked to build intentional, cross-divisional connections focused on civic learning. When in spring 2011 the Division of Student Affairs created new professional faculty and graduate student positions focused on community partner relations and cocurricular community engagement opportunities within its Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), the Division of Academic Affairs in early 2012 likewise created the position of service-learning faculty development coordinator within the CTL to lead professional learning communities focused on service-learning course development. With these positions, CTL provides expertise in service-learning philosophy, course design, pedagogy, and assessment, while CCE contributes expertise, informed by student development theory, on community relations and the logistics of planning and implementing out-of-classroom community programming. To date, CTL and CCE have provided critical, collaborative support to twelve instructors who have developed new service-learning courses.

Convening Colleagues for Conversation

Together, OSU’s student and academic affairs divisions are collaborating to convene educators for conversations across organizational divisions and roles. These conversations can inspire new thinking and ensure the positive relationships that are often the foundation of innovative programs. In partnership with the Division of International Programs, the academic and student affairs divisions have assembled panels of students, faculty, and support professionals to discuss their collective responsibility for ensuring positive learning experiences for all students. These divisions have invited national mental health experts to meet with students, faculty, and staff about how service to a common good can be a means of promoting personal flourishing (Keyes 2002).

In January 2013, the CTL hosted a campus-wide Teaching and Learning Symposium featuring a lunchtime panel and discussion titled “The Pedagogy of Hope.” Moderated by the CTL’s service-learning faculty development coordinator, the panel included two professional faculty members from student support units, a humanities professor, and an instructor in the K–12 teacher preparation program. Describing the challenges of working with students who experience feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in response to knowledge gained in their undergraduate courses (for example, about global warming) as well as those who are troubled by the shortcomings of their prior academic preparation, panelists underscored the need for faculty (both professional and professorial) to teach the whole person rather than simply the mind. Invoking the moral obligation to teach students how to translate sorrow into action and agency, these speakers encouraged attendees to bring students’ worlds and their concerns into the classroom and to guide students’ development as citizens and change agents. The rich discussion galvanized some forty participants around OSU’s core commitment to engaging in social change for the common good.

Advancing Common Goals

The frequency with which OSU convenes colleagues to construct and advance common learning goals is central to the institution’s success in promoting civic learning. The university’s durable relationship network allows leaders from student and academic affairs to constantly scan the campus landscape for opportunities to enhance each other’s work and achieve greater integration. Such an approach requires trust, openness, mutual respect, and willingness to invest in each other, but it is essential to aligning the institution’s values and efforts across divisions. The university and its civic commitments are best served when perceived boundaries give way to collaboration and shared ownership for student success.


Kanter, Martha J., and Carol Geary Schneider. 2013. “Civic Learning and Engagement.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 45 (1): 6–14.

Keyes, Corey L. M. 2002. “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43 (2): 207–222.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Oregon State University Faculty Senate. 2010. “Vitalization of General Education at Oregon State University.” http://oregonstate.edu/senate/committees/other/bcr/reports/ vitalizationofGeneralEducationatOregon StateUniversityMembers.pdf.

Roper, Larry D. 2012. “Modeling Community to Heal an Injured World.” Journal of College and Character 13 (2): 1–3. http://journals.naspa.org/jcc/.

Susie Brubaker-Cole is associate provost for academic success and engagement at Oregon State University. Larry D. Roper is vice provost for student affairs at Oregon State University.

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