Diversity and Democracy

Civic Leadership for Societal Prosperity: A Commitment across Domains

Who will lead America into a bright future? Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare the next generation to be these future leaders.

—Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (2013)

A new story line is emerging in the national debate about the future of higher education, framed beautifully in the latest report issued by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. In The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation (2013), the commission identifies several critical goals for higher education—including that of “educat[ing] Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy” (6). The challenge is keeping this goal at the forefront of America’s colleges and universities as the nation slowly emerges from the “Great Recession.” To reinforce and strengthen this goal as a priority will require a heightened level of collaboration between the two most dominant campus organizational units: student and academic affairs.

At this moment of economic turmoil, the very value of a college education is in question. The public policy debate has become about return on investment, with a singular but limiting focus on employability as a key measure of higher education’s success. This focus is understandable, given the rising cost of college, the exploding percentage of students who are first generation, and the stagnation of middle-class incomes. Nonetheless, when considering “return on investment,” it is worth asking: in what are we investing, and for what expected return?

Most educators understand that a degree should significantly expand graduates’ vocational options and provide living wages. However, as suggested by reports like The Heart of the Matter and the National Task Force for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement’s A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (2012), the nation’s economic well-being is linked to its civic well-being. Therefore, it is critically important that colleges and universities braid together the twin goals of preparation for work and for civic responsibility as they invest in preparing students to graduate with the twenty-first-century skills necessary to thrive in and shape a rapidly changing, complex global workplace. These graduates likewise should be willing and able to invest their skills in work that not only provides wages, but also contributes to the civic health of their communities, both locally and globally.

Promisingly, current economic pressures have combined with other factors to yield critical opportunities alongside significant challenges. David Scobey, executive dean of the New School, has described the contemporary context as “a Copernican moment” of reinvention and realignment, representing a chance to reimagine an exhausted model and rethink higher education for civic leadership and responsibility (2012). Strengthening this priority cannot be accomplished through disparate efforts scattered across institutions. Instead, it will depend on deliberate, strategic cooperation between student and academic affairs.

Civic and Economic Returns

The arguments for such collaborations are now coming not just from within higher education itself, but also from employers, who are defining the capabilities they are seeking in the people they hire. There is remarkable unanimity from colleges, parents, employers, and the general public about the learning outcomes that college graduates need, including skills and competencies in critical thinking, problem solving, ethical decision making, and intercultural communication. These skills and competencies align perfectly with outcomes associated with civic learning and engagement. Moreover, employers assign them particular value, as demonstrated by two recent reports.

For its 2012 Global CEO Study, IBM surveyed 1,700 CEOs from sixty-four different countries. Many of these CEOs reported the need for employees who can create more open and collaborative cultures and who can connect with and learn from each other and thrive in a world of rapid change. In the same study, 65 percent of CEOs reported that “ethics and values” were important to the success of their organizations, and 63 percent said that they wanted to encourage a “collaborative environment” in the workplace (IBM 2012, 7). These data are consistent with the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U’s) recent report It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Hart Research Associates 2013). In response to a survey conducted on behalf of AAC&U, 93 percent of employers said that critical thinking, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems were more important than an undergraduate’s major (1). A similar share of employers said they seek to hire college graduates who demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity (96 percent), intercultural skills (96 percent), and the capacity for continued new learning (94 percent) (6).

With such widespread agreement, the question is “How will we achieve this?” Part of the answer rests in what employers report they want from their employees: the ability to work in diverse, open, and collaborative cultures. The higher education workplace itself needs to model such cultures for students, beginning with vibrant partnerships across student and academic affairs.

Evidence that Both Domains Matter

Recent research offers new evidence about how critical cooperative designs of students’ educational environments really are. In a major national study, Sylvia Hurtado and Linda DeAngelo identified educational programs and practices that lead to students’ self-reported growth in both civic awareness and complex thinking skills needed for a diverse democracy. They found that the practices that make a difference are tethered not to in-class or out-of-class educational experiences, but to both.

Among educational practices in the first year of college, for example, experiences typically oriented in academic affairs had the highest possible level of significance for student learning. These experiences include those that foster strong student–faculty interaction, require working frequently on a professor’s research project, and involve community service done frequently as part of a class. But three informal educational experiences that are typically the responsibility of student affairs also had the highest possible level of significance: frequent “meaningful and honest discussions about race/ethnic relations with students of different race/ethnicity outside of the classroom”; frequent “discuss[ions of] course content with students outside of the classroom”; and frequent “intellectual discussions with students of different race/ethnicity outside of the classroom.” As Hurtado and DeAngelo underscore, “Results show that the peer environment is a powerful, yet underutilized, tool for learning in college” (2012, 17).

Hurtado and DeAngelo also investigated first-year students’ development of a pluralistic orientation. Such an orientation involves skills like “the ability to work cooperatively with diverse people, discuss and negotiate controversial issues, and engage in perspective taking, as well as traits … that include tolerance of different beliefs and openness to having one’s own view challenged” (2012, 19). Here, too, educators from both domains oversee the activities found to have the highest significance level in relation to students’ learning, including positive cross-racial interactions; exposure to diverse opinions, cultures, and values; and performing volunteer work frequently.

Finally, the authors looked at curricular and cocurricular activities that are especially significant in fostering civic awareness and skills needed for a diverse democracy. Academic affairs oversees some of these, such as ethnic studies courses and women’s studies courses. Student affairs oversees other activities that matter, including volunteer work performed frequently, voting in student elections (when done frequently), and attending a racial/cultural awareness workshop. And some activities that matter are commonly the province of both domains, including study abroad and service performed frequently as part of a class.

This research provides overwhelming evidence of the power of practices that are layered and experienced frequently. Other influential factors are timing, intentionality, and integration. All this suggests how much more effective the learning environment is when students have a range of practice arenas—in class and out, on campus and beyond—where they can engage in effective experiences frequently over time. Robust partnerships between student and academic affairs are critical to creating such environments.

NASPA and AAC&U: Laying the Groundwork for Collaboration

As a rule, such robust partnerships have a mixed history as guiding frameworks for student and academic affairs. But that has begun to change. This issue of Diversity & Democracy is itself a manifestation of partnership between NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and AAC&U. Our associations and their members are bridging traditional organizational boundaries for the purposes of making civic learning a part of every student’s education.

The partnership between our associations has deep roots in longstanding (but too often ad hoc) partnerships among our members. Colleges and universities could not have become more inclusive multicultural spaces in the 1990s without careful collaboration across student and academic affairs domains—progress that has stalled where these partnerships have been limited. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the need for strategic institutional plans entwined across both domains became clearer. In Greater Expectations, AAC&U outlined recommendations about shared institutional goals that would require unified efforts from both student and academic affairs (Greater Expectations National Panel 2002). Within that same period, NASPA and the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) released their pathbreaking report Learning Reconsidered (ACPA and NASPA 2004), underscoring that student affairs was focusing on a learning paradigm that opened up more spaces for collaboration in fostering specific student learning outcomes.

In the past five years, the focus of our collaboration has sharpened and evolved. In College Learning for the New Global Century (National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise 2007), AAC&U identified education for personal and social responsibility as one of four areas of Essential Learning Outcomes for the twenty-first century. Efforts to strengthen students’ achievement of this outcome offer strong evidence of the power of open and collaborative cultures. For example, in AAC&U’s initiative Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility, participating institutions built leadership teams headed by senior leaders in both student and academic affairs, with team representatives drawn evenly from both domains. NASPA’s Task Force on Personal and Social Responsibility likewise led to continued cooperation across our two organizations.

When AAC&U and the Global Perspective Institute, Inc. organized national roundtables of higher education leaders and stakeholders to inform A Crucible Moment, NASPA was again part of the conversation. Following the report’s publication, AAC&U and NASPA joined with eleven other national organizations in the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Action Network, convened by AAC&U to advance the report’s recommendations. To this end, NASPA developed the Lead Initiative, a national network of institutions recognized for their commitment to making civic learning and democratic engagement strategic components of the work of student affairs. NASPA also hosted its first Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Conference in June 2013 in Philadelphia, with two hundred and fifty student affairs educators, faculty, and students in attendance.

Leadership that Matters

To truly make civic learning and democratic engagement a part of every college student’s educational experience, leaders in both domains will need to commit to institutionalizing these goals. In an effort to increase civic programming, many institutional leaders have undertaken a wide array of strategies to educate students for citizenship, including service learning, community service, leadership programs, and experiential learning (Colby et al. 2003; Pew Partnership for Civic Change 2004). Others have implemented vibrant diversity initiatives in the curriculum and cocurriculum and initiated global learning opportunities that accentuate responsible global citizenship. Yet, most of these efforts operate in isolation from one another, and few campuses actively seek to integrate them under a comprehensive framework of civic engagement that promotes citizenship development (Saltmarsh and Hartley 2011). As a result, very few campuses can boast of a pervasive environment and culture for civic engagement.

Indeed, on too many campuses, civic engagement opportunities are voluntary, poorly designated in the course catalog, random, and limited to only a few students. In A Crucible Moment, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement explains that “While the civic reform movement in higher education has affected almost all campuses, its influence is partial rather than pervasive. Civic learning and democratic engagement remain optional rather than expected for almost all students” (2012, 8). With leadership from student and academic affairs influencing others in the institution to collaborate toward shared goals, this educational environment could change radically.

Educating students for democratic participation requires structural and cultural elements that produce deep commitment across the institution (see figure 1). Leaders across many levels in student and academic affairs have important roles to play in creating a pervasive culture that supports commitments to civic learning and democratic engagement, throughout the institution’s practice and programming. These leaders can create a sense of legitimacy for this work by articulating the connections between civic engagement and institutional mission—for example, by using clear, consistent, mission-driven language to ground civic engagement in the core purposes of the university.

In addition to cultural support, leaders across divisions can help build the specific organizational structures required for institutionalization (Holland 1997). These structures might include highly visible, well-funded civic engagement centers, preferably drawing expertise and personnel from both academic and student affairs. They might also include tenure and promotion policies that recognize faculty investment in civic engagement and public scholarship. Structural elements like these are concrete manifestations of a culture dedicated to civic engagement.

The Heart of the Matter

As the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences declared, educating students so they can contribute to the economic prosperity of their nation while also expanding their capacities to become socially responsible citizens is at “the heart of” higher education’s work. Just as economic capital should be inextricably linked to civic capital in vibrant and justice-seeking democracies, so should student affairs and academic affairs be intertwined in civically engaging educational environments. Together, these divisions can collaborate to prepare students for work, life, and democratic engagement. Then perhaps higher education can play its appropriate role in preparing leaders who will guide America to a bright future.

Figure 1. Structural and Cultural Supports that Advance Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE)

Structural Supports

Cultural Supports

Links between goals related to global citizenship and education for a diverse democracy and strategic planning processes, the curriculum, capital campaigns, alumni relations, resident life, and student leadership programs

Articulation of common commitments and complementary themes between global, diversity, and civic learning

CLDE workshops, trainings, and professional development opportunities for faculty and staff

Symbolic policy changes (e.g., instituting an annual day of service, allocating staff time for community engagement)

Tenure and promotion guidelines that include civic and community-based work

Encouragement and recognition for those engaged in making civic learning pervasive

Strong relationships developed through mutually beneficial community partnerships at the local, national, and global levels

Resources of time, outside expertise, and financial support allocated to those who want to become more involved

Centers for civic engagement and other infrastructures that nourish civic investments

References to civic engagement in speeches made by senior-level administrators

This figure was inspired by the work of Hartley, Harkavy, and Benson (2005, 219), who offer “structural and ideological elements” that are necessary to institutionalize service learning in colleges and universities.


ACPA and NASPA. 2004. Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience. Washington, DC: ACPA and NASPA.

Colby, Anne, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens. 2003. Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. 2013. The Heart of the Matter. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Greater Expectations National Panel. 2002. Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hart Research Associates. 2013. It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.

Hartley, Matthew, Ira Harkavy, and Lee Benson. 2005. “Putting Down Roots in the Groves of Academe: The Challenges of Institutionalizing Service-Learning.” In Service-Learning in Higher Education: Critical Issues and Directions, edited by Dan W. Butin, 205–22. New York: Palgrave, MacMillan.

Holland, Barbara. 1997. “Analyzing Institutional Commitment to Service: A Model of Key Organizational Factors.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 4 (1): 30–41.

Hurtado, Sylvia, and Linda DeAngelo. 2012. “Linking Diversity and Civic-Minded Practices with Student Outcomes: New Evidence from National Surveys.” Liberal Education 98 (2): 14–23.

IBM. 2012. Leading Through Connections: Highlights of the Global Chief Executive Officer Study. Somers, NY: IBM Global Business Services. http://www.ibm.com/common/ssi/cgi-bin/ssialias?subtype=XB&infotype=PM&ap...

National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. 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.

Pew Partnership for Civic Change. 2004. New Directions for Civic Engagement: University Avenue Meets Main Street.

Saltmarsh, John, and Matthew Hartley, eds. 2011. “To Serve a Larger Purpose”: Engagement for Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scobey, David. 2012. “Why Now? Because This is a Copernican Moment.” In Civic Provocations, edited by Donald W. Harward, 3–6. Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice.


Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Laura E. Sponsler is content director for civic learning and democratic engagement at NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Caryn McTighe Musil is senior scholar and director of civic learning and democracy initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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