One important outcome of higher education’s value proposition is its significant contribution to a healthy democracy. Graduates, inspired by a quality education, informed perspectives, critical thinking skills, and the ability to engage in civil discourse, have the power to transform their lives and serve as consequential contributors to society. I urge you to consider how your foundation’s mission, policies, and student success initiatives strengthen democracy.
Foundation boards can help students cultivate soft skills and democratic engagement.
For several months, I have asked foundation boards to consider how philanthropic and foundation strategies can be used to further student success efforts, whether through scholarships, mentorship programs, capital projects, or meeting students’ basic needs. While foundation boards are not accountable for effective educational outcomes at the institution, they should use these expected outcomes in developing the foundation’s strategic priorities and aligning the foundation with institutional needs.
Further, foundations can discover and lead efforts that weave community needs into institutional priorities. Consider how to support programs that focus on skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and civil discourse through work-study and/or internships. These skills are critical to success in the workforce, and they are essential to contributing to a healthy democratic society. Unfortunately, however, programs that specifically reinforce these skills are not always funded at the same level as more technical fields, and foundation board members and executives can serve as critical, strategic thought partners and bridge builders between communities and campus, demonstrating how employers can benefit from a college-educated workforce.
AGB’s reports and resources can help your board reflect on the intersection of higher education and democracy.
Higher education’s value to democracy is a global phenomenon. AGB identified strengthening civic education and democracy as one of the top strategic issues for boards, and created several resources to help governing boards understand the intersection of these issues. Renewing the Democratic Purposes of Higher Education and Reclaiming Higher Education’s Leadership in Support of Civil Education highlight many principles and recommendations that help boards oversee efforts to prepare students to thrive in a global, digital, and knowledge economy.
In the latest issue of Trusteeship magazine, I argue in “American Democracy Is in Jeopardy” that issues around instances of intense political overreach, a greater need to adapt to rapidly changing student demographics, and a waning appreciation for postsecondary education are threatening the future of higher education and democracy in the United States.
Consequential, strategic governing boards are critical to advancing democracy, society, and the economy through a sharpened focus on student success—for all students. As an outcome of this renewed focus on student success, boards, in collaboration with their chief executives and leadership teams, also have a central role in establishing sustainable foundations and restoring public confidence in higher education.
Questions for Board and Committee Chairs
- How can we weave the value of higher education in democracy into our conversations about foundation priorities?
- How can the board build in time to discuss strategic issues that may not arise in regular conversation?
Questions for Board Members
- What is higher education’s responsibility to a thriving democracy?
- What is the intersection between student success and advancing democracy?
- As a leader, how can my colleagues and I model collaboration, civil discourse, and healthy discussion in the boardroom?
Questions for Chief Executives and Leadership Team Members
- How can I help shape agendas to afford sufficient time for meaningful deliberation and discussion?
- What metrics can I provide to demonstrate that students are learning effective collaboration skills that are accretive to a well-functioning, democratic society?
Nason Award Submissions Are Due October 15
In closing, I encourage your board to submit a self-nomination for the 2023 John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership. Special criteria for 2022–2023 will focus on board leadership that has resulted in the advancement of the educational mission and the success of all students in just, equitable, and inclusive ways.