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On the Future of Engagement

Tomorrow's Academy

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The distinction we are making between civic engagement as it is widely manifested in higher education and what we are calling democratic engagement is not attributed to the kind of knowledge and expertise generated in the academy, but whether that knowledge and its use is inclusive of other sources of knowledge and problem solving.



The posting below looks at the future of civic engagement in higher education.  It is an excerpt from the white paper, The Democratic Engagement White Paper, Saltmarsh, J., Hartley, M. and P.H.Clayton (2009) Democratic Engagement White Paper. Boston, MA: New England Resource Center for Higher Education. The paper is one of the outcomes of a February 26-27, 2008, meeting of 30 academics and academic leaders at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio for the purpose of critically examining the state of civic engagement in higher education; a primary goal of which was to determine how best to strategically promote the concept of fostering democratic citizenship as a key institutional priority for American colleges and universities.  More information about the project and the complete White Paper can be found at The excerpt is provided by one of the authors, John Saltmarsh, director, New England Resource Center for Higher Education, Graduate College of Education University of Massachusetts Boston. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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On the Future of Engagement


Civic engagement is a term increasingly in common use in higher education. In a 2002 report, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities noted that while engagement has become "shorthand for describing a new era of two-way partnerships between America's colleges and universities and the publics they serve . . . it also presents the risk that the term can say everything and nothing at the same time. . . . [T]he lack of clear definition can leave some campuses and their leaders with the impression that they are 'doing engagement,' when in fact they are not." It is often used as an umbrella term, connoting any campus-based activities that connects with or relates to something - issues, problems, organizations, schools, governments - outside the campus. It has a certain idealistic appeal as it relates to institutional mission - preparing socially responsible citizens as graduates - and speaks to the accountability of the college or university to the wider society and public interest.

In its "big tent" framing, civic engagement is defined largely by the characteristics of activity and place; some kind of activity (a course, a research project, internships, field work, clinical placement, economic development, volunteerism) that occurs in the "community" (local, national, global) The focus on place often leads to the work of engagement being labeled "community engagement" - activity that occurs in a certain place, the "community." Campuses that approach civic engagement as a new activity or new set of activities connecting to community often do so in ways that create new programs, offices, centers, courses, or service opportunities; additional activities that are adaptive to the existing cultures of higher education and which do not call for changes in ways colleges and universities fundamentally operate -in underlying assumptions and institutional behaviors, processes, and products. Engagement that is defined by activities connected to places outside the campus does not focus attention on the processes involved in the activity - how it is done - or the purpose of connecting with places outside the campus - why engage.  A focus on the processes and purposes of engagement redefines the meaning of civic engagement and raises issues of fundamental change in core operations and functions of the campus. As Boyer (1994) noted that, "What is needed is not just more programs, but a larger purpose, a larger sense of mission, a larger clarity of direction" (p. A48).

To paraphrase Dewey, mere activity in a community does not constitute civic engagement. Civic engagement defined by processes and purpose has a particular meaning in higher education and is associated with implications for institutional change. The processes of engagement refer to the way in which those on campus - administrators, academics, staff, and students - relate to those outside the campus. Purpose refers specifically to enhancing a public culture of democracy on and off campus and alleviating public problems through democratic means. Processes and purpose are inextricably linked - the means must be consistent with the ends and the ends are defined by democratic culture. The norms of democratic culture are determined by the democratic values of inclusiveness, participation, task sharing and lay participation, reciprocity in public problem solving, and an equality of respect for the knowledge and experience that every one contributes to education and community building. Democratic processes and purposes reorient civic engagement to what we are calling "democratic engagement" - engagement that 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 culture 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.

Without a democratic purpose, engagement efforts are often pursued as ends in themselves, and engagement becomes reduced to a public relations function of making known what the campus is doing for the community and providing opportunities for students to have experiences in the community. Engagement in this sense reflects the dominant academic culture of higher education, often characterized as "scientific," "rationalized," objectified," or "technocratic," meaning that the approach to public problems is predominantly shaped by specialized expertise "applied" externally "to" or "on" the community providing "solutions" to what has been determined to be the community's "needs."

The distinction we are making between civic engagement as it is widely manifested in higher education and what we are calling democratic engagement is not attributed to the kind of knowledge and expertise generated in the academy, but whether that knowledge and its use is inclusive of other sources of knowledge and problem solving. The measure of the democratic processes and purpose of engagement is demonstrated by a capacity to learn in the company of others and not to rely solely on the expertise of the academy. As Peter Levine, who was a participant at the meeting, has observed, "technical expertise has evident value. No one can doubt that we are better off because of the specialized knowledge possessed by physicians, engineers, economists, and others. Expertise is such a fundamental organizing principle that we often overlook its drawbacks and limitations - especially for democracy."1  Democratic engagement is not dismissive of expert knowledge - on the contrary, it is expertise in solving social problems that is sought by communities - but is critical of expertise that claims an exclusionary position relative to other forms of knowledge and other knowledge producers. Attention to process raises the question of how expertise is positioned and exercised. Attention to purpose defines the ways in which expertise can be exercised democratically.

The distinction that we are making between civic engagement as it is predominantly practiced in higher education and democratic engagement as an alternative framework is intended to assist academic leaders and practitioners in the design and implementation of engagement efforts on campus. We also want to acknowledge that our purpose here is to conceptually compare the two frameworks, recognizing that civic engagement on many campuses has elements of each of these frameworks, in some cases due to efforts to shift to a more democratic framing of engagement.

        Civic Engagement Framed by Activity and Place

The dominant framework of engagement in higher education is grounded in an institutional epistemology that privileges the expertise in the university and applies it externally - through activities in the community. "This epistemology," William Sullivan has noted, "is firmly entrenched as the operating system of much of the American university."2  There exists, writes Sullivan, an "affinity of positivist understandings of research for 'applying' knowledge to the social world on the model of the way engineers 'apply' expert understanding to the problems of structures." Knowledge produced by credentialed, detached experts is embedded in hierarchies of knowledge generation and knowledge use, creating a division between knowledge producers (in the university) and knowledge consumers (in the community). In the positivist scheme, "researchers 'produce' knowledge, which is then 'applied' to problems and problematic populations." Academic expertise focuses "on building theory, being 'objective,' writing mainly for each other in a language of their own creation, building professional associations, and staying away from political controversies."3  Academic knowledge is valued more than community-based knowledge, and knowledge flows in one direction, from inside the boundaries of the university outward to its place of need and application in the community.

This framework of engagement locates the university as the center of solutions to public problems and educates students through service as proto-experts who will be able to perform civic tasks in and on communities that they work with because they will have the knowledge and credentials to know what to do to do help communities improve. In this framework students, in their developing citizen roles, will not be taught the political dimensions of their activities because questions of power are left out of the context of objectified knowledge production and in the way that "service" is provided to communities. Civic engagement activities in community as an end in themselves perpetuate a kind of politics that rejects popularly informed decision-making in favor of expert-informed knowledge application. Politics is something to be kept separate from the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge because it is understood in term of competing partisan positions and opposing ideologies, and is thus not only avoided by academics who perceive such work as advocacy, but it is prohibited by federal mandate when community service programs are funded through federal agencies. On many campuses what has emerged are remarkably apolitical "civic" engagement efforts.4

The dominant form of civic engagement that has emerged in higher education reflects interactions between those in colleges and universities with external entities in the community that are defined by partnerships (formal and informal relationships) and mutuality (each party in the relationship benefits from their involvement). Partnerships and mutuality allow the university to better meet its academic mission by improving teaching and learning and through community service and applied research opportunities. Communities benefit from the involvement of the university as students and faculty help in meeting unmet community needs. Engagement is enacted for the public, and because it entails the provision of a social service, it is understood by academics a "civic" in its aims and outcomes.

        Civic Engagement Framed by Processes and Purpose

A democratic framework shaped by attention to processes and purpose is "based on both sides bringing their own experience and expertise to the project," noted Lynton, and "this kind of collaboration requires a substantial change in the prevalent culture of academic institutions."5  It challenges leaders and practitioners of civic engagement on college and university campuses to reframe community-based teaching, scholarship, and service so that, as Greenwood explains, "the terms of engagement, the ways of studying the issues and the ownership of the actions and the intellectual products areSnegotiated with the legitimate local stakeholders."6  Collaborative knowledge construction that brings together academic knowledge with the local knowledge of community stakeholders in the defining the problem to be addressed, a shared understanding of the problem,  and designing, implementing and evaluating the actions taken to address the problem, is what Greenwood calls "a democratizing form of content-specific knowledge creation, theorization, analysis, and action design in which the goals are democratically set, learning capacity is shared, and success is collaboratively evaluated."7

Community partnerships in a democratic-centered framework of engagement have an explicit and intentional democratic dimension framed as inclusive, collaborative, and problem-oriented work in which academics share knowledge generating tasks with the public and involve community partners as participants in public problem-solving.  As KerryAnn O'Meara, who participated at the meeting, and Rice point out, "the expert modelSoften gets in the way of constructive university-community collaboration" because it does not "move beyond 'outreach,'" or "go beyond 'service,' with its overtones of noblesse oblige."8   A shift in discourse from "partnerships" and "mutuality" to that of "reciprocity" is grounded in explicitly democratic values of sharing previously academic tasks with non-academics and encouraging the participation of non-academics in ways that enhance and enable broader engagement and deliberation about major social issues inside and outside the university. Democratic engagement seeks the public good with the public and not merely for the public as a means to facilitating a more active and engaged democracy.9   Reciprocity signals an epistemological shift that values not only expert knowledge that is rational, analytic and positivist knowledge, but also values a different kind of rationality that is more relational, localized, and contextual and favors mutual deference between lay persons and academics. Knowledge generation is a process of co-creation, breaking down the distinctions between knowledge producers and knowledge consumersS Reciprocity operates to facilitate the involvement of individuals in the community not just as consumers of knowledge and services but as participants in the larger public culture of democracy.

Democratic engagement locates the university within an ecosystem of knowledge production requiring interaction with other knowledge producers outside the university for the creation of new problem-solving knowledge through a multi-directional flow of knowledge and expertise. In this paradigm, students learn cooperative and creative problem-solving within learning environments in which faculty, students, and individuals from the community work and deliberate together. Politics is understood through explicit awareness and experiencing of patterns of power that are present in the relationship between the university and the community - politics is not reduced to partisanship and advocacy. In the democratic-centered paradigm, academics are not partisan political activists, but, as described by Albert Dzur, "have sown the seeds of a more deliberative democracy" in universities and communities "by cultivating norms of equality, collaboration, reflection, and communication."10  Civic engagement in the democratic-centered paradigm is intentionally political in that students learn about democracy by acting democratically.

Civic engagement without reciprocity (processes) and its democratic dimensions (purpose) is not the same thing as democratic civic engagement. Civic engagement shaped by activity and place devoid of attention to processes and purpose represents what Greenwood calls "a tendency forSengagement to become simultaneously fashionable and disengaged."11  Civic engagement without an intentional and explicit democratic dimension keeps academics and universities disengaged from participating in the public culture of democracy. Further, it does not compel the same kind of change in institutional culture that democratic civic engagement requires.


1 Peter Levine, 2007. The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens. Medford, MA: Tufts University Press, p. 106.

2 William M. Sullivan, 2000. "Institutional Identity and Social Responsibility in Higher Education," in Thomas Ehrlich. ed.,Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, p. 29.

3 Ibid.

4 Expert-driven, hierarchical knowledge generation and dissemination is not only an epistemological position, but, as Harry Boyte, a participant at the meeting, insightfully points out, a political one. Traditional academic epistemology, with its embedded values, methods, and practices, signifies a "pattern of power" relationships, creating a "technocracy" and a particular politics that is "the core obstacle to higher education's engagement." Not only is the power and politics of expert academic knowledge what he calls "the largest obstacle in higher education to authentic engagement with communities," it is also "a significant contributor to the general crisis of democracy." Its core negative functions," he explains, "are to undermine the standing and to delegitimize the knowledge of those without credentials, degrees, and university trainingSIt conceives of people without credentials as needy clients to be rescued or as customers to be manipulated."  In this way of thinking and acting, he notes, genuine reciprocal learning is not possible. See Boyte, H. (2007) A New Civic Politics: Review by Harry C. Boyte of Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett. Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, Volume 12, Issue 1.

5 Ernest Lynton, 1995. "Forward: What is a Metropolitan University?" in  Johnson, D.M and Bell, D.A. Eds. Metropolitan Universities: An Emerging Model in American Higher Education. University of North Texas Press, Denton, TX., p. xii. See also, Lynton, E. A.(1994) Knowledge and Scholarship. Metropolitan Universities: An International Forum, v. 5,  n. 1, p. 9-17.

6 Davydd J. Greenwood, 2008. "Theoretical research, applied research, and action research: The deinstitutionalization of activist research," in C. R.  Hale, ed., Engaging contradictions: Theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 319-340p. 333.

7  Ibid., p. 327.

8 There is a growing body of literature that addresses the democratic dimensions of civic engagement in higher education that includes the work of Harry Boyte, William Sullivan, Alber Dzur, Michael Edwards, David Mathews, Ira Harkavy, Scott Peters, Donald Schon, Ernest Lynton, Ernest Boyer, Michael Gibbons, Mary Walshok, Eugene Rice, among others. See in particular: Benson, L., I. Harkavy, and M. Hartley. 2005. Integrating a commitment to the public good into the institutional fabric. In Higher education for the public good: Emerging voices from a national movement, ed. A. J. Kezar, A. C. Chambers, and J. C. Burkhardt. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Boyer, E. (1990) Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professorate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Boyer, E. (1996) "The Scholarship of Engagement," Journal of Public Service & Outreach, 1, no. 1, spring. P. 11-20; Boyte, H. (2007) A New Civic Politics: Review by Harry C. Boyte of Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett. Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, Volume 12, Issue 1; Boyte H. (2008) Against the Current: Developing the Civic Agency of Students, Change, May/June; Dzur, A.W. (2008) Democratic professionalism: Citizen participation and the reconstruction of professional ethics, identity, and practice. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press; Edwards, M. (2006) Looking back from 2046: Thoughts on the 80th Anniversary of the Institute for Revolutionary Social Science. Keynote Address, 40th anniversary of the Institute for Development Studies University of Sussex, UK ( ); Greenwood, D. J. (2008) Theoretical research, applied research, and action research: The deinstitutionalization of activist research, in C. R.  Hale, ed., Engaging contradictions: Theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 319-340; Lynton, E. A.(1994) Knowledge and Scholarship. Metropolitan Universities: An International Forum, v. 5,  n. 1, p. 9-17, Summer; Gibbons, M. et al., (1994) The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies, London: Sage; Schon, D. 1995. "The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology," Change. Nov./Dec., Vol. 27, No. 6, p. 26, 9p; Sullivan, W. M. (2000) Institutional Identity and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, in Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Ed. Thomas Ehrlich. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press: p. 19-36; Van De Ven, A. 2008. Engaged Scholarship: A guide for Organizational and Social Research, New York: Orford University Press; Walshok, M. 1995. Knowledge Without Boundaries: What America's Research  Universities Can Do for the Economy, the Workplace, and the Community. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

9 Albert Dzur, 2008. Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, p. 121.