Diversity and Democracy

Civic Scholarship: Inspiring Student Leadership

In Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the legendary hero of the Trojan War returns to Ithaca to face a new challenge. After a harrowing journey home in which he overcomes giants, sorcerers, and the forces of nature, Ulysses finds his home city in chaos and its people requiring wise leadership. But he finds the city’s councils and governments to be heavy harnesses for his talents and ambitions, and he questions whether a life of “the useful and the good” is for him. In Tennyson’s telling, Ulysses dreams, instead, of abandoning “the sphere of common duties,” setting sail again “to follow knowledge like a sinking star” and seek some “newer world” of bold adventure ([1842] 1999).

We in the academy often experience this conflict. Particularly in the liberal arts, we may feel more deeply committed to contemplating great ideas than to exploring their consequences, more intent on understanding the laws of nature than on shaping the rules of civic engagement. Like Ulysses, we wish “to shine in use,” yet we spurn “the sphere of common duties.” We regard knowledge as something “beyond the bound of human thought,” yet we long that “some work of noble note, may yet be done” (Tennyson [1842] 1999).

Ten years ago, the University of Puget Sound decided to address this contradiction: to be true to our pure liberal arts mission, and to express that mission in useful work that would make a difference for our community, our region, and perhaps even the world. Our city (Tacoma, Washington) had all the challenges of any modern American city, including racial inequity in public education, homelessness, social injustice, and economic instability. Poised on the shores of a great inland waterway between the impressive Cascade and Olympic mountains, we faced the environmental challenges of industrial pollution, endangered and invasive species, and unsustainable development practices.

Led by a group of thoughtful faculty, we asked how we could best deploy our intellectual resources to address some of these issues. We sought to partner with public and private agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and elected officials to follow knowledge like a sinking star and shine in the sphere of common duties. We asked, what opportunities for student learning might such an effort produce?

Civic Scholarship Initiative

Our collective inquiry led us to establish a center to organize the university’s research and teaching resources. In doing so, we hoped to address issues of strategic regional concern and of national and global significance. In time, the center took on a three-part structure: the Race and Pedagogy Initiative (which partners with the community and its public schools to address issues of race and education); the Sound Policy Institute (which fosters collaborative solutions to environmental challenges); and a Civic Scholarship projects incubator (which connects university faculty and students with community partners to address emerging issues in substantive ways). These three efforts compose Puget Sound’s broader Civic Scholarship Initiative (CSI).

Now in its tenth year, CSI has grown to provide students with opportunities to develop their skills and leadership across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. The initiative has given faculty members permission to engage more deeply with the South Puget Sound community, through both course-linked projects and cocurricular endeavors. Student affairs staff have provided programmatic and logistical support to CSI initiatives and worked with faculty and students to extend and deepen relationships with community partners.

CSI’s success rests on four key factors. First, projects involve scholarship that is broadly defined and that goes above and beyond volunteer service. Recognizing that not all scholarship results in academic publication, we evaluate evidence such as community publications or presentations, proposals to the state legislature, conference leadership, and workshop development as elements of faculty and staff professional growth.

Second, projects are good matches for both faculty and community interests. If a community member or organization proposes a project that does not find traction with faculty (or vice versa), CSI director Bruce Mann candidly declines the opportunity.

Third, projects provide opportunities for students to develop their leadership, apply their skills, and engage with the community. For example, the Road Home Project, which aims to reduce homelessness in Pierce County by 50 percent, has involved over one hundred students in data collection, data entry and analysis, organizational and leadership roles, and independent or collaborative research and writing as participants work to create and implement strategic recommendations drawn from systems-based research. These and other students have further nurtured their interests through such cocurricular activities as alternative fall and spring breaks and employment in the office of Spirituality, Service, and Social Justice.

Finally, the initiative frames civic scholarship as reciprocal and mutual. CSI brings the intellectual assets of the campus—of its students, faculty, and staff—into productive partnership with those of the community. Through these partnerships, participants solve problems, develop policy, and educate about the issues CSI addresses.

Race and Pedagogy

The Race and Pedagogy Initiative (RPI), a signature CSI program led by professors Dexter Gordon and Grace Livingston and a team of faculty, students, and staff, exemplifies how a small college can accomplish valuable outcomes in collaboration with its community. RPI teaches participants to recognize and address personal and structural racism, build alliances, and interweave scholarship and action to accomplish educational reform. Through RPI and other civic engagement initiatives, CSI provides powerful curricular and cocurricular opportunities for high-impact student learning and supports projects that otherwise would not exist.

In addition to a monthly Community Partners Forum, RPI has hosted two quadrennial national conferences (with a third to be held on September 25–27, 2014); six regional summits on issues related to race and equity in education; and a series of residencies and public presentations by scholar–artist–activists. It has also generated projects like a student-led reading group focused on a critical examination of race, a city-wide youth summit in partnership with Tacoma Public Schools, and a week-long series of staged readings designed to build participation in the university’s campus climate survey.

These and other experiential learning opportunities are powerful tools with lasting educational benefits (as Airiel Quintana attests in this issue). As students critically engage daunting issues such as access to higher education, they come to see these issues not simply as academic subjects, but rather as challenges they can tackle in substantive and creative ways. Students who lead within RPI bring to their campus leadership positions stronger skills and a deeper sense of their own relevance to issues of significance—leading them to launch new projects like the Black Student Union zine, Black Ice. RPI has even enabled some students to identify their vocational passions and find work of meaning and purpose upon graduation. Through RPI, students have developed strong connections with the Tacoma community, leading to employment with agencies like the Urban League and Americorps that serve underrepresented populations surrounding the college.

Work of Noble Note

CSI helps students, faculty, and staff see the liberal arts for what they are: the arts of liberating possibilities. The artistic expression inspired by civic engagement has stretched and enriched the soul of Puget Sound’s academic community. Civic scholarship provides powerful opportunities for academic and student affairs colleagues to cocreate dynamic learning environments, sparking “work of noble note” that greatly benefits student learning, the campus culture, and the common good of the surrounding neighborhood. To learn more about CSI or RPI, visit www.pugetsound.edu/academics/academic-resources/civic-scholarship-initiative/.


Tennyson, Alfred. (1842) 1999. “Ulysses.” Tennyson’s Poetry: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Robert H. Will. New York: Norton.

Ronald R. Thomas is president of the University of Puget Sound. Kristine Bartanen is academic vice president and dean of the university at the University of Puget Sound. Mike Segawa is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at the University of Puget Sound.

Previous Issues