Diversity and Democracy

Cooperating Across the Atlantic: Helping Realize Higher Education’s Democratic Mission

Democratic societies need to be constantly reimagined. To help catalyze this process, the higher education community must take the lead in remedying our lack—as individuals and as societies—of understanding, of imagination, and of commitment to democratic practice and action. By developing ideas and creating new pathways for engagement with community and societal partners, higher education can not only reimagine, but also revitalize and sustain inclusive and just democratic societies.

In cooperation and collaboration with several other partners, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy and the Council of Europe aim to reinvigorate higher education's role in democracy. By learning from each other's experience working at local, national, continental, and global levels to help higher education serve not only economies, but societies, we hope to realize the promise of democracy for each and every citizen.


The International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy (IC) was established in 1999 to explain and advance higher education's contributions to democracy on college and university campuses, in local communities, and across society. With executive offices housed at the University of Pennsylvania, the IC is composed of representatives from the United States (with steering committee members from the American Council on Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Campus Compact, and NASPA) and other countries throughout the world.

The IC works in cooperation with the Council of Europe (CoE), the oldest European intergovernmental organization, founded in 1949 to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The CoE has grown from ten original members to a pan-European institution of forty-seven member countries. Fifty countries participate in its activities on education and culture, with additional participation from nongovernmental partners such as the International Association of Universities, the European Wergeland Centre, the Magna Charta Observatory, and the European Students' Union.

Two political declarations formed the background for the cooperation between the IC and the CoE. On the CoE's fiftieth anniversary in May 1999, its Committee of Ministers adopted the Budapest Declaration, which highlights education's fundamental role in promoting active participation of all individuals at all levels of democratic life and calls for action to promote democratic values and practices in all CoE member states (Council of Europe 1999). In the same year in the United States, Campus Compact advanced its Presidents' Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, challenging "higher education to re-examine its public purposes and its commitments to the democratic ideal…[and] to become engaged, through actions and teaching, with its communities" (Campus Compact 1999). Initially signed by fifty-one US college and university presidents in July 1999, the Presidents' Declaration now has close to seven hundred signatories.

Key Activities

The IC and the CoE launched their cooperation in 1999 with a project on the University as a Site of Citizenship, part of a broader CoE initiative on Education for Democratic Citizenship. The project's pilot study explored how institutions of higher education were supporting democratic values and practices, assessed their capabilities to promote democracy, and examined how university resources can improve higher education's contributions to democracy on campus, in the local community, and in broader societies. Conducted by fifteen colleges and universities in the United States, thirteen in Europe, five in South Africa, eight in Australia, and ten in Korea, the study resulted in two publications (Plantan 2004; Winter, Wiseman, and Muirhead 2005).

In 2003, IC and CoE leadership proposed the creation of a research seminar with a protocol that could be adapted by faculty globally. The University of Pennsylvania created the pilot, which became a faculty–student collaborative research seminar titled The Democracy Project. The seminar is designed to measure the impact of college and university education on students' democratic dispositions, competencies, and responsibilities and has served as an example for other colleges and universities around the world (Dubin 2007).

The cooperation has also continued around a series of conferences: The Responsibility of Higher Education for a Democratic Culture (Strasbourg 2006); Universities, Democratic Culture, and Human Rights (Philadelphia 2007); Converging Competences: Diversity, Higher Education, and Sustainable Democracy (Strasbourg 2008); and Reimagining Democratic Societies: A New Era of Personal and Social Responsibility? (Oslo 2011). The conferences have resulted in three books in the Council of Europe Higher Education Series.

Learning from Contrasts

What brings an American nongovernmental organization and a European intergovernmental organization together to work for the democratic mission of higher education? What inspires other partners to join the cooperation's activities? In short, the opportunity to develop similar frameworks by learning from our contrasting approaches to higher education's role in supporting democracy.

Broad Vision

On both sides of the Atlantic, CoE and IC leadership agree that democratic institutions and laws are important but not sufficient for the development of true democracy. True democracy cannot exist without a set of attitudes and behaviors that enable institutions and laws to work effectively in practice. The existence of these attitudes and behaviors among all citizens is what the CoE and the IC refer to as democratic culture. Many higher education leaders in the United States and Europe agree that higher education should play an important role in developing democratic culture, and that democracy is impossible without democratic education. Nonetheless, they in some respects define the precise role of higher education differently.

Public debate in both the United States and Europe often implies that preparation for the labor market is higher education's sole purpose. This impression is challenged in the United States by organizations like the Association of American Colleges and Universities and institutional leaders who are committed to advancing democratic society in addition to building the economy. Similarly, the CoE has defined higher education's four main purposes as

  • preparation for the labor market;
  • preparation for life as active citizens in democratic societies;
  • personal development;
  • development and maintenance of a broad, advanced knowledge base (Bergan 2005; Council of Europe 2007).

The CoE sees these purposes as equally important and as complementary rather than contradictory. The Communiqués of the European Higher Education Area (Bologna Process) have further affirmed higher education's multiple aims. Nonetheless, this broad vision of higher education is less popular in Europe than in the United States.

Community Engagement

Many US higher education institutions see themselves as advancing democracy (Benson, Harkavy, and Puckett 2007), often by working with their local communities. For example, the University of Pennsylvania has decided that it cannot realize its civic mission or fulfill its role as a leading research university without engaging with its local community of West Philadelphia. As described in its 2008–09 financial report, "At Penn, local engagement is one of the core tenets of the Penn Compact—Penn's strategic vision for moving from excellence to eminence—and is an integral part of the University's mission. Students and faculty from across Penn's 12 schools integrate classroom learning with community service in a way that distinguishes Penn as both a world-class teaching and research institution and a good neighbor" (University of Pennsylvania 2010, 3). Other examples of locally engaged US institutions include the University at Buffalo, Augsburg College, Miami Dade College, and De Anza College. In Europe, Queen's University Belfast played an essential role in bringing together the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland during the period between the 1960s and 1990s known as "the Troubles," pioneering policies that helped make the peace process possible.

The concept of "anchor institutions" is a useful way of thinking about the links between higher education institutions and their local communities. The term indicates that colleges and universities have a stake in their communities and will not easily move away. Many US college and university presidents, academics, and policymakers have come together in the Anchor Institutions Task Force (www.margainc.com/initiatives/aitf/), an advocacy organization that creates and advances democratic, mutually beneficial partnerships between anchor institutions and their communities. This approach could be a useful model for other parts of the world.

Community colleges are another important part of the US higher education system that is largely misunderstood abroad. In the US context, these institutions exemplify the role higher education can play in furthering equity and social cohesion by offering opportunities to many who might not otherwise have enrolled in college. Anchor institutions like Miami Dade and De Anza demonstrate for non-US partners that broad access is eminently compatible with high academic standards.

Democratic Practice

Higher education institutions must not only educate for democracy, but also practice it. In Europe, faculty, students, and staff play an important role in institutional governance. In the traditional European governance model, faculty hold a majority of seats on the institutional governance body, and the rector is a tenured professor elected by the academic community. Although European institutional leaders are increasingly elected or hired from outside the institution and governance bodies may now include considerable external representation, participatory governance remains an important feature of European higher education. At stake currently is not whether faculty, staff, and students should participate, but how great a say they should have.

Europe has a particularly strong tradition of student representation. Students participate in institutional governance in all European countries and in systems governance in most, normally through the national student union. The European Students' Union, composed of national unions, is involved in the development of the European Higher Education Area. It also advocates on issues of importance to European students. US higher education could draw on Europe's experience in strengthening students' participation in institutional governance.

Governmental Leadership

The role of US governmental officials is very different from that of Europe's public authorities. The United States has many models for government support and involvement in institutional governance, including at the level of funding, where public colleges and universities are currently facing significant cutbacks at the state level. In contrast, European public authorities take primary responsibility for the higher education system and framework, often through detailed legislation. They also play a more active role in financing higher education, whether through direct funding or financial assistance to the great majority of students attending public and many private institutions. In many countries, public authorities set admission goals or quotas linked to public funding. They also determine the degree system and provide for quality assurance. Oversight by public authorities is not seen as limiting academic freedom and institutional autonomy, but rather as providing a framework for it (Council of Europe 2012).


European and American higher education have much to learn from each other. We also have much to learn from collaboration with our partner academics and policymakers from other countries and organizations. By working in cooperation, the IC and the CoE seek to strengthen higher education's role in creating humane, diverse, democratic societies.

To learn more, visit the IC website at www.internationalconsortium.org or the CoE website at www.coe.int.


Benson, Lee, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett. 2007. Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bergan, Sjur. 2005. "Higher Education as a 'Public Good and a Public Responsibility': What Does it Mean?" In The Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research, Council of Europe Higher Education Series No. 2, edited by Luc Weber and Sjur Bergan, 13–28. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

Campus Compact. 1999. Presidents' Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education. http://www.compact.org/resources-for-presidents/presidents-declaration-on-the-civic-responsibility-of-higher-education/.

Council of Europe. 1999. Budapest Declaration for a Greater Europe without Dividing Lines. https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=448149&Site=CM.

——— . 2007. Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)6 by the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research. http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/highereducation/News/pub_res_EN.pdf.

———  . 2012. Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)7 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the Responsibility of Public Authorities for Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy.

Dubin, Max J. 2007. "Educating Undergraduates for Democracy and Efficacy and the 2006 Penn Democracy Project." CUREJ: College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, April 22. http://repository.upenn.edu/curej/48.

Plantan, Frank. 2004. "The University as a Site of Citizenship." The University as Res Publica, Council of Europe Higher Education Series No. 1, edited by Sjur Bergan, 83–128. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

University of Pennsylvania. 2010. University of Pennsylvania Financial Report 2008–2009. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Winter, Alexandra, John Wiseman, and Bruce Muirhead. 2005. Beyond Rhetoric: University–Community Engagement in Victoria. Brisbane: Eidos.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Education Department at the Council of Europe and series editor of the Council of Europe Higher Education Series and Ira Harkavy is chair of the US Steering Committee of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy and associate vice president and director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, University of Pennsylvania.

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