Diversity and Democracy

Defining and Developing Civic-Minded Institutions

Before jumping into what it takes to develop or create a civic-minded institution, it’s helpful to consider what the term “civic-minded” means. “Civic,” per the Google definition (don’t judge me), has two meanings. The first is “relating to a city or town, especially its administration.” The second is “relating to the duties or activities of people in relation to their town, city, or local area.”

What’s compelling about those two definitions is that the first suggests intent or actions within a community that are politically oriented, while the second implies actions that occur within communities. I suggest that the second offers a more inclusive definition that encompasses multiple forms of community-based engagement. When we use the term “civic,” we may be referencing political action, but we also may not be. It’s important to make sure stakeholders in your civic-minded institution know that both definitions may be in play.

If both are in play, it is an opportunity to unite the multiple forms of civic engagement happening across campus—such as service learning, internships, community-based research, fieldwork, practicums, and student activism. That unification does not occur by acknowledging that these practices exist but rather by understanding how they mutually support the institution’s civic mission.

But that’s just step one. The next step is to define what components of quality ensure that all of these types of civic engagement are transformative for students. Articulating these shared dimensions of quality practice will ensure that, as students participate in civically engaged experiences, they encounter reinforcing principles for what it means to be a citizen in a range of community environments, domestically or internationally.

The notion of being civic “minded” suggests “dispositions” or “habits of mind.” Disposition is defined, again in Google (last time—I promise), as “a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character.” Perhaps even more helpful is the example sentence provided with this definition: “Your sunny disposition has a way of rubbing off on those around you.” The example suggests that dispositions are not just one’s own but can also be transferred to others. We hope that by seeding many civic-minded individuals, we will encourage the growth of similar attitudes so that a culture is created and sustained.

So how, then, do we create dispositions? First, dispositions come from doing, not just thinking. Students must produce something from their civic experiences. Educators must invite students to reflect on, apply, record, and make meaning of their experiences. Faculty, staff, and administrators at civic-minded institutions must also make sense of and express civic outcomes, whether by organizing voter registration drives, applying civic outcomes within courses, or working alongside students on volunteer projects.

Second, dispositions are produced and reinforced through language, objects, symbols, and customs. As the markers of culture, these four elements reflect the levers and saturation points for campuses to gauge their own evolution toward becoming more civic-minded. Campuses must use civic language pervasively and understand why it matters to use words like “social justice,” “stewardship,” “leadership,” or “global citizenship” in their mission statements.

Campuses then need to ask: What does success look like in meeting the language of the mission? At a minimum, success should reflect actions, skills, and attitudes for all students—not just the ones who opt into civic experiences. The only way to understand degrees of success is to measure them. Knowing how to tell the story from the data takes conversations and collaboration.

Finally, campuses need to unite stakeholders and break down civic silos through events or practices in which students, faculty, and staff come together in dialogue to share insights and perspectives.   

As the United States enters a new era of reckoning with civil rights and global health, there is no better time to be clear and inclusive about what a civic-minded campus is. Students have questions, ideas, and plans for the future. Making sure students, regardless of major or institutional type, integrate their civic selves into those queries and plans is the responsibility of every civic-minded institution.

Ashley Finley is Senior Advisor to the President and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Partnerships at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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