Diversity and Democracy

Weaving Civic Learning into the Institutional Fabric

In 2012, at the invitation of the US Department of Education and after a year of national dialogue, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement published A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a “national call to action” with recommendations to strengthen and renew civic learning and democratic engagement as essential parts of the college experience (vii). This seminal work has bold and immediate implications for higher education. Its authors urge institutions to “embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority” and argue that colleges and universities are “among the nation’s most valuable laboratories” for this work (2).

The call to action resonated at Wake Forest University, where civic engagement is central to institutional mission and values. Located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest is a “collegiate university” that combines a liberal arts core with graduate and professional schools and innovative research programs. In 2012–13, we enrolled 4,815 undergraduate students, 22.9 percent of whom were students of color. The university motto, pro humanitate, emphasizes an ethic of service to others and commitment to work for the common good. Through university learning outcomes and goals, we affirm that, as Lee Knefelkamp argues, “the development of an ethical civic identity should be one of the outcomes of a liberal education” (2008, 2).

An Institutional Priority

In 2012, NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education invited Wake Forest to participate in its Lead Initiative on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE), launched in response to A Crucible Moment. As a Lead institution, Wake Forest committed to making civic engagement “central rather than marginal, institutionalized rather than fragmented” (Jacoby 2009, 227) by

  • “building clear and tangible civic learning and democratic engagement activities into student affairs division strategic goals and learning outcomes;”
  • “collecting and reporting data on the efficacy of campus efforts using tools that measure gains in civic learning and democratic engagement;” and
  • “creating strategies in collaboration with students that increase civic learning and help solve community problems through collective action.” (NASPA n.d.)

To this end, Wake Forest formed a university-wide task force to coordinate efforts and develop new initiatives for CLDE on campus. The task force, which includes academic faculty, student life professionals, students, and administrators, has facilitated seamless partnerships and collaborative thinking. As the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement notes, “Reordering current educational priorities and building new levels of civic knowledge and engagement will require unprecedented, widely coordinated, and collective commitments to action” (2012, 29).

Using the Civic Institutional Matrix included in A Crucible Moment, Wake Forest’s task force identified areas of strength and weakness both in the academic curriculum and in cocurricular activities. (Editor’s note: See Resources for Campus Planning in this issue for more information about the matrix.) In this way, task force members tied CLDE work to institutional mission and identity across the four dimensions of “a civic-minded institution”: civic ethos, civic literacy, civic inquiry, and civic action (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 15). By identifying and publicizing areas of strength and working collaboratively to address areas of need, the task force used this common framework to create a roadmap for advancing CLDE goals across the institution.

Deliberative Dialogue

Wake Forest’s robust civic ethos is an area of institutional strength. One program supporting this ethos is deliberative dialogue, which has become a model for engaging in discussion about complex issues at the university. Each dialogue involves a diverse group of faculty, staff, and students who participate in moderated discussion after reading an issue guide that outlines the topic and options for action. Recent topics have included imagining a different campus culture and creating a more inclusive campus.

Faculty members Katy Harriger and Jill McMillan developed Wake Forest’s method of teaching deliberation, which prepares students to engage productively with their peers by practicing the critical thinking skills they need to view a complex issue from multiple perspectives. The technique helps students develop the “civic knowledge, skills, and experiences needed for citizenship” (Harriger and McMillan 2007, 25). Wake Forest’s task force has celebrated this work and highlighted deliberative dialogue as a key tool for democratic engagement.

ACC Lobbying

On completing the Civic Institutional Matrix, the task force found that the university needed to provide cocurricular programs to teach civic literacy. Task force participants saw, as noted in A Crucible Moment, that many students lack basic knowledge of the political process, and that Wake Forest has a key role to play in educating them for citizenship (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012). To help address this gap, in March 2012, Wake Forest joined other institutions in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) for an inaugural ACC Lobbying Trip to Washington, DC.

Students who participated in the trip learned about the lobbying process, researched topics and prepared briefs, and met with their elected leaders to discuss federal funding for financial aid and research. While limited to a select group of students across the ACC, the experience provided a platform for civic education. As student participant Christopher Iskander said afterward, “It was a privilege to see firsthand how Congress works. While it was frustrating at times, I walked away with a better understanding of the political process.”

Social Action Collaborative

At Wake Forest, opportunities for civic inquiry and civic action include elements of social justice education, community engagement, and advocacy. In designing such opportunities, it is imperative that practitioners craft experiences that direct attention to the systemic or institutional causes of social problems so “the inequalities that create and sustain” these problems “are dismantled” (Mitchell 2008, 50). When done well, these opportunities can help students develop critical thinking skills and begin to challenge their own beliefs, values, assumptions, and perspectives.

One such example is the Social Action Collaborative, which provides a forum for students to grapple with the root causes of social challenges in the Winston-Salem community by reading common texts and meeting with local experts. An essential component of the collaborative is the shared partnership between university and community. Student affairs professionals cofacilitate the program with local leaders, agency staff, community organizers, business owners, and members of action coalitions. Hearing these participants’ voices helps students begin to see the interconnectedness of local issues and their solutions.


For maximum impact, CLDE work must be “woven into the fabric” of campus life (Jacoby 2009, 228). By assessing current efforts and identifying areas of growth, Wake Forest has been able to develop a roadmap for the future. Collectively, we are considering how we are modeling civic and democratic engagement, and how our curricular and cocurricular programs prepare the next generation of citizens to be agents of change in their chosen fields.


Harriger, Katy, and Jill McMillan. 2007. Speaking of Politics: Preparing College Students for Democratic Citizenship through Deliberative Dialogue. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press.

Jacoby, Barbara. 2009. Civic Engagement in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knefelkamp, L. Lee. 2008. “Civic Identity: Locating Self in Community.” Diversity & Democracy 11 (3): 1–3.

Mitchell, Tania D. 2008. “Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 14 (2): 50–65.

NASPA. N.d. “NASPA’s Lead Initiative on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.” http://www.naspa.org/clde/lead_initiative.cfm.

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.

Marianne Magjuka is director of campus life at Wake Forest University.

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