The Priority of Democracy for Campus Compact

April 27, 2015
President, Campus Compact|

Campus Compact is a network of extraordinary internal diversity. We comprise 34 state and regional Compacts and 1100 member institutions across the United States and beyond. Our members are public and private, two-year and four-year, graduate and undergraduate.

One result of that diversity is that it can be difficult to understand what Campus Compact is. When you look at us in action, you see us doing a lot of different things. There is a natural tendency to reduce us to those activities. So some people might think Campus Compact is a service learning organization. Others might think we are a national service organization focused on programs such as those supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Those activities, though, are not why we exist. They are means to our central end. That end is enabling higher education to contribute to democracy.

Campus Compact was founded in the mid-1980s by a group of higher education leaders deeply concerned about the future of democracy in the United States. They worried that Americans were losing the capacity to think and act in the service of public goods. They believed in the historic mission of colleges and universities to prepare young people for their role as citizens. In the context of the demographic, economic, technological, and political transitions of the late twentieth century, they also believed that colleges and universities needed to engage in new forms of partnership to ensure the sustainability of democracy.

The goal of ensuring a democratic future remains the reason for Campus Compact’s existence. We continue to believe that higher education has a key role to play for several reasons.

First, as one of Campus Compact’s founders, Frank Newman, wrote in 1985, “If there is a crisis in education in the United States today, it is less that test scores have declined than it is that we have failed to provide the education for citizenship that is still the most significant responsibility of the nation’s schools and colleges.” We still do not do enough to educate students for citizenship, and the paucity of informed public discourse is one result. Democracy requires a citizenry prepared for public work, and we cannot get there without higher education’s active participation.

Second, democracy cannot thrive in the absence of opportunity and mobility. Higher education will either contribute to opportunity and mobility, or it will stand as a gatekeeper, perpetuating inequality and hindering democracy. There are no sidelines on which to stand.

Third, democracy requires thriving communities. As John Dewey put it, “Democracy . . . is the idea of community life itself.” In a country where economic, social, and human capital are unequally and unjustly distributed, anchor institutions such as colleges and universities must be engaged as active partners if historically excluded and underserved communities are to achieve self-sufficiency and full participation in democratic life. That means colleges and universities must be engaged in all of their aspects—as teachers, as researchers, as purchasers, as employers, as real estate developers—as partners in building strong and healthy communities.

Campus Compact is the network that supports and enables all of this work. Some of the tools we have honed over the three decades of our existence—such as service learning—remain essential. We need to sharpen our focus on other tools, such as engaged scholarship. And we need to remain open to the emergence of new practices and the re-discovery of forgotten ones in the pursuit of higher education’s democratic role.