Diversity and Democracy

Imagining Community Engagement in American Higher Education

European explorers once envisioned the New World as the place where the imagination would become real. In America, the English Puritans in particular sought to merge what even radical Protestants in their home country had seen as distinct and contradictory: the City of God and the City of Man. In keeping with this utopian strain, most private institutions of higher learning were established by religious groups intent on improving the human condition, while the founders of public universities invariably emphasized service in their charters.

Much as these early American institutions advocated a melding of learning and action, so too did many of our major national visionaries. Emerson defined his American Scholar as a public intellectual: "He" (and we would add "she") "is one who raises himself from private considerations and lives on public and illustrious thoughts" ([1837] 1957, 73). Woodrow Wilson, president of a university and of the nation, wrote, "We are not put into this world to sit still and know; we are put here to act" ([1902] 1905, 228). In specific relation to colleges and universities, John Dewey advised that successful educational methods "give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking…. learning naturally results" (1916, 181). And speaking from the civic side of this partnership, John F. Kennedy declared, "I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well" (1963).

By their very insistence, these statements imply a certain resistance to the idea that higher education should play a role in public life. In the Old World model, higher learning was cloistered, hermetic; and in a rapidly industrializing United States, the appeal of college as a pastoral retreat was strong. Thus throughout much of the twentieth century, a utopian model of higher education as a scene of reflection apart from society prevailed, alongside the rapid development of disciplinary knowledge. But reality broke in. Questions of racial and gender equality, entering the university, could not be treated by any one discipline. Interdisciplinary programs such as women's studies, African American studies, and others arose as scholars and students came to recognize that humanity's great challenges do not come in packages labeled "physics" or "political science" or "poetry," but require the totality of the disciplines.

This helpful invasion of the real led to a movement away from the hermetic academic model and toward a rebalancing of the public and private, a move Nancy Cantor and Peter Englot have described as a shift away from the Ivory Tower and toward the Engaged University (2014, 3–4). The move has been, in the words of De Anza College President Brian Murphy, one "to retrieve the civic from the margins" (2014, 24). The renewed emphasis on the public good is not intended as an either/or but a both/and. It does not undercut those aspects of learning that are necessarily at a remove from the noise of the everyday; rather, it requires constant travel between the academic grove and the city of urgent challenges. Reflection and action must collaborate; university and community must be seen as equal partners who mutually benefit. Involving our students in this activity will create not the excellent sheep—brilliant specialists unaware of the ethical consequences of their learning—decried in a recent tome; but rather excellent shepherds, whose flocked and generous expertise creates community.

Leadership from and for the Arts, Humanities, and Design

Like the renewed emphasis on civic engagement in higher education, Imagining America (IA): Artists and Scholars in Public Life grew in the interstices between academic disciplines and public sectors. It is significant that the consortium, created in 1999, grew out of a year-long celebration of the arts and humanities at the University of Michigan led by English and American Studies Professor Julie Ellison (Imagining America's founding director), but also encouraged and funded by the visionary physicist Homer Neal, acting as vice president for research. As the organization developed, its mission expanded to include design, and its Presidents' Council and leadership came to assert that "publicly engaged humanities, arts, and design … represent ways of knowing that are essential in the public work of naming and framing community problems and designing solutions" (Imagining America 2014, 1). Over one hundred colleges and universities now belong to the organization—representing nearly every aspect of higher education, including community colleges, research universities, urban public universities, and private liberal arts colleges.

The organization—and the ideal of public purpose—got a tremendous boost when the Association of American Colleges and Universities forwarded this same emphasis throughout the arts and sciences as fundamental to the health of both liberal education and the nation's future. Under President Carol Geary Schneider's direction, this national advocate for undergraduate liberal education has not only collected key data to support the practical applications of liberal learning, but also has organized a surprising coalition of business, nonprofit, and government leaders to advance this message, thus forging the kind of links it advocates between academia and the social sector. [Editor's note: See www.aacu.org/leap for more information about these efforts.]

Even so, it is fair to ask how a public version of the arts, humanities, and design might be enacted—and one answer has been especially audacious. One of IA's most ambitious goals is the renewal of cities and rural communities, including by reconceiving material places and spaces. The results of IA's efforts in this area have been phenomenal, as I can attest after attending IA's 2013 conference in Syracuse, New York, home to IA and its host institution, Syracuse University. I wasn't looking forward to visiting the locale, having grown up in nearby Rochester well aware of the challenges that had left so many upstate New York cities depressed and half-abandoned. But the Syracuse of 2013 was a startling and happy surprise. With a run-down warehouse having been reconceived as a new university center for the arts, humanities, and design, and with attendant new restaurants, music venues, and art galleries, downtown Syracuse is newly lively. This liveliness extends to the public schools, which have actively partnered with the university. Similar phenomena have occurred in other locales, such as West Philadelphia through the extraordinary work of the University of Pennsylvania, but rarely with such emphasis on those areas of academia sometimes thought of as most theoretical and unworldly.

Challenge 1: Economic Feasibility

Despite the clear successes in Syracuse and elsewhere, the ideal of public engagement faces four interlocking challenges. The first is economic feasibility. Just as any economic recession sees the arts ruthlessly reduced and even eliminated in K–12 education, the setbacks of 2008–09 led some colleges and universities to pull back on civic engagement, as they did not see immediate economic benefits.

Those of us who care deeply about publicly engaged scholarship and teaching can respond to this challenge in two ways. First, colleges and universities can find ways to form communities and share resources with each other and their surrounding civic communities, recognizing that if they fail to do so, many smaller institutions will simply cease to exist. Partnerships addressing shared problems can help higher and K–12 education, cultural institutions, nonprofits, and town and regional governments solve some of their own financial challenges. Lafayette College economics professor Gladstone "Fluney" Hutchinson's Appalshop project is an attempt to revitalize the arts and bring new investment into Appalachian communities. It serves as a particularly striking example of melding figurative and literal enrichment, an effort in which economists interact with artists, culture-bearers, and public scholars. [Editor's note: click here for more about the Appalshop project.]

Second, thought leaders and community-oriented citizens can step up to support community engagement. Under Earl Lewis's leadership, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently placed the public humanities on its agenda, with two emphases: first, to investigate what elements of the humanities relate to the public domain while insisting on the important public function of disciplines like literature, philosophy, and history; and second, to forge collaborative networks that expand beyond the insulated environment of academia, including vertical partnerships among very different kinds of institutions. Phillip Lewis, an officer of the foundation, recently presented this agenda at Cornell University, where a generous couple has donated $50 million toward encouraging the university's public engagement.

Challenge 2: Applying the Humanities

A second challenge, suggested in the first of the Mellon emphases, is that of championing the applicability of the humanities in particular to the public good. While the arts and design have always had more of a public life—as Dewey wrote, "art is the most effective mode of communication that exists" ([1934] 2005, 286)—the humanities are often seen as difficult to apply to the world beyond academia. And yet, again and again, the humanities have proven themselves useful in the public sphere. The Clemente Course in the Humanities, originally instituted at Bard College, has developed into a national network where humanities academics work with economically challenged adults as they read and write about great works, with extraordinary results. The chance to develop a cultural understanding of oneself and one's situation turns out to have far more efficacy in breaking the cycle of poverty than does the opportunity to do menial work.

When I was directing the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, we established a Humanities at Work program that connected over a hundred doctoral students with summer internships, usually at nonprofit organizations. Many of the assignments were surprising: the University of Texas student in cultural anthropology who worked in a program for delinquent girls who had been abused as children, employing storytelling, dance, drawing, and other activities suggested by her discipline to improve the girls' self-images; the University of Virginia historian who started an African American history summer school for fifth graders in Mississippi; the Columbia University literature student who worked with the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, DC, to combat hate literature; and another University of Texas student who wrote biographies of astronauts for NASA. The foundation also secured over thirty positions for doctoral graduates at nonprofit and for-profit organizations, ranging from Verizon to the American Parks Service. An ongoing program at the American Council of Learned Societies provides Mellon-funded postdocs at a similarly impressive range of nonprofits, and a number of colleges and universities have initiated education programs for prison inmates, again with heartening results.

But beyond these examples, storytelling is endemic to almost all enterprises. We use stories not only to explain our endeavors to others, but also to make sense of them for ourselves. The humanities specialize in telling stories and in analyzing the stories of others, both historical and fictive. But developing the public aspects of storytelling and the creative and critical thinking that accompanies it is an ongoing process, requiring much faculty conversation. Such conversation has occurred, for instance, at Skidmore College, where the college's identifying concept, "Creative Thought Matters," has moved all departments to consider how best to exemplify it.

Challenge 3: Coherence and Permanence

A third challenge facing us is that of building coherence and permanence. It is all too easy to initiate random and short-lived initiatives and programs, each one worthy but lacking synergy with others and not rooted deeply enough to survive the departure of a particular leader or two. Our engagements need to be totalizing and sustaining.

Sometimes focusing on a specific neighborhood provides an answer, as in the examples of Syracuse and Appalshop described above. Following a similar strategy, several institutions have initiated new collaborations with local K–12 schools, acknowledging that efforts to diversify our college campuses must begin with helping historically underserved students become college ready. The University of Washington's Bothell campus has created the Lake City Collaboratory, which engages undergraduate volunteers in tutoring low-income and first-generation high school students in areas that include digital media production. Other examples of local outreach are too numerous to list, but include the Sounds of Port Richmond, a college-community theater collaboration between Wagner College and local leaders; Binghamton University's Neighborhood Project, which grew out of an evolutionary studies program emphasizing cultural as well as genetic perspectives; and Portland State University's Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative.

Promisingly, those who engage in these projects are giving deeper thought to commitments that meld academia and the community holistically for greater leverage. While some of these synergies are planned in advance, others develop in medias res, so it is especially important to look constantly for links. Current Portland State University President Wim Wiewel rightly emphasizes that campus-community partnerships are constantly evolving, their bases already having moved from notions of service to those of truly equal partnerships, and now to notions of mutual stewardship of place.

In regard to coherence, too, we do not want to forget that our campuses are communities in their own regard, and we need to treat them as such. Brian Murphy argues that "our students deserve more than to be treated as if they have no civic life and do not need to understand how power works" (2014, 14), an idea that informs De Anza College's Institute of Community and Civic Engagement, as well aspects of the curriculum. Under Devorah Lieberman's leadership, the University of La Verne engages all first-year students in one of twenty-eight learning communities, all of which incorporate student and faculty experiences with community groups. Similarly, at Drew University, the Civic Scholars program engages selected first-year students in a yearlong seminar in which groups create their own ambitious community partnerships—working, for instance, with local bankers to offer economic planning to families dealing with the effects of the Great Recession.

Challenge 4: Institutionalizing Engaged Learning

Conceiving of campuses as their own communities and rethinking curriculum in a community-minded way is also a step toward addressing a fourth challenge: institutionalizing engaged learning. But to enable institutions to take that step, we must first create consensus about the intellectual gains that are possible through experiential learning. Lee Shulman, president emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation, has noted that applied learning addresses some leading student complaints, such as "I knew it, but I forgot it" (you won't forget if you apply it); "I thought I knew it, but I didn't" (experience will be the test for that); or "I know it, but I don't know what it is good for" (you will find out, by experience) (1999, 10–17).

Effective implementation also involves monitoring attitudes. No one likes the person who considers others as beneath him or her, and it is crucial in college-community partnerships that professors not see themselves as gods carrying grace to undeserving sinners. Wagner President Richard Guarasci rightly emphasizes "mutual respect and reciprocity" as a sine qua non of any partnership (personal communication). Such mutuality will not happen unless there is shared conviction of mutual benefit.

Most crucial to institutionalization is the issue of motivating the faculty, who are the very core of any institution. If assistant professors are discouraged from public engagement on the grounds that it will not qualify as an accomplishment within formal reward systems (most notably, tenured promotion), the resulting cynicism about public engagement will affect everyone in the community, from senior faculty to first-year students. IA addressed this issue in a 2008 study by Julie Ellison and Timothy Eatman, Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University. It is a much admired document, and yet one worries that its recommendations are too infrequently followed. In fact, this fourth challenge of institutionalizing public purpose in higher education may be the most daunting of the four.

Imagination to Reality

Dewey wrote that "the path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs" ([1933] 2008, 136). But, as Dewey is frequently said to have written, "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow."

And about tomorrow, as we have been told by Fleetwood Mac, we should not stop thinking. I would add, we should not stop thinking positively, toward a twenty-first-century renaissance. To quote Kennedy once more: "There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts…. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was also the age of Shakespeare. And the New Frontier for which I campaign in public life can also be a New Frontier for American Art" (1960, 11). Can we, in the age of Bill Gates and so many other public-spirited patrons, renew that adventurous sense of frontier?

Our students offer us no excuse for failing to do so. They are the best news of all, for this generation of students is extraordinarily civically motivated and active, far more so than my own. Many of today's students may have engaged in high school only to gain credit for college admission, but in most of them, the spirit took. My biggest surprise as a university president who held open office hours consisted in how many of my student visitors came seeking help with civic projects. Imagining America anticipated this student generation, and its members, as well as those of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, are helping to support it. Now our overall challenge is to do as we say, to move our sayings into action, our best imaginings into reality.


Cantor, Nancy, and Peter Englot. 2014. "Civic Renewal of Higher Education through Renewed Commitment to the Public Good." In Civic Engagement, Civic Development, and Higher Education, edited by Jill N. Reich. Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice.

Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education: Introduction to the Philosophy of Education.  New York: Macmillan.

———. (1933) 2008. How We Think: Revised Edition. In The Later Works of John Dewey, vol. 8, 1925–1953, edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University.

———. (1934) 2005. Art as Experience. New York: Penguin.

Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K. Eatman. 2008. Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America. http://imaginingamerica.org/publications/reports-essays/.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1837) 1957. "The American Scholar." In Selected Writings, edited by Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Imagining America. 2014. "Planning for 2014 Imagining America (IA) Presidents' Forum and Council" (internal planning document). August 8.

Kennedy, John F. 1960. "Letter to Miss Theodate Johnson, Publisher." Musical America, October: 11.

———. 1963. "Remarks at Amherst College." http://arts.gov/about/kennedy.  

Murphy, Brian. 2014. "Civic Learning in Community Colleges." In Civic Engagement, Civic Development, and Higher Education, edited by Jill N. Reich. Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice.

Shulman, Lee. 1999. "Taking Learning Seriously." Change 31 (4): 10–17.

Wilson, Woodrow. (1902) 1972. "Princeton for the National Service." In The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by Arthur S. Link. Vol. 16. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Robert Weisbuch is professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

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