The Engaged Campus

An engaged campus is one that is consciously committed to reinvigorating the democratic spirit and community engagement in all aspects of its campus life: students, faculty, staff and the institution itself. The call for civic engagement has been clearly articulated in several recent documents. (Presidents’ Declaration, Wingspread Declaration, Civic Self Assessment). Community engagement includes service learning, which integrates community service into academic study, gives students an opportunity to improve their citizenship skills, and renews the faculty member’s enthusiasm for teaching. Service learning, however, is only one characteristic of an engaged campus. The engaged campus, like the service-learning student, recognizes that knowledge cannot be separated from the purposes to which it is directed. The engaged campus is not just located within a community, it is intimately connected to the public purposes and aspirations of community life itself. The engaged campus in unable to separate its unique responsibility for the development of knowledge, from the role of knowledge in a democratic society to form the basis for social progress and human equality.

In addition to extensive student learning through service, there are common practices that characterize an engaged campus. For presidents, this means a deep commitment to and articulation of the importance of community engagement. For faculty, this includes a scholarship of engagement to share their knowledge with and help their students learn from the community. For campuses, this means having staff whose job it is to build collaborative community relationships based on mutual respect. Finally, it is sharing with the community such physical and economic resources of the campus as space, athletic facilities, purchasing power and employment opportunities.


American higher education has a long and rich tradition of seeking higher moral and civic purposes in its endeavors. College presidents have advocated for democratic reform, and students have challenged the injustices of society. In addition, campuses have been the sites of debate on the critical issues of the day and faculty have sought to provide students with the tools for rigorous analysis, critical reflection, and participation in the democracy. However, many in the academy are deeply concerned that these traditions are, today, threatened by both an entrenched emphasis on disciplinary divisions and an excessive focus on preparation for the workplace.

Campus Compact believes that, now more than ever, higher education is challenged to educate the leaders of tomorrow and to connect those future leaders with the world of today. There is widespread concern about the state of American democracy as voter registration continues to decline and public apathy and cynicism about political life increase among youth, even as their participation in service activities increases. We need to prepare students to succeed in a multicultural world both in America and internationally. At the same time, American communities reach out for help only to find a rapidly shrinking pool of resources. In spite of a strong economy, America has homeless people in every town, children going to bed hungry, and children whose education leaves them unprepared for work in a complex and unstable world.

It is a time in our civic life when the role of central government is declining and other sectors are being called upon to address our community needs and reinvigorate our democracy (Gardner, 1995). Higher education-its leaders, students, faculty, and staff-can be a key institutional force in this effort. Although subject to economic pressures and political agendas like all of our institutions, colleges and universities have the intellectual and professional resources to be actively engaged in addressing community issues.

There are many reasons for mobilizing the resources of higher education on behalf of society. This is part of the grand tradition of American higher education. Legislators and other stakeholders are asking about the social utility of higher education. Many campuses are located in disadvantaged communities, and all campuses are affected by the poor quality of elementary and secondary education of disadvantaged youth because it limits their access to higher education and narrows the pipeline of diverse talent that campuses seek.

The academy also has much to gain by community engagement, including the intellectual challenges of applying scholarship to the pressing issues of the day and the prospect of new interdisciplinary insights that the scholarship of engagement will bring. In addition, community engagement can be an important catalyst for the institutional change demanded by dramatic changes in the economy, advances in technology, and the increasing diversity of students attending college.

See also: What are the indicators of an Engaged Campus?