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Working Together for Democracy

There must be more to our missions than job and skills training: working together to support and sustain democracy.

By Jonathan R. Alger

November 22, 2021

As I began my career in higher education, the Cold War was ending. Democracy seemed ascendant. Yet three decades later, we are still playing defense.

In a recent virtual town hall convened by AAC&U’s Presidents’ Trust, higher education leaders from across the country shared ideas about why, and how, their institutions should work together to support and sustain democracy.

For starters, we can’t assume that the public, policymakers, parents, or even students believe that we should spend time and energy on such matters. Most of the current rhetoric regarding our role in society emphasizes the need to prepare the workforce of the twenty-first century. That role is vitally important to colleges and universities, and much of our attention and resources go toward ensuring that we are anticipating and meeting those fast-changing needs. But there has always been more to our missions than job and skills training.

Many college and university mission statements refer to the public good in some way. At James Madison University (JMU), for example, our mission proclaims that “we are a community committed to preparing students to be educated and enlightened citizens who lead productive and meaningful lives” (emphases added).

On our campuses, this commitment might be reflected in courses and programs that focus on democracy-related topics (e.g., political science and public policy), or through the work of centers for community and civic engagement. For our voices to be heard and taken seriously in the greater society, however, we need something more: genuinely nonpartisan, inclusive efforts that transcend institutional boundaries and make common cause with other organizations beyond our own sector.

What might this look like in practice? Here are a few modest ideas that arose from the Presidents’ Trust town hall and other recent conversations.

Partner with accreditors, state education agencies, and other policy-oriented organizations. Such partnerships recognize the importance of this work and can embed it in state- or system-wide strategic plans. In my own state, public colleges and universities have done this with the leadership of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Share ideas for incorporating civic engagement throughout the curriculum—especially in nonobvious subject matter areas. At JMU, for example, we sponsor a health policy summit in which teams of students in health-related majors study and propose solutions to urgent public health challenges. With AAC&U’s help, conversations about civic engagement are also happening in ongoing reviews of general education programs.

Use our collective brainpower to develop meaningful tools to assess civic skills. Policymakers and governing boards want to see tangible evidence of how we measure the success and effectiveness of our programs. If we are serious about civic education, therefore, we need to find credible ways to assess these efforts. AAC&U has provided valuable guidance by identifying relevant skill sets we strive to produce in our students, including information literacy and the ability to engage in debate based on facts, evidence, and research.

Challenge ourselves with voter registration and participation initiatives. College provides a transition into adulthood for millions of young people, and one of the most important adult responsibilities is the right and opportunity to vote. Through efforts such as the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, colleges and universities have made a lot of progress in helping students register, learn about issues and candidates, and exercise their right to vote. As these efforts gain traction, we should also anticipate and prepare for countermeasures aimed at voter suppression.

Create joint programs to build a sense of agency among students. Programs at the national level, such as Campus Compact’s Newman Civic Fellowship, help students develop civic leadership skills while building networks with colleagues from other institutions.

Connect with sectors beyond higher education that can reach broader audiences and skeptics. Higher education is viewed with suspicion by many people who see our institutions as elitist and out of touch. Our voices can be stronger and more compelling if we build alliances with other sectors—such as the business community. The new Partnership for American Democracy is an example of a project that brings together different types of organizations to focus on the health of democracy.

Collaborate across all levels of education. College educators sometimes forget that we have a huge impact on K–12 education by producing the teachers who help to mold the minds of future generations. The Educating for American Democracy Project, supported by a litany of influential leaders from both sides of the political aisle, provides a framework for key civic questions that should be explored in K–12 education. That template can also serve as a frame of reference for our own teacher education programs and for continuing education and certification programs for K–12 teachers.

Multiply the effect of our individual bully pulpits. Skeptics might pay more attention to articles that are coauthored by presidents from different types of institutions from varying contexts (e.g., public and private, large and small, religiously affiliated and nonsectarian). As the president of a large public institution, not long ago I had the privilege of publishing an op-ed on higher education’s role in democracy with the president of my own undergraduate alma mater, Swarthmore College—a small private institution.

Model and feature these efforts at our own convenings. AAC&U has been a leader in highlighting the work of democracy at its conferences and events while shining a spotlight on how these efforts invariably relate to priorities of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In January, AAC&U’s 2022 Annual Meeting will focus on “Educating for Democracy,” leading educators across the country in a timely exploration of these issues. Throughout higher education, we need to insist that these issues remain front and center in our conversations going forward.

On November 30, Giving Tuesday will provide a great opportunity for all of us to support these collective efforts to strengthen civic engagement and our democracy. We cannot be complacent. It is no exaggeration to say that our way of life depends on higher education’s commitment and leadership in this space.


  • Jonathan R. Alger

    Jonathan R. Alger is president of James Madison University.