Student Civic Learning Depends on Institutional Commitment to Change

President, Campus Compact|
February 9, 2015

On Saturday morning, I had the opportunity to deliver the closing keynote at the Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values at Florida State University. The Dalton Institute is an annual gathering of students, faculty, staff, and administrators who care about preparing college students for lives of effective public participation.

The theme of this year’s institute was, “Widening Inequalities: Educating Students to Be Fair and Equitable in the World They Will Lead.” Ever since Aristotle, philosophers and social scientists have understood that exemplars make a difference: If you see your parents acting justly, that’s likely to have a big impact on you. In my talk, I contemplated the extent to which the same was true of colleges and universities. If you as a student see your institution acting in ways that promote equality and democracy, does that have an impact on your own views and, ultimately, actions?

Much research in civic and service learning has focused on the propensity of these practices to deepen students’ commitment to living socially responsible lives. Most attention has been on the nature of the experiences created for students. How deep is the engagement? Are students required to analyze and reflect on what they see and do?

At least since the late 1990s, scholars have called attention to the relationship between the quality of the partnerships in which student experiences are embedded and the learning that results: Better partnerships produce better learning. One interpretation is that good partnerships make it possible for everyone involved to work together to frame good learning experiences. But there is another possibility: Perhaps better partnerships produce better learning because students learn something from witnessing the commitment of their university—or a department, a professor, etc.—in action. Perhaps it is not just the outcome of the partnership—a well-framed learning experience—but the inputs into the partnership—a relationship characterized by mutual respect and shared goals—that make the difference.

I had begun to suspect that this was the case when I led the civic engagement effort at Rutgers-Camden. I often spoke to groups of students I did not know well—as a guest lecturer in courses or at introductory events for students in co-curricular programs—and I was consistently asked by students what their university was doing to support positive change in Camden. The implicit premise was that if the university was asking students to stretch themselves to make a difference, the university should do the same.

I was prompted to think more systematically about this recently when I heard Robert Reason, a professor at Iowa State and director of the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory, speak at a gathering organized by Bringing Theory to Practice. Reason talked about evidence emerging from analyses of PSRI data, which are collected from a survey taken by tens of thousands of college students across dozens of institutions. I asked him if he could take a look at the evidence in a way that would get at the question of whether student civic development is influenced by the level of commitment of their universities. He and Kevin Hemer, an Iowa State doctoral student, did just that.

One of their key findings is that when students perceive that their university is genuinely committed to the larger community, to the value of taking others’ perspectives seriously, and to ethical and moral reasoning and action, they themselves experience higher levels of development along these dimensions. Students become more ethical and socially responsible when they see ethical and socially responsible action from their universities. (It is worth noting that the conclusions about student development are based on self-reported data, but the same can be said about most research in this field).

There are other interesting findings: Students are more likely to agree with the statement that their institution should be committed to contributing to a larger community than with the statement that their institutions is committed. That gap between the students’ hopes and the reality they perceive grows when you compare seniors to first-year students. And both expectations and judgments of reality are shifted upward among students who have participated in service learning, diversity courses, or community service.

In the world of higher education civic engagement, we often distinguish between student learning and community partnerships. We task some office or center with experiential civic learning or community service, but we don’t empower them to go out into communities beyond the campus and build substantive, sustained partnerships on behalf of their universities. We don’t empower them to work with admissions to ensure that the university is educating a diverse student population representing communities with which the university partners. We don’t empower them to work with HR and purchasing to ensure that the institution is behaving as a responsible community anchor.

The evidence from the PSRI suggests that approaching community engagement in such a fragmented way undermines our educational strategy. Student civic learning must be embedded in institutional partnerships that manifestly seek to achieve real and lasting change. If it is not, we are failing not only to advance change but also to educate our students in the ways we promise.