Peer Review

Be the Change: Academics as Civic Professionals

Given the pressure higher education faces to provide graduates with clear pathways to careers, those of us working in the liberal arts need better strategies for affirming and furthering civically and community-engaged learning in undergraduate liberal arts education. We argue that developing and embracing a professional identity among faculty that includes the civic—what we are calling “civic professionalism”—should be one such strategy. We came to this conclusion through our work with the Engaged Undergraduate Education Research Group of Imagining America, a consortium committed to public scholarship in the arts, humanities, and design disciplines. This research group, with support from the Teagle Foundation’s Faculty Work and Student Learning in the 21st Century initiative, consists of faculty and administrators from six institutions, ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large public and private research universities. Together we established a collaborative learning community to guide our inquiry into the conceptual and practical usefulness of civic professionalism as an approach to undergraduate education in the liberal arts.

Civic Professionalism

Particularly resonant to us was William M. Sullivan’s conception of civic professionalism, which he grounds in a commitment to a work–life governed by knowledge, practice, and a sense of responsibility to the good of society, not just the individual. In his analysis of the optimal forms of professional education, Sullivan gives renewed attention to an education that utilizes classroom learning, mentoring by practitioners, and ethical reflection to provide students with the academic knowledge, practical skills, and “educated conscience” that for him forms the basis of an identity as a “civic professional” (Sullivan 2005).

While Sullivan initially focused on graduate professional education, his framework also applies to undergraduate liberal arts education. Sullivan developed this application in a critique of contemporary trends in undergraduate education that stresses either an instrumentalist orientation that only values vocational outcomes and practical skills or one that focuses on “critical thinking,” defined as the discipline-specific “distanced intellectual stance” that divorces knowledge from real-world contexts. He proposes instead reclaiming earlier goals of a liberal arts education that prioritize helping students “make sense of the world and discern their place within it” by cultivating wise judgment alongside academic knowledge (Sullivan 2012, 141). Wise judgment and practical wisdom form the heart of Sullivan’s reimagining of the purposes of the liberal arts for undergraduates. Practical wisdom entails more than having sufficient content knowledge. It requires the ability to bring appropriate knowledge to bear on specific circumstances, making it relevant to people affected by those circumstances, and understanding why this particular knowledge serves this circumstance best. Thus, the pursuit of practical wisdom requires not only academic content knowledge but also practical experience in the uses of that knowledge and a grasp of relevant questions of social and ethical purpose and meaning (Sullivan 2012, 153–155). Civic professionalism as a goal of undergraduate liberal arts education embraces the goal of practical wisdom as a fundamental purpose.

Like Sullivan, we employ the term “civic professionalism” to mark the intersection of formal knowledge, practical skills development, and a commitment to the common good. In this model, knowledge, practice, and the common good co-define and cross-fertilize each other. Knowledge becomes a necessarily integrative pursuit, work becomes a path toward individual and communal flourishing, and civic responsibility becomes a continual aim. As a bridge between intellectual and practical learning, and between individual vocational goals and benefit to our shared communities, civic professionalism offers not only a new language for thinking about the content, methods, and aims of a liberal arts education, but also a toolbox of practices for changing what faculty do as teachers and scholars.

Developing a Rubric

To populate this toolbox, the research group developed a Civic Professionalism Rubric, loosely modelled on the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) VALUE rubrics, which focuses on dimensions of civic professionalism. We collected feedback on this rubric from campus project directors and faculty and staff colleagues from the six participating institutions and from Imagining America national conference attendees. Also responding to the rubric were members of the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Action Network, a group coordinated by Caryn Musil of AAC&U. This rubric attempted to lay out the dimensions of knowledge, purpose, and practice integral to effective civic professionalism as understood through Sullivan’s conceptual framework. These dimensions consisted of civic knowledge, intercultural collaboration, civic advocacy, civic practice, and civic attitudes and values. The capstone (most advanced) level of each dimension focused on students’ ability to understand, articulate, advocate, and practice in ways that aligned academic knowledge and practical skills with a commitment to social and personal responsibility in real-world, complex settings.

Respondents found the rubric useful in its articulation of the place of civic life in a liberal arts education. For some, this rubric tapped a need to conceptualize a civically engaged undergraduate education that avoided falling into either an instrumental focus on vocational preparation or the increasingly dilute category of “experiential learning.” Instead, the rubric helped integrate both domains under the overarching need to educate civically engaged citizens who are also empathetic, effective workers in all parts of society. Some thought the use of the term “professional” to be overly narrow, suggesting that a broader term, such as “civic work,” might be more appropriate. In adopting the language of professionalism, however, the hope was to articulate an approach to the civic in the liberal arts that linked the importance of preparation for performance in the world indicative of college-level standards of knowledge and practice with a commitment to the common good. Informing this approach was our collective understanding of “professionalism” as a set of behaviors that might inform work in many contexts—including volunteer work, school-related work, and hourly wage work, as well as professional employment. That is, we assumed the category of “professionalism” encompassed much more than “the professions” narrowly defined.

This assumption was not always evident to others. Many respondents also requested clarification regarding the relationship between “civic engagement” and “civic professionalism.” There were also useful comments highlighting the importance of civic agency—as distinct from advocacy—and the importance of collaboration as a component of civic practice. By far most intriguing, though, was the frequency with which respondents either asked whether the rubric was intended for faculty members or for students. So, on the one hand this feedback made it clear that we still had work to do to create a genuinely useful tool for assessing the progress of students; on the other, it clarified for us an aspect of the problem we were trying to address that had not before crystallized. In preparing our liberal arts undergraduates to be civically responsible employees and members of communities, faculty members clearly play special roles. The research group came to wonder whether or not it was the case that faculty members who themselves did not identify with the role of a civic professional could effectively educate students who would embrace such an identity.

Researchers writing on faculty roles in higher education frequently comment on the individualistic nature of the training, work-life, and expectations surrounding faculty careers and definitions of success (Rice, Saltmarsh, and Plater 2014). An individualistic, entrepreneurial model of professional academic life, however, is reinforced by the increasing number of contingent and non-tenure-track faculty in the academic workforce who must respond to market conditions that may not value civic engagement. Further, calls to such faculty to demonstrate a greater sense of duty to their institutions (as opposed to only their disciplines) require a reciprocating commitment on the part of those institutions.

Academic Professional Identities

Nevertheless, as KerryAnn O’Meara has shown in her work, even in this challenging environment many faculty members embrace the civic purposes of higher education and seek to cultivate a sense of civic identity among students (O’Meara 2011). In O’Meara’s analysis, faculty members have two major orientations towards their professional identities: the “Post WWII Academic Professional” and the “Engaged American Scholar.” The latter category constitutes the academic professional as a civic professional, while the former is primarily concerned with discipline-defined norms and measures of success. This professional identity is wrapped up in the possession of highly specialized expertise and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (O’Meara 2011, 192–93). In contrast, the faculty members she labels as Engaged American Scholars, those we call civic professionals, define their most important contributions to society in terms of the partnerships they form with students, community members, and others in order to bring their knowledge and expertise to the table in the service of shared problem-solving. Put differently, whereas the academic professional most values research in pursuit of truth, the engaged scholar most values knowledge pursued to improve the world.

The structure and demands of faculty work, embedded as it is in the complex institutional context of contemporary higher education, can create enormous pressures against commitments to civic purposes. Despite such pressures, there are, and have been for a long time, faculty members, academic staff, and other university employees who take seriously social impact as a measure of professional efficacy and as an integral part of their professional identities. Many of our colleagues, for example, model civic professionalism by integrating community-based learning and participatory research into their courses despite the additional work this commonly requires. It is important to acknowledge as well the wide variety of forms that a commitment to the civic dimensions of an academic professional identity might take. It may be expressed as a duty to engage with students outside of the classroom as a mentor or student club advisor. It may take the form of a commitment to participate actively in shared governance and the defense of academic freedom within the university.

Particularly valuable to the goal of educating the next generation of civic professionals are those faculty members who embrace John Dewey’s idea that the expert is beholden first of all to the interests of the community, shaping a research and teaching agenda that seeks to be responsive to such interests. In all these ways, those of us involved in Imagining America’s Engaged Undergraduate Education Research Group sought to articulate a collective sense of ourselves as civic professionals. Fundamentally, however, we pursued a full integration of civic purpose into the liberal arts rather than accepting compartmentalization in our professional identities. Ultimately, we concluded that by embracing an identity as a civic professional, we could overcome the disjunctions between the liberal arts, the practical arts, and the civic arts.

Over the past three years, the research group, which included representatives from six collaborating institutions along with a research associate from Imagining America, worked together with the larger purpose of bridging these three dimensions. Campus representatives facilitated small-scale projects on their campuses that reflected a range of strategies to facilitate the development of civic professional identities and practices among faculty, staff, and students. These local projects provided insight into a variety of change strategies, ranging from structural changes to departmental majors to capacity building seminars and curricular grants for faculty to help them imagine new approaches to their work. We committed to monthly phone calls to discuss relevant research and share advice in planning these projects. The support, community, and shared commitment to the public purposes of the liberal arts we found in the research group modeled and reflected the broader civic identities we hoped to foster among others.

We submit that the concept of civic professionalism can address the challenges and opportunities of redefining the goals of liberal arts undergraduate education by integrating the pursuit of knowledge with practical skills and civic purposes. Perhaps more important, however, is the potential of civic professionalism to redefine the work of academic professionals. Although there is extensive support for the public purposes of higher education, including educating students to be responsible citizens, many in academia do not make these goals a priority in their work lives. This is perhaps because such goals are not explicitly incorporated in their own, their discipline’s, or their institution’s definition of their purpose. Civic professionalism redefines professionalism to make the civic purposes of a professional identity clear, thus helping us reimagine what it means to be an academic professional. In redefining our identities as professionals we likewise redefine our relationships—to students, to communities, and to the purposes of education.


We want to recognize the contributions of the faculty and staff members of the Engaged Undergraduate Education Research Group from the six participating institutions: Brigitta Brunner and Giovanna Summerfield (Auburn University), Robin Bachin and Hadassah St. Hubert (University of Miami), Catherine Gerard (Syracuse University), Amy Koritz (Drew University), Paul Schadewald (Macalester College), and Kenneth Townsend and Andrew Thaw (Millsaps College). The project received funding and support from Syracuse University and from the “Faculty Work and Student Learning in the 21st Century” initiative of the Teagle Foundation. The project received guidance from Ashley Finley, Caryn Musil, KerryAnn O’Meara, Julie Hatcher, Kristin Norris, Molly Sutphen, William M. Sullivan, the Kettering Foundation, Imagining America research associate Amanda Niskode-Dossett, former Imagining America director Jan Cohen Cruz, and Imagining America Faculty co-director Timothy K. Eatman, who serves as the principal investigator of the Teagle Foundation grant for Syracuse University.



O’Meara, KerryAnn. 2011. “Faculty Civic Engagement: New Training, Assumptions, and Markets Needed for the Engaged American Scholar.” In “To Serve a Larger Purpose:” Engagement for Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education, edited by John Saltmarsh and Matt Hartley, 177–198. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rice, R. Eugene, John Saltmarsh, and William M. Plater. 2014. “Reflections on the Public Good and Academic Professionalism.” In Faculty Work and the Public Good: Philanthropy, Engagement and Academic Professionalism, edited by Genevieve G. Shaker, 251–265. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Sullivan, William M. 2005. “Markets vs. Professions: Value Added?” Daedulus 134 (3): 19–26.

——. 2012. “Knowledge and Judgment in Practice as the Twin Aims of Learning.” In Transforming Undergraduate Education: Theory That Compels and Practices That Succeed, edited by Donald W. Harward, 141–157. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Amy Koritz is director, Center for Civic Engagement, and professor of English, at Drew University; and Paul Schadewald is associate director, Civic Engagement Center, at Macalester College


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