Saturday, April 02, 2011

Democracy and Higher Education

As part of the BSU Blogfest in the third week of March, I was among the campus bloggers who responded to a common set of questions throughout five days of blogging. In my responses to questions about leadership (Day 3) and the future of our university (Day 5), I expressed some concerns about the ability of a growing university to live up to rhetorical commitments we have made to meaningful social change.

Subsequently, I was encouraged by a few developments during the fourth week of March. The first of these was the initial meeting of the committee that will be implementing our university's commitment to becoming certified as a Fair Trade University. The committee is led by students and also includes some dedicated members of both the faculty and administration. We agreed not to rush into the effort but to use the process to ensure that the program goes beyond "mere" certification to ensure transformation. We achieved a number of important things for a one-hour meeting. For me the most exciting is that something I call "coffee melt" (an alleged coffee substance made from concentrated robusta) will be disappearing from our campus catering menus. More important than that single step is the sense of common purpose around not only meeting the requirements of certification but also beginning seriously to transform our practices around consumption as a campus.

Later on the day of that committee meeting was an annual event known as Arts for Advocacy, organized by our university's Social Justice League. Students and other members of the community share visual and performing arts that advocate for various dimensions of justice. The diversity issues was impressive, but the common thread was a depth of commitment to justice and -- here is the important part -- critical thinking. With students -- and other community members -- of this caliber, a bright future is within reach.

This brings me to the third major encounter of the week -- a day-long meeting about democratic civic engagement. I was able to attend only the opening session, led by Dr. John Saltmarsh. He posed the question of whether civic engagement is a movement that is transforming higher education or whether higher education is transforming the movement into something that merely perpetuates existing structures and priorities. In other words, are universities co-opting social movements whose aims are deep transformation? On one level, the question is discouraging, but I was delighted to know that I am not alone in my misgivings, and that others have already been articulating them -- far better than I have.

Dr. Saltmarsh advocates building on what has become known simply as "civic engagement" to something more transformative, which he and his colleagues call "democratic (civic) engagement." In fact, he has co-authored something called the Democratic Engagement White Paper, which describes where the movement has been and what democratization would entail as both an end and a means within education. As the report argues:
[Democratic engagement] has significant implications for transforming higher education such that democratic values are part of the leadership of administrators, the scholarly work of faculty, the educational work of staff, and the leadership development and learning outcomes of students. It has epistemological, curricular, pedagogical, research, policy, and cultural implications. It adheres to the shared understanding that the only way to learn the norms and develop the values of democracy is to practice democracy as part of one's education. (p. 6) 
and
Civic engagement in the democratic-centered paradigm is intentionally political in that students learn about democracy by acting democratically. (p. 11) 
These are radical notions in that they seek to transform the educational enterprise at its roots. The university becomes not a center of knowledge and learning, but part of an ecological system of knowledge and learning. This transformation requires a lot of self-confidence on the part of academic leaders -- be they in the classroom or in administrative roles -- as they (we) move from the front of the room to the middle and sides. As faculty members become less "sage on the stage" and more "coach" and ultimately "co-learner" we have to trust the process and the community of learners of which we are a part. The discourse around civic engagement has already been moving many faculty members in this direction. What is new in the discourse around democratic engagement -- as I understand it -- is that the institutions themselves are challenged to move in a similar direction.

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