Developing Board Support for Civic Education and Democracy 

Council Insights: Council of Presidents

By Carol A. Cartwright and Jonathan R. Alger January 4, 2023 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

The most effective boards exercise leadership in many ways. They constantly scan the national landscape for issues related to higher education and carefully consider implications for their institutions. They become informed and engaged in strategic discussions about current and emerging issues at their institutions. They understand the importance of shared governance and, in partnership with their presidents and chancellors, they develop institutional responses to key issues and opportunities.

To support governing boards as they strive to stay on top of current and emerging issues, AGB Consulting recently developed three one-hour virtual workshops on trending topics. The workshops are designed to engage boards in strategic thinking as they consider current issues that are impacting their institution. More topics are in the works for the future.

One of the workshops is focused on an issue gaining traction within the higher education community: the role of colleges and universities in advancing civic engagement and democracy. As AGB President and CEO Henry Stoever noted in his recent Trusteeship article “American Democracy Is in Jeopardy: A Call to Higher Education Governing Boards” qualities that sustain American democracy are in danger due to three overarching threats:  growing political intrusion into higher education, insufficient preparedness to address demographic shifts impacting campus communities, and public skepticism regarding the value of higher education.” He urges governing boards to take these issues seriously and expand their understanding of the role higher education can and should play in ensuring a strong democratic society. As we consider what AGB and other organizations are doing, we see a growing understanding that higher education has to be more committed and more deliberate in carrying out its responsibilities to American democracy.

With this goal in mind, how should boards be thinking about the responsibility of colleges and universities in advancing civic education, civic engagement, and democracy? At a recent meeting, the AGB Council of Presidents addressed the opportunities with a specific focus on what might be developed to keep the focus on students and student success. Three broad options were discussed in the context of the differences between the board’s strategy and leadership role and the roles of the faculty and administration. Guided by Rich Novak, AGB Senior Fellow and one of the developers of the workshop on Civic Engagement and Democracy, the council considered the concept of a civic education curriculum, including the value of a civic education requirement. They also discussed multiple ways of offering civic engagement experiences for students and the role of campus climate, especially issues surrounding freedom of speech.

Boards can be especially helpful when they ask probing, strategic questions and prompt institutional leaders to think deeply about institutional opportunities. For example, related to the topic of civic engagement and democracy, in an overview discussion, boards might want to know:

  • As a board, do we have a full appreciation of our institution’s responsibilities to its mission and for the public good? Is civic education a central component of our mission or a logical extension of it?
  • Do we want to encourage the addition of specific, measurable goals for civic education and engagement in our strategic plan?
  • Are our graduates fully prepared to participate meaningfully in American democracy? What are the indicators? Can we do better?

The workshop is based on three interrelated topics: What students could or should know (civic education curriculum), what students can or should do outside the classroom (civic engagement), and on the campus climate for free speech and civil discourse. A deep dive into any of the three topics would involve board questions about the current status of the topic, as well as discussion and questions about possible actions and strategies. The board has a responsibility to understand the content of these topics before setting expectations. Furthermore, boards need to recognize that initiating or integrating civic education and engagement has to be collaborative and include both internal and external stakeholders.

Throughout their deliberations, boards should keep in mind that a healthy democracy requires engaged citizens, and engaged citizens require preparation and practice. In our view, higher education is uniquely positioned to prepare engaged citizens and we know that going to college is related positively to a lifetime of civic engagement.

So how can this important work be advanced at a practical level? The AGB workshop provides a framework for initiating the conversation. As part of such a conversation, President Alger of James Madison University recently shared a “top ten” list of areas to consider in developing an institution’s actionable commitment to civic engagement and support for democracy. The non-exhaustive list below is intended to stimulate discussion. Governing boards should engage with these ideas at the strategy and policy level, mindful of the role of faculty and staff to work out implementation details.

1. Strategic Plan

Is civic engagement work included as a priority in the institution’s strategic plan? Mission statements often reference the public good, but an explicit reference to civic education and engagement in the strategic plan can send a powerful signal, reflecting and reinforcing the institution’s values and priorities.

2. Structure/Organization and Leadership/Coordination

How are civic engagement efforts led and organized at the institution?  A focus on civic engagement might include efforts to support student voter registration; development of knowledge about policy-making issues and structures at the local, state, and national levels; and opportunities to discuss and debate important public policy issues. The James Madison Center for Civic Engagement plays a vital role in leading and coordinating this work at James Madison University.

3. Curriculum

While the content of the curriculum is primarily within the purview of the faculty, there are questions boards can ask to better understand the learning opportunities available to students. For example, is civic engagement embedded within general education requirements? An emphasis on both subject matter content and skills development might be appropriate. Many of the skills required for life and career success are also required for effective civic engagement. A board might inquire about how an institution can support faculty members who want to incorporate civic learning into their teaching.

4. Experiential Learning/Internships

Civic engagement can also be more effective with opportunities for experiential learning such as service learning or internships. For example, many institutions have programs in which student take classes and do internships at government agencies in the national or state capitals.

5. Assessment

To signal that an institution is taking civic education and engagement seriously, institutions need plans for assessing impact and effectiveness. Boards can ensure that appropriate assessments are in place and that the results are used for program improvement.

6. Research/Scholarship

What opportunities are there for students to work with faculty on research and scholarship related to democracy and major public policy issues?

7. Student Life: Organizations and Activities

A great deal of civic education and engagement can take place outside of the classroom. Boards may want to ask if students have opportunities to be trained in how to participate in dialogues or debates on controversial issues. The role of student government and other student organizations should be considered. Institutions may also offer living/learning communities with a civic engagement focus, and boards should understand how these communities operate and how effective they are.

8. Campus Events/Speakers

Boards need to understand what signals are being sent when the institution sponsors major campus events and speakers. Is there an intentional effort to model civil discourse and debate on difficult issues?

9. K-12 and Community Outreach

One of the ways in which higher education makes a significant impact on civic health is through the training of future (and current) K-12 teachers, helping them learn how they can incorporate civic education and civic engagement into the curriculum. Higher education institutions can also partner with other community organizations on democracy-related opportunities, taking care to avoid partisanship.

10. Connecting with Colleagues across Higher Education

Boards and others in the institution can benefit from learning about emerging best practices. Is the institution connected with national efforts such as Campus Compact or the ALL IN Camus Democracy Challenge that provide resources and support for such work?

Boards might also ask questions about institutional policies, practices, and educational opportunities related to freedom of expression in and outside the classroom.

Considering the highly polarized national climate, you might think that governing boards and college and university leaders would be reluctant to take up discussions about civic engagement and democracy. That may be true in some cases, and institutions need to consider issues within their own region and state. A review of topics at national meetings of higher education associations suggests that the higher education community is eager to participate in strategic thinking about the issues and opportunities in civic education and engagement, and a growing number of presidents and chancellors are working with their boards to become better informed.

The work of civic education and engagement should not be viewed as an optional add-on for American colleges and universities, but rather as a fundamental responsibility that is embedded throughout the fabric of institutions. Boards can ensure that this commitment is valued and reflected through joining this growing national conversation, and by modeling its precepts in their own words and actions. If done thoughtfully and with wide participation of constituents on and off campus, this work might also help to strengthen public trust in our institutions.

Carol A. Cartwright, PhD, is president emeritus of Kent State University and Bowling Green State University, an AGB senior fellow and senior consultant, and the ambassador to the Council of Presidents. Jonathan R. Alger, JD, is the president of James Madison University and a member of the Council of Presidents.