Diversity and Democracy

Finding Direction through Institutional Self-Assessment

While visiting Elmhurst College in May 2013, retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed concern about the level of civic knowledge in today’s society. Lamenting that most young people can name at least one American Idol judge but no Supreme Court justices, she noted that civics education is fading from America’s public schools. That’s especially concerning to O’Connor, given that civic knowledge is not passed like DNA from parent to child. In Better Together, Robert Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein echo O’Connor’s alarm at the growing disengagement among America’s young people, noting that “civic activism early in life is one of the strongest predictors of later adult involvement” (2003, 144–45). In other words, if youth are not engaged at an early age, it’s likely they never will be.

With civics disappearing from K–12 curricula, it is quickly becoming the responsibility of institutions of higher education to inspire civic engagement among young and older adults while educating citizens who are capable of “identifying, expressing, and pursuing values and goals that are meaningful to them in the public arena” (Colby et al. 2007, 6). Elmhurst College is taking this responsibility seriously by evaluating its own work to advance civic learning across the institution.

A small, private institution located in the Chicago suburbs and affiliated with the United Church of Christ, Elmhurst is driven by the mission of inspiring students “to form themselves intellectually and personally and to prepare for meaningful and ethical work in a multicultural, global society” (Elmhurst College 2013). The Elmhurst Experience is distinguished by the dual hallmarks of self-formation and early professional preparation. Guiding Elmhurst’s work with students in and out of the classroom are five core values: intellectual excellence; community; social responsibility; stewardship; and faith, meaning, and values. Collectively, Elmhurst faculty, staff, and administrators aim to graduate individuals who will engage in work that is meaningful to them—people who will not only do well, but also do good.

Taking Stock

In recent years, national leaders have called upon colleges and universities to reevaluate how well they are doing in supporting national goals for higher education, including college completion, professional preparation, and social responsibility. The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement emphasized the third of these goals with its 2012 report A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Inspired by the report, Elmhurst College recently conducted an environmental audit of civic learning and democratic engagement initiatives, using the process to reveal gaps in our curricular and cocurricular offerings.

A Crucible Moment’s Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement set the standard for the environmental audit (see figure 1). In fall 2012, a group of Elmhurst student affairs staff members, working with input from faculty and staff across campus, evaluated all non-course-based academic and student life programs to measure their alignment with this framework. Any program that engaged students in learning about at least two of the four key areas named in the framework (knowledge, skills, values, and collective action) became part of the college’s Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Matrix, which includes detailed information about each program, the learning outcomes it fulfills, and the campus units that coordinate it. Twenty-two of the approximately forty programs reviewed appear in the matrix, which is available at www.elmhurst.edu/clde_matrix.

Addressing Gaps

The audit made clear that Elmhurst has great strengths in some areas, such as challenging students to consider their personal values and engaging students in the community. But the potential for growth is evident in other areas—for example, intentionally exposing students to knowledge about the democratic process. The audit also revealed that, despite diligent efforts to understand what and how students are learning, Elmhurst is still seeking an effective means of holistic assessment that takes into account the work of both student and academic affairs. While student affairs and academic affairs have looked to existing surveys and data sets for signs that Elmhurst prepares students to be principled citizens, we are considering developing an institution-specific assessment instrument that would directly measure students’ civic learning and democratic outcomes. We have also reflected on the need for more qualitative data, which may shed light on how students are achieving various civic learning and democratic engagement outcomes.

In fall 2013, in an effort to further institutionalize Elmhurst’s civic learning and democratic engagement work, a task force composed of student affairs staff, faculty, and administrators will use the audit results to guide the creation of a Civic Action Plan (CAP). This plan for continued community engagement will align with the college’s new strategic plan and guide the institution’s civic efforts. The task force sees the CAP as an opportunity to honor the institution’s roots and mission while further exploring the important contributions the college can make to the local community, to our students, and to those whom our graduates will affect positively. The process thus far has demonstrated that journeys of self-exploration are as important for the college as a whole—for its staff, faculty, and administrators—as they are for its students.

Looking Inward

Two days after Sandra Day O’Connor’s visit, Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, visited Elmhurst to receive an honorary degree. After listening to graduating seniors reflect on how they had internalized the college’s core values during their time as students, Schneider recognized that “whether they majored in business, accounting, nursing, or philosophy,” the students she heard speak “believed that the ‘Elmhurst Experience’ had led them to think in important ways about their responsibilities to themselves and to other people” (Schneider 2013, 2). Hearteningly, these sentiments suggest that students recognize that a focus on values is threaded throughout their four years at the college, from first-year orientation to graduation day.

Elmhurst College faculty, staff, and administrators hope that efforts instituted in response to our environmental audit will help the institution meet the national imperative of preparing reflective and principled graduates who are able and willing to have a positive impact on both their professions and the communities in which they live. At Elmhurst College, we are finding direction by looking inward.

Figure 1. A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement


  • Familiarity with key democratic texts and universal democratic principles, and with selected debates—in US and other societies—concerning their applications
  • Historical and sociological understanding of several democratic movements, both US and abroad
  • Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public
  • Knowledge of the diverse cultures, histories, values, and contestations that have shaped US and other world societies
  • Exposure to multiple religious traditions and to alternative views about the relation between religion and government
  • Knowledge of the political systems that frame constitutional democracies and of political levers for influencing change


  • Critical inquiry, analysis, and reasoning
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Gathering and evaluating multiple sources of evidence
  • Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives
  • Written, oral, and multi-media communication
  • Deliberation and bridge building across differences
  • Collaborative decision making
  • Ability to communicate in multiple languages


  • Respect for freedom and human dignity
  • Empathy
  • Open-mindedness
  • Tolerance
  • Justice
  • Equality
  • Ethical integrity
  • Responsibility to a larger good

Collective Action

  • Integration of knowledge, skills, and examined values to inform actions taken in concert with other people
  • Moral discernment and behavior
  • Navigation of political systems and processes, both formal and informal
  • Public problem solving with diverse partners
  • Compromise, civility, and mutual respect

Excerpted from A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 4).


Colby, Anne, Elizabeth Beaumont, Thomas Ehrlich, and Josh Corngold. 2007. Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Elmhurst College. 2013. “Mission, Vision & Core Values.” Accessed July 8. http://public.elmhurst.edu/about/101584548.html.

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.

O’Connor, Sandra Day. 2013. Lecture at Elmhurst College, May 31.

Putnam, Robert, and Lewis M. Feldstein. 2003. Better Together: Restoring American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schneider, Carol Geary. 2013. “Losing Our Way on the Meanings of Student Success.” Liberal Education 99 (2): 2–3.

Eileen G. Sullivan is dean of students at Elmhurst College. Laura Wilmarth Tyna is director of leadership, service, and engagement at Elmhurst College.

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