There are many things to say about the state of national politics in the United States, which means there is much room for disagreement and competing interpretations. But one thing nearly everyone agrees about is that on the issues that matter most, we are very unlikely to see serious and sustained action in the foreseeable future. We are unlikely to forge a sustainable immigration policy or a policy to create economic opportunity for urban and rural communities that lack access to high-paying jobs. We are not going to act on climate change. We cannot ignore national politics, but we would be making a huge mistake if we were to gamble on significant forward movement coming from Washington in the near future.
In that context, the question of how to make change in and through local communities—always important—takes on additional urgency. So, I want to spend a few minutes reflecting on how we should approach the contribution of colleges and universities to community change.
In particular, I want to reflect on the relationship between what we often think of as two distinct aspects of the public mission of higher education. One aspect is what we might call the institution’s anchor mission: the obligation of the university to participate actively in creating strong, healthy, prosperous communities. The other aspect is what we might call the university’s civic education mission: the obligation of the university to educate students for effective participation in a just democratic polity.
Institutions typically act as if these were separate and distinct missions: One mission has to do with job creation, physical development of the built environment, purchasing practices, and other domains that seem to have nothing to do with students. The other mission has to do with academic courses and co-curricular programs, the stuff of the student experience. Those of us who believe colleges and universities must contribute to changing the country for the better tend to focus our calls for action on one of these domains or the other. So it is not surprising that we are left believing they are actually separate and distinct.
My central point is that despite the apparent gap separating these missions, there is ultimately no daylight between them. We can distinguish them analytically, and it may be useful to do so for certain purposes. In the end, though, a university cannot carry out its anchor mission without educating students for democracy, and a university cannot educate students for democracy without carrying out its anchor mission. My goal is to explain why these two apparently distinct missions turn out to be one mission and to identify some implications of that recognition.
The first way of seeing why there is no daylight between the two missions is by considering what constitutes success in the anchor mission realm. While there are many reasonable answers to the question, for the purposes of discussion let’s just say that success in the anchor realm means supporting the development of a community that thrives in every way that contributes to the quality of life for residents. Anchor success is achieved when a community is strong economically, socially, and environmentally.
As soon as we spell out what we mean by anchor success, we can see that it cannot be achieved without a strong citizenry. We know this for several reasons. First, the extensive literature on social capital makes clear that there is a powerful positive relationship between engaged citizens and community members, on the one hand, and economic prosperity. A community of people who are connected to each other creates a platform for innovation and investment in which individuals have the confidence to take risks. Isolated, disconnected individuals are not positioned to identify opportunities and resources, the keys for building a successful local and regional economy.
Second, another body of academic literature, known as selectorate theory, has shown that leaders will be responsive to the interests of those whose support is crucial to their own ability to stay in power. If the majority of citizens participates in the political life of the community, leaders will work to improve life for that majority, which requires them to act in a way that creates broad opportunity. If a small minority participates, leaders will direct benefits to that minority. The creation of broad opportunity is the achievement of a successful economy. The direction of benefits to a small minority of influential people, in contrast, is corruption, which produces economic failure for the vast majority.
If an engaged and participatory citizenry is necessary for economic success, then the education of students for effective citizenship is not separate from the anchor mission; it is the first and most important element of an anchor strategy. Examples from all over the world show that pouring money into communities in which citizens do not or cannot participate does not produce shared prosperity. It produces benefits for those in power and the people responsible for their staying in power. If colleges and universities direct economic resources to communities that have experienced disinvestment but do not support a corresponding civic revival, they will fail to achieve their anchor mission.
Put another way, civic education is not an undertaking separate and distinct from the anchor mission. Civic education is an essential means to the end of anchor success. But while civic education may be a necessary condition for anchor success, it is clearly not a sufficient condition.
It might be tempting, therefore, to imagine that other components of the anchor mission (e.g., local purchasing, responsible real estate development, inclusive hiring practices, and robust partnerships) are optional for those who care most about civic education. On this way of thinking, it would be possible to focus on curricular and co-curricular experiences for students, be glad that strengthening the citizenry in the vicinity of the university is helpful to the regional economy, and leave it at that.
But there is a problem with that view. Students, a substantial body of evidence reveals, learn not just from what institutions teach them but also from what institutions do. When institutions act in ways that manifest commitment to the public good, students are themselves positively influenced. Several strands of research point in this direction.
First, we have evidence from K-12 education. The Making Caring Common initiative at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has compiled the results of research on efforts to cultivate pro-social behaviors in students e.g., listening, compromising, working with others to solve problems. These are all behaviors that relate closely to citizenship skills. Their conclusion is that no program is likely to have more of an impact on students than the behaviors of the adults in the school. If school professionals display, in their interactions with each other and with students, the behaviors they wish to cultivate, students will emulate them. If school professionals display other behaviors, programs will not be especially effective. To a student, the school is teachers and administrators. Students learn from the school.
Similarly, evidence from the responses and behaviors of college students shows that they, too, tend to follow the lead of their institutions and the people who represent them. Evidence from the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory, analyzed by Robert Reason and his colleagues, shows the importance of institutional leadership in shaping student civic learning and development. The PSRI shows that high-impact practices, such as service learning have a substantial positive effect on student civic attitudes. It also shows, however, that the effect of high-impact practices is far more positive for students who believe that their institutions embrace the civic values such experiences seek to cultivate. If students see their universities acting as responsible anchor institutions, the students are more likely to be open to seeing themselves as responsible civic actors than if they see their universities sitting on the sidelines.
Analyses of student voter participation lead to the same conclusion. Nancy Thomas and her colleagues have studied universities that significantly over-perform or under-perform expected student voter rates based on data from the National Study of Learning Voting and Engagement (NSLVE). The overarching finding in this research is that student voting is driven by the campus climate at an institution. Programs focused on student voting may make a difference, but the biggest positive impact comes when students see that their university takes seriously values such as diversity, student voice in decision-making, and equal opportunity. When the institution lives out its stated values in its practices, students are motivated to embrace their obligation to participate in the political life of the community by voting.
All of these threads connect at a single point: If we want students to embrace the opportunities and responsibilities of citizenship, universities must embrace their own public responsibilities as anchor institutions in their communities and regions. As we have seen, the anchor mission depends on the success of the civic education mission, and the civic education mission depends on the success of the anchor mission. Therefore, we can see that there are not two mission but one: the university’s public purpose mission. That public purpose mission has two dimensions, the civic education dimension and the anchor dimension.
What are the implications of that recognition? First, these two dimensions of the public purpose mission must be pursued in an integrated fashion. We miss an opportunity to show students how an institution can take on public challenges in partnership with communities if we do not engage students in the work. However, engaging students in the work requires us to connect the people on the campus who facilitate student civic learning with the people who lead anchor efforts. Connecting these people and their work also ensures that the intentions of anchor efforts will be evident to students.
That last point connects to the second implication of the inter-connection of the two missions: Anchor efforts must be designed and executed in ways that provide evidence of the egalitarian and democratic commitments of the institution. That means community members and students must be active participants in decision-making connected to the university’s public purpose mission. Unless students experience the institution’s commitment to the democratic values motivating the work in the first place, we cannot expect that they will come to share that commitment.
Both public and non-profit universities receive and deserve public subsidy because their central purpose is to advance the public good. If the leaders of universities imagine that they should, must, or even can pick and choose among their obligations and pursue either their anchor mission or their civic education mission, they will undermine their own capacity to achieve their core public purpose mission. If, on the other hand, they embrace the inter-connection among the dimensions of the public purpose mission, they have the opportunity to foster new levels of creativity as faculty, staff, students, and community members work together to envision the next generation of integrated and engaged universities.
This piece originally appeared in Metroplitan Universities Vol. 29.2, “The Urban Advantage: The 2017 CUMU Annual Conference Issue” as part of the article “Voices from the Field: 2017 CUMU Annual Conference Opening Plenary Remarks”