Diversity and Democracy

A New Era for Diversity & Democracy at AAC&U

The publication before you signals the start of yet another new era in AAC&U's ongoing commitment to exploring enduring questions about diversity, democracy, and liberal learning in global and local contexts. AAC&U is expanding the frequency and length of this important periodical, rededicating Diversity & Democracy as shared space for the many partner organizations, scholars, educational leaders, and faculty who are working with us to make civic learning a pervasive achievement for all college students and an expected component of a high-quality twenty-first-century college education. Simultaneously, we are doubling down on our long-term engagement with diversity as an essential element of college learning and, importantly, as a vital catalyst for learning outcomes that are indispensable for work and citizenship—including critical inquiry, communication, problem solving, and social responsibility (O'Neill 2012).

As has become increasingly clear in both the economic and civic realms, twenty-first-century challenges require the capacity to work collectively across differences—applying ethical reasoning and integrative knowledge to solve unscripted problems. As AAC&U documented in a recent synthesis of national research (Finley 2012), some students currently graduate with these capabilities, but many do not. Developing the capacities needed to solve problems across difference can no longer be seen as mainly an option for the privileged few. By expanding this periodical, AAC&U is widening the arena where colleges and universities can share their progress in creating educational environments where every student learns how to engage difference productively while working with others to solve difficult problems—including the problem of deep and debilitating inequities, in the United States and around the globe.

Diversity, Democracy, and AAC&U

This expanded reach for Diversity & Democracy builds on a twenty-year legacy. In 1993, AAC&U spearheaded a decade-long national initiative, American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Education, designed to deepen higher education's work at the intersections of diversity and democracy. American Commitments engaged hundreds of institutions in curricular, cocurricular, and cultural reforms based in an understanding that diversity is a key resource for educational excellence and a critical if often undervalued element of civic culture in the United States. In the midst of that initiative, AAC&U launched the periodical Diversity Digest in 1996 as a resource for campus practitioners engaged in this work.

A decade later, higher education's engagement with diversity had evolved and expanded. Accomplished scholars and educators had developed a rich array of resources to assist practitioners in addressing inequities and advancing knowledge across differences, and the diversity movement began to intersect in provocative and promising ways with two other movements focused on higher education's social responsibilities: the growing civic and global learning movements. To assist these three movements in strengthening mutually beneficial connections while moving their collective work from the margins to the center, we reimagined Diversity Digest and relaunched it as Diversity & Democracy in 2007.

In the years since, higher education has deepened its commitments to diversity and democracy on multiple fronts, local and global. But the context for this work continues to evolve, with progress and setbacks intertwined. Just as the United States reached a significant milestone in electing its first African American president, his presidency inherited the country's deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Just as the nation reaches new levels of racial and ethnic diversity, new legal challenges to considering these factors in college admissions have reached the Supreme Court. Just as educational leaders are recognizing that global challenges demand new levels of creative collaboration, deepening global inequity and domestic political polarization threaten to exacerbate divisions of nation, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity, ability, gender, and immigration status. With the expanded Diversity & Democracy, we begin a new year with a renewed focus on higher education's role in discerning through these challenges a collective path forward.

The Next Generation of Work

Six years ago, AAC&U launched its Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) campaign with the report College Learning for the New Global Century, underscoring the global contexts for the college learning American students need. We have since come to see the global century as rooted in the global commons—the real and imagined spaces where we confront the shared challenges that define our responsibilities to and for each other. These challenges—which encompass every big question we face as human beings, from economic health to environmental sustainability—affect each of us differently, but they affect every one of us nonetheless. Understanding our global interdependence in the context of these challenges is imperative if we are to avoid reenacting the "tragedy of the commons," where single entities exploit shared resources for their own benefit and to the detriment of all. As AAC&U has long underscored with its project Shared Futures: Global Learning and Social Responsibility, higher education will play a crucial role in ensuring a future where global vitality, not tragedy, is possible.

The global commons carry deep implications for our work in national and local contexts. Educational leaders are acknowledging anew that colleges and universities have for too long neglected their role in preparing students for civic and economic life, despite American higher education's roots in building a foundation for engaged citizenship.

With its 2012 report A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement called for heightened attention to higher education's role in sustaining the country's civic vitality in the context of global interdependence. The next generation of work for diversity and democracy will build in part on the momentum from that report, mobilizing groups like the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Action Network, described by Caryn McTighe Musil in this issue of Diversity & Democracy.

In returning to these civic commitments, higher education will strengthen its engagement with the very issues that American Commitments raised twenty years ago when it laid the groundwork for the original Diversity Digest. As I stated in my preface to the second edition of the American Commitments publication The Drama of Diversity and Democracy, "We assume the future of our democracy, of course. But we are not asking the nation's most highly educated citizens to think about what it will actually take to sustain it. And the core issues for a democratic republic—questions about the meaning of freedom, equality, human dignity, human rights, civil rights, justice and injustice—are, astoundingly, not 'core' at all in the college curriculum" (2012, ix).

Indeed, despite significant progress, higher education has yet to translate the intellectual work on diversity, democracy, inequity, and the global commons into sufficient learning gains for all students. As Ashley Finley relates in Making Progress? (2012), current assessments suggest the need for substantial growth in student learning related to personal and social responsibility (including civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence, and ethical reasoning and action) (8–11). Effecting this growth is one of the critical challenges the higher education community now faces. With this expanded periodical, we aim to provide tools to assist educators in pursuing this goal.

From Question to Imperative

Diversity fully embraced is the ultimate test for a democratic community. Diversity describes our fellow citizens; democratic values inscribe the obligations we affirm—and enact—with one another. This is true whether we enter the conversation with a focus on America's increasing demographic diversity, the civic commitments of its citizens, or the global contexts in which we all live our lives. It is more imperative than ever that we be able to answer the question "Making Progress?" with an emphatic "yes"—particularly when that progress relates to students' capacities to engage proactively with their diverse and stratified world.

In the new era of this work, Diversity & Democracy aims to move the conversations about these critical topics forward, building momentum for interconnected priorities with renewed vigor and focus. We hope that this expanded publication will assist faculty, staff, and administrators in addressing the challenge that a diverse democracy in a global commons puts to each of us: that of upholding our shared responsibilities to one another.


Finley, Ashley. 2012. Making Progress? What We Know About the Achievement of Liberal Education Outcomes. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

O'Neill, Nancy. 2012. Promising Practices for Personal and Social Responsibility: Findings from a National Research Collaborative. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider, Carol Geary. 2012. "Diversity and Democracy: The Unfinished Work." The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments (2nd edition). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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