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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 system’s mission, policies, and student success initiatives strengthen democracy.
College and university board members must champion free speech, belonging, and inclusion.
One of the most important intersections between democracy and higher education is the value of free speech and inquiry. AGB recently published Freedom of Speech and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on Campus and an accompanying FAQ guide. These new resources build on AGB’s Principles of Trusteeship and our Board of Directors’ Statement on Justice, Equity, and Inclusion and Guidance for Implementation.
Boards have the difficult task of crafting policies that allow students to learn, grow, and evolve, preparing them to contribute meaningfully to social discourse with knowledge, confidence, and maturity. When considering their system’s free speech policies, board members should visit the AGB Knowledge Center or reach out to AGB Consulting to optimize their policies and bylaws to ensure that they adhere to leading practices.
Boards are accountable for developing well-educated, curious, and engaged students—the heart of the democratic enterprise.
Beyond free speech, democracy requires an informed, engaged electorate. While governing boards are accountable for institutional outcomes and should avoid micromanagement, operational responsibility is delegated to the chief executive officer. As such, governing boards, in collaboration with their chief executives and leadership teams, should defer to faculty and staff on how best to deliver effective educational outcomes.
In an age of misinformation and disinformation, students’ ability to assess validity and counter inaccurate narratives with civility is a fundamental component of a great education. AGB recommends that boards ask senior leaders how skills that strengthen democratic norms, such as critical thinking, collaboration, and civil discourse, are woven into and throughout the curriculum. These skills are critical to success in the workforce, and they are essential to contributing to a healthy, democratic society.
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 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 postsecondary systems and institutions that can restore 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 system 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.