Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed September 1999
Copyright ©1999 by E. Gordon Gee and Judith Rodin

Democracy and a new declaration from higher education

By E. Gordon Gee and Judith Rodin

E. Gordon Gee, president of Brown University, and Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, are members of Campus Compact, which with the American Council on Education and the Aspen Institute co-sponsored the colloquium that produced the presidents’ declaration.

"Higher education must shoulder some of the blame for the fact that young adults are increasingly disengaged from the democratic process. A group of college and university presidents recently recommitted their institutions to playing a vital role in rekindling the national democratic spirit."

Democracy is a participatory activity, and the continued success of our nation’s 223-year-old democratic experiment relies upon each of us knowing what is expected of us and how we can best contribute to the process.

Increasingly, though, one very important segment of our population – the students on our nation’s college campuses – demonstrates that it sees little or no point in participating in the democratic process.

True, America’s college students are engaged in community service, and the country is better for it, but national studies reveal the painful reality – that these bright, articulate young men and women are disenchanted, and they are very much disengaged from public life. Student voting rates are abysmal.

Many of our colleges and universities work hard to reinvigorate interest in the democratic process, but the fact is that higher education must shoulder at least some of the blame. “We have forgotten that [democracy] has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year, in every day, in the living relations of person to person, in all social forms and institutions,” said John Dewey. Higher education has failed to stay the course.

Many would argue that colleges and universities have had tremendous impact on our society in this century – and, of course, they are quite correct. It has been a remarkable period for higher education, and for the nation, too. But in their pursuit to accumulate knowledge and produce students with marketable degrees, many colleges and universities have isolated themselves from their surrounding communities.

Our colleges and universities can, once again, play a vital role in rekindling the national democratic spirit. Indeed, higher education remains one of the few institutional forces in our culture that can address, and solve, civic disengagement without political motive. If we do not reinvigorate our civil society, many feel we risk losing it.

But first, higher education must re-ignite its own sense of responsibility. That is exactly what happened recently when more than 50 of the nation’s college presidents and former presidents – those representing public and private universities, private liberal arts colleges and public community colleges – gathered at the Aspen Institute to recommit themselves and their institutions to civic purposes and our communities.

Higher education cannot create good citizens if it does not practice the democratic principles it espouses. The presidents’ declaration – a reaffirmation of those principles – is built on the assumption that our institutions must be places that model democratic behavior, and they must be good citizens in their own communities. Each and every president who signed the declaration has pledged to evaluate his or her campus, and then take action based on the findings of such questions as:

This will not be easy. But, it will put into practice on our campuses what we believe about our country – that we are a nation in concept, not in creed; that our differences as much as our similarities form our bond – in short, e pluribus unum. Out of many, we must build one.