Diversity and Democracy

Education for Personal and Social Responsibility: Applying the Life of the Mind to the Work of the World

Nearly a quarter century ago, Ernest Boyer called on higher education to remember its complex mission in a diverse democracy and interdependent world. "The aim of the undergraduate experience," he wrote, "is not only to prepare the young for productive careers, but also to enable them to live lives of dignity and purpose; not only to generate new knowledge, but to channel that knowledge to humane ends; not merely to study government, but to help shape a citizenry that can promote the public good" (Boyer 1987, 297). Boyer was calling on an earlier tradition of liberal education that had been relegated to a dusty corner of the modern university.

Twenty years before Boyer's comment, I was in graduate school when the world flooded campuses like a tsunami, unrestrained by the stone walls that often served to demarcate the life of the mind from the work of the world. The earthquake stirring those floodwaters originated in the big questions that dominated the sixties: questions related to racial inequality, shifting attitudes about the role of women, the war in Vietnam, the role of the military-industrial complex, and the shedding of colonial rule in African countries. The overriding question for higher education was what role it should play in the midst of the torrent. Students and a few faculty pressed colleges and universities to engage more emphatically in helping students make sense of the world and of their responsibility to it. At that time, this change in focus and mission was described as a matter of finding relevance.

But those calling for change were swimming against the tide of tradition, which had firmly ensconced knowledge as value neutral, as something that transcended and was cheapened by contact with the grittiness of life. Over forty years later, the search for relevance remains an important driving force, with one critical change: now colleges and universities are seeing the work of the world as inextricable from the life of the mind. In the last decade, they have begun to define education for personal and social responsibility as one of four essential pillars of a contemporary college education (along with knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, and integrative learning). Both AAC&U's Greater Expectations report (2002) and its College Learning for the New Global Century report (2007) described this new attention to what students need if they are to be informed, empowered, and socially responsible participants in their professional, personal, and community lives.

Core Commitments: A Clarion Call

To assist colleges and universities in their efforts to recalibrate their goals for learning for the twenty-first century, AAC&U launched Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility in 2006. With initial funding from the Templeton Foundation, Core Commitments was "designed to help campuses create learning environments in which all students reach for excellence in the use of their talents, take responsibility for the integrity and quality of their work, and engage in meaningful practices" and study to explore questions about their responsibilities as global and local citizens.

The intellectual heart of Core Commitments lies in the initiative's articulation of five distinct but related dimensions of personal and social responsibility. While there could be additional dimensions, the Core Commitments project began with these five, formulated by a group of distinguished scholars and researchers in moral and intellectual development who helped shaped the contours of the initiative. The five dimensions are research based, intended to resonate with broad constituencies inside and outside of higher education, and designed to be both fostered and assessed. They include

  • striving for excellence: developing a strong work ethic and consciously doing one's very best in all aspects of college;
  • cultivating personal and academic integrity: recognizing and acting on a sense of honor, ranging from honesty in relationships to principled engagement with a formal academic honor code;
  • contributing to a larger community: recognizing and acting on one's responsibility to the educational community and the wider society, locally, nationally, and globally;
  • taking seriously the perspectives of others: recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform one's own judgment and engaging diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship, and work; and
  • developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning and action: developing ethical and moral reasoning in ways that incorporate the other four responsibilities, and using such reasoning in learning and in life.

Core Commitments is a multiproject initiative designed to assist campuses as they articulate clear expectations and develop intentional opportunities to advance and assess students' progress over time. A leadership consortium of twenty-three institutions that have exemplary programs in place but that also have commitments to expand, deepen, and assess student learning was formed after a national call that generated 130 applications. Over 320 college and university presidents also pledged to provide leadership in a far-reaching effort to reengage higher education with issues of ethical and civic responsibility.

Core Commitments also seeks to mobilize expanded campus commitments to personal and social responsibility by sponsoring a steady stream of topically focused public events, from symposiums to institutes to national meetings. The popularity of these events attests to a growing desire for opportunities to advance higher education's work on this topic. Our first symposium drew 450 people from 265 institutions, and our first Network for Academic Renewal conference that focused on personal and social responsibility attracted over 500 participants. The second Network conference on the topic--scheduled for October 13­15, 2011, in Long Beach, California--is likely to attract similar numbers. AAC&U hopes that readers of Diversity & Democracy will consider both submitting a proposal and participating in the 2011 meeting (see http://www.aacu.org/events for details).

Finally, Core Commitments has generated tools, research, and a plethora of resources to inform campus practices and measure progress. One of these new tools is the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory (PSRI), a climate survey that AAC&U hopes will become widely used by campuses and provide long-range measurements of national trends in both students' capacities for personal and social responsibility and institutions' implementation of opportunities for students' moral and civic development. AAC&U has published three topical monographs based on PSRI findings: Civic Responsibility, Developing a Moral Compass, and Engaging Diverse Viewpoints. A fourth monograph to be published in June 2011 will draw on six national databases to explore the kinds of practices evidence suggests accelerate learning in the realm of personal and social responsibility.

The Gap Between Aspiration and Actuality

Growing evidence suggests that today's undergraduates long to integrate the life of the mind with responsibilities to a larger common good. Researchers Alexander and Helen Astin note, "About two-thirds [of today's entering college freshmen] consider it 'essential' or 'very important' that their college enhance their self-understanding (69 percent), prepare them for responsible citizenship (67 percent), and develop their personal values (67 percent)" (Higher Education Research Institute 2004, 6).

AAC&U's own research echoes these findings. AAC&U's Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory (PSRI), administered to 24,000 students and 9,000 campus professionals at the twenty-three Core Commitments Consortium campuses in fall 2007, revealed that faculty, students, academic administrators, and student affairs professionals "strongly agree" across all five dimensions that education for personal and social responsibility should be a major focus of college, with 53 to 88 percent in strong agreement across constituencies and dimensions (Dey and Associates 2009). When respondents who "somewhat agree" are also considered, the percentages soar to a near-universal consensus (92-99 percent).

But while constituents across groups have professed a set of new priorities for college learning, education for personal and social responsibility remains more of an aspiration than a reality. Both students and campus professionals in the 2007 PSRI study agreed that at their institutions, such education was woefully inadequate and only spottily available. There was a striking gap--in some areas, a difference of more than 50 percentage points--between "should be" and "actually is," revealing a clear disjunction between aspiration and actuality.

Anne Colby and William M. Sullivan posit that so few institutions address the outcomes of ethical responsibility to self and others because "despite evidence to the contrary, many educators hope and expect that these outcomes will be achieved as by-products of a college education, that they do not require explicit attention" (Colby and Sullivan 2009, 22). AAC&U contends that institutions need to invest in more purposeful and transparent developmental pathways for students to acquire these invaluable capabilities. Such educational opportunities need to be both pervasive--a shared responsibility of everyone on campus--and available to all students in increasingly sophisticated ways over the course of their educations. Colby and Sullivan explain, "It is important for the institutional culture to help students think about what they want to be like as individuals, as professionals in their fields, and as citizens as well as to engage them habitually in socially responsible behaviors through providing opportunities, incentives, and structures for that behavior" (Colby and Sullivan 2009, 29).

Closing the Gap between "Should Be" and "Actually Is"

AAC&U has been heartened by the 2007-08 findings of the University of California-Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) Faculty Survey, which reflect the views of 22,562 full-time college faculty at 372 four-year colleges and universities. The survey measured a significant shift in faculty goals for undergraduate education in terms of receptiveness to personal and social responsibility goals. In the three years since the previous polling, the percentage of faculty saying it is "very important" or "essential" that faculty help students develop moral character has jumped from 57.1 percent to 70.2 percent. An even greater percentage shift exists in support for helping students develop personal values--from 50.8 percent to 66.1 percent. Similarly, the level of support for instilling commitment to community service has leapt from 36.4 percent to 55.5 percent (DeAngelo et al. 2009, 3).

Clearly, a movement to close the gap between aspiration and reality in educating for character, values, and social responsibility is underway in higher education. This issue of Diversity & Democracy is filled with superb examples of how some campuses are closing their gaps, particularly as they relate to three of the five dimensions: "contributing to a larger community," "taking seriously the perspectives of others," and "developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning and action." The schools featured here are engaging big questions, connecting knowledge with choices and actions, creating interconnected curricula reinforced by cocurricula, investing in staff and faculty development, and anchoring students' intellectual work in active involvement with diverse communities both local and global as they seek to understand and address real-world challenges. As a fourth-year student answering the PSRI put it, "Being in an environment that cares about the rest of the world helps encourage you to do the same" (Dey and Associates 2009, 1). For this student, at least, the life of the mind has begun to merge with the work of the world.


Boyer, Ernest L. 1987. College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. New York: Harper Collins.

Colby, Anne, and William M. Sullivan. 2009. "Strengthening the Foundations of Students' Excellence, Integrity, and Social Contribution." Liberal Education 95 (1): 22-29.

DeAngelo, Linda, Sylvia Hurtado, John H. Pryor, Kimberly R. Kelly, José Luis Santos, and William S. Korn. 2009. The American College Teacher: National Norms for the Faculty 2007-2008 HERI Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.

Dey, Eric, and Associates. 2009. Civic Responsibility: What is the Campus Climate for Learning? Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Greater Expectations National Panel. 2002. Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Higher Education Research Institute. 2004. The Spiritual Life of College Students: A National Study of Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose. Los Angeles, California: Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles.

National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


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