The Public Purposes of Higher Education: Three False Dichotomies

November 9, 2017

Eric Hartman

While recently moderating a panel on Human Rights Pedagogy and Practice, I was struck by the panelists’ collective, effective erasure of a number of dichotomies in the discourse around community-campus partnerships.

First, it’s not community OR campus; we need better language than community-campus partnerships. Campuses are not so exceptional that they might be exempted from geographic space or history. They are places that include diverse and interlocking memberships, power structures, privileges, and exclusions. To frame work through the language of campus-community creates three problems.

  • Campus-community language overstates the separation between the two. Students, staff, and faculty members live, play, work, and commute in and through the physical spaces surrounding an institution’s physical plant. In complex, often exclusionary ways that reinforce broader social patterns and power inequities, people movement and processes continuously transcend campus-community dichotomies.
  • When connected with “community engagement,” “service-learning,” or other appeals to public purposes, the language of community-campus focuses attention away from institutional assumptions and physical spaces that facilitate higher education. Yet the work of justice is frequently needed and present in questions such as: equitable pay for staff members; campus diversity as it relates to the surrounding region, country, and world; free speech and civil dialogue on campuses; accessibility of the physical plant to people in the area who are not faculty, staff, or students, and much, much more (Resource: Tina Pippin, Professor of Theology at Agnes Scott College, focuses her human rights pedagogy and community engagement on campus inequities).
  • Community-campus language also serves to exempt the geographic space of campus from being claimed for community purposes.  Guilford Associate Professor of English Diya Abdo, founder of Every Campus a Refuge, instructed us that the Arabic word for campus is “haram; it means a physical space that is both ‘sacred’ and inviolable,’ a sanctuary, a refuge…. What I am suggesting,” she said, “entails a radical reimagining of what a college or university campus can and should be – a physical place of refuge in times of crisis…. Campuses are organically well-suited for this. They have housing, cafeterias, clinics, and plenty of human resources, expertise and connections to provide financial, material, legal, social, and political assistance. In fact, a college or university has more human and material resources than most other organizations.”

Second, it’s not engage now OR thoughtfully re-imagine: our work must BOTH respond to real needs and step back to reimagine and rebuild social structures and assumptions.

Haverford College Assistant Professor of Anthropology Juli Grigsby eloquently articulated the importance of pushing against the neoliberal discursive expectation of a deliverable following every class, community engagement, or effort at public purposes. This is a vital challenge and reminder to those claiming to advance the public purposes of higher ed. Colleges and universities should never be merely instrumental. They must be imaginative spaces of cultural critique and regeneration where academics may embrace their roles in defamiliarizing the familiar.

Grigsby reminded us of the importance of courses as spaces for sustained inquiry that can prepare students for more thoughtful engagement later, or that can encourage them toward campus-based forms of raising their voices to address justice concerns. She drew on Grace Lee Boggs’ articulation of activism as an ongoing journey rather than a specific location of arrival. I have experienced the value of Grigsby’s pedagogical care through my own courses. More than one student, challenged to integrate summer internship experiences with personal insights and broader human rights theory, has drawn on Grigsby’s assignment of Messy Spaces, Chicana testimonio, and the Un-Disciplining of Ethnography. This and other articles in Grigsby’s classes have supported our students’ capacities to locate their own voices within inquiry rooted in praxis.

And yet – work such as Abdo’s reminds us that real and tangible needs may be addressed by institutions of higher education. Through Every Campus a Refuge, individuals and families are literally housed on campuses as part of supporting the work of local refugee resettlement agencies. The tension between a call to reimagine social structures and a push to leverage the resources of higher ed to address challenges today is relieved when institutions create intentional pathways for students to iteratively engage with theoretical preparation, reflection, and sharpened tools of analysis, as well as thoughtfully structured, community-driven and community-guided forms of ethical engagement.

Visiting from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Professor of Political Science Bethany Barratt revealed how that institution engages students with theoretical preparation, experiential education, and a social justice focus throughout their academic careers. Barratt’s work with the Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project and Abdo’s cooperation with Guilford College’s Center for Principled Problem Solving both demonstrate academic pathways  that grow in sophistication of theoretical and experiential engagement throughout students’ academic careers. (Resource: AAC&U has developed Civic Prompts for colleges and universities to integrate civic learning throughout the major, by design).

Third, we need not choose between thoughtful critique OR consequential action. Actionable critique comes within community; it is engaged in the way of MLK’s articulation of nonviolence as “steady, loving confrontation.” When grounded in meaningful relationships and a belief that we are part of a shared whole, critique may yield consequential action.

Visiting from nearby La Salle University, Associate Professor of Theology Maureen O’Connell shared her course-based partnership with POWER, (Philadelphians Organizing to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild). POWER is an interfaith federation of 90 faith communities committed to making Philadelphia the city of “just love” (as well as “brotherly love and sisterly affection”) through a more just wage for workers, fair funding for public schools, immigration reform and decarceration. O’Connell shared personal, vocational, and pedagogical emergence at the intersection of her biography as a white, Catholic Philadelphian, our current political moment, and work to improve relationships between La Salle University and the nearby community of Bellefield. Her course – Social Justice and Community Organizing – grew from and through the insights of partnership: with POWER, with Bellefield residents, and with students interested in advancing the inclusivity of a diverse campus. The work is unfinished and emerging, but grounded in shared purposes, community-driven insights, and a transcendent commitment to shared humanity.

Each of the presenters brought and shared program and course models that have great integrity in their own right. And each approach pushed in different directions, with different expectations regarding time, on and off-campus activities, location within the curriculum, and cooperation with external agencies. 

The collective lessons of the panel for me suggest a re-centering on the importance and value of institutional planning for civic engagement, ensuring that resources are aligned such that public purposes are community-driven and thoughtfully aligned during a 4-year trajectory for a student, but for many years after in respect to community partnerships. Such planning can create space for some programming that is immediate, some that is imaginative; some justice work on campus, some explicitly off-campus; and some inquiry that is detached and critical, but in service of larger purposes of consequential action within the diverse, overlapping communities of which we are members.

In that vein, Campus Compact has a breadth of resources on institutional assessment, as well as civic action plans, while AAC&U has recently recognized twenty-two diverse institutions for their excellence in civic learning integration throughout specific majors and departments


Eric Hartman is Executive Director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College, and co-founder of globalsl. Through scholarship and practice, he is interested in seeking global citizenship and advancing ethical, community-based global learning. His writing is reflective of his own inquiry and is not advanced as a representation of official policy of Haverford College or the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. 

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