Leaning into Politics

Higher Education and the Democracy We Need

Edited by:
Abraham Goldberg, James Madison University
Carah Ong Whaley, University of Virginia

A volume in the series: Research on International Civic Engagement. Editor(s): Walter F. Heinecke, University of Virginia. Carah Ong Whaley, University of Virginia.

Published 2024

Democratic decline in the United States and globally, a lack of confidence in political institutions and an increasingly violent and divisive political climate raise many questions for the state of political learning and civic engagement. A decade ago, a task force commissioned by the United States Department of Education called on colleges and universities to affirm their missions to educate for democracy. Relatively few have made the investment, though dozens of higher education associations and organizations have publicly committed their support to prepare students to address the persistent public issues they are inheriting.

While there has been a recent upward spike in rote civic knowledge and historically high youth voting rates, the United States has seen a decline in political rights and civil liberties and has been listed as a backsliding democracy. Since 2010, state legislatures have passed laws making it harder to vote, with access to the ballot increasingly dependent on which party controls the state legislature. Meanwhile, substantial dysfunction and hyperpartisanship in Congress, concerns over the impartiality of the judiciary and limited accountability and oversight of the executive branch have contributed to the loss of institutional capacity to address public problems and to declining public confidence in political institutions.

These trends coincide with problematic rhetoric and growing scrutiny from public officials on how colleges and universities educate students on public issues, particularly those centered on class, race, ethnicity and social justice. Issues of free speech and expression have been further nationalized following a high-profile hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that questioned the presidents of Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania about antisemitism on their campuses and as campus protests regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been met with heavy-handed responses. These episodes serve as loud warning shots to colleges and universities across the country. Academic freedom and freedom of speech - core tenets of a liberal education - are at risk. Can higher education step up and meet the moment? Collectively, contributors to this volume - who come from a broad range of institutions, experiences and perspectives - provide critical research and analyses, as well as innovative approaches for how higher education can fulfill its public role and contribute to building the democratic societies we need.

Acknowledgements. Building the Democracy We Need: How Can Higher Education Meet the Moment? Abraham Goldberg and Carah Ong Whaley. SECTION I: NAMING AND FRAMING: CHALLENGES AND PATHWAYS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION’S NECESSARY ROLE IN STRENGTHENING DEMOCRACY. Authoritarianism and the University: Global Perspectives From the Last Century, Lauren L. Shepherd. Caught in the Middle: (In)Civility, Compliance, and “Norms of Appropriateness”. Angela Kraemer-Holland. Leaning Into Institutional Politics: Paradoxes of Success in Higher Education Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Initiatives, Caroline W. Lee. Focusing on How Not Why: Examining the Role of Nonprofit Partner Organizations in Campus-Based Civic Engagement Programming, Allison D. Rank. Bridging the Complexities of Higher Education and Philanthropy, Teresa Taylor. SECTION II: BUILDING INSTITUTIONAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE CAPACITY FOR POLITICAL LEARNING AND DEMOCRATIC ENGAGEMENT. Fostering Campus Cultures That are ALL IN for Nonpartisan Democratic Engagement, Stephanie King and Jennifer Domagal-Goldman. How America’s Community Colleges Support Democracy, Belinda S. Miles, George Keteku, Tiago Machado, Glenetta Phillips, and Rinardo Reddick. Embracing the Politics of the Possible: Voter Engagement at an R1 Institution, Karen M. Kedrowski. Who’s in the Room When It Happens? Use of Data Driven Analysis and Power Mapping to Build an Inclusive Political Engagement Coalition, Leah A. Murray. Opening the “Pod” Doors: The Public Intellectual in an Age of Democratic Decline, Saladin Ambar. SECTION III: STRENGTHENING STUDENT VOICE AND ENHANCING CIVIC SKILLS AND DISPOSITIONS. Developing Empowered Citizens: How Universities Help Build Efficacy, Laurie L. Rice and Kenneth Moffett. Political Socialization in Campus Life: Can Student Organizations Replicate Civic Learning in Tocqueville’s Voluntary Associations? J. Cherie Strachan, Michael R. Wolf, and Elizabeth A. Bennion. Fostering Civic Resilience: A Framework for Campus Misinformation Reduction, Ryan W. Flynn and Elora A. Agsten. Indoctrination, Education, and Deliberative Democracy: A DEI Case Study, David Moshman. The Proximate Power of Student-Led Nonpartisan Political Engagement Efforts, Alexander S. Kappus. Space, Place, and Community: Engaging With College Students Where They Are, Brian F. Harrison and Robert Healy. SECTION IV: CHARTING COURSES: CREATING CLASSROOMS THAT PREPARE STUDENTS FOR DEMOCRACY. Teaching and Modeling Democracy in the Classroom During Political Polarization: The Amalgamation Pedagogy Project, Mark K. McBeth and Donna L. Lybecker. Moving Fast Without Breaking Democracy: Computer Science Education for a Just Future, Julie M. Smith. Forced Migration, Civic Engagement, and Educational Exchange in the Time of COVID‑19, Prakash Adhikari. Poetry at the End of Democracy: Envisioning Democracy Through Poetry, Angelo Letizia. Reading Banned Books: Preparing Elementary Teachers to Navigate the Politics of Teaching and Learning, Aaron R. Gierhart.