Feature: Latest from BTtoP’s Civic Monograph Series: Examples that Inspire and Inform

By Jill N. Reich, Project Scholar, BTtoP, and Professor of Psychology, Bates College

In the midst of the many questions, concerns, and criticisms leveled at higher education, have you ever wondered what you would do if you were education czar for a day? Where would you focus to create change that matters? Would you focus on issues of cost? Of technology? Of access? All are important issues to be sure. But if given one chance to create real change, would you focus on these more narrow issues? Would you not instead go for the big one—the purpose of learning, the foundation of higher education? Would you not attend to what lies at the very heart of higher education, the source of our passion and the foundation of our colleges and universities? If so, then you should consider how to advance the interactive and mutually reinforcing practices of transformative learning, personal well-being, and civic engagement.

Alas, none of us can wave that magic wand and create change so easily. Nevertheless, a source of good ideas, examples of important change, and stories that will inspire you to act can be found in the latest monograph in the BTtoP Civic Series: Civic Engagement, Civic Development, and Higher Education (available for free download and for purchase in print; bulk discounts are available at bttop.org.) In this monograph, presidents, deans, and faculty members reflect on the patterns of change they implemented in their institutions, the issues and opportunities these changes created, and why these changes have been crucial to their institution’s success and to the role of higher education in the world of today and tomorrow.

This monograph is not a scholarly analysis of the civic—that is already available in many books (e.g., Transforming Undergraduate Education; The Handbook of Engaged Scholarship vols. 1 and 2) and journals (e.g., The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning). Nor is it a report of the status of the field, such as provided by AAC&U’s 2012 publication A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Rather, the authors were asked to provide essays that would provoke their readers to thought and action.

These presidents, deans, and faculty members describe work at their own colleges and universities, at institutions ranging from community colleges to research universities, public and private, across the United States and the world; from a new institution able to build “from scratch,” to those working within systems with long-held traditions. Some view their work at the institutional level, seeking excellence broadly throughout the institution; others address change from the perspective of particular goals they seek to achieve. All of these authors were chosen for this monograph because of their visionary leadership, because they are defining institutions and building programs on the cutting edge of the challenges and opportunities we face, and because, in so doing, they uphold the fundamental tenets of intellectual rigor, personal well-being, and civic engagement.

For example, looking back on nine years of transformation at Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor and Peter Englot take us through their journey of growth and development, asking themselves what would a research university be like if they took seriously the admonition of the Kellogg Commission to reinvent their institution for “the times that are emerging instead of the times that have passed”? Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, provides insight into a different area: the growing—and controversial—world of online education. LeBlanc’s institution hosts one of today’s fastest-growing online programs, and his essay provides a glimpse of his institution’s work, ideas, and plans. Richard Miller, president of the Olin College of Engineering, faced a completely different challenge: to lead the charge posed by the Olin Foundation to create an entirely new institution, grounded in a new culture for higher education. Imagine questioning everything from the ground up—the structure, the curriculum, the personnel, the environment, the institution’s philosophy and founding principles—and then implementing your design. It is an amazing story with many surprises, and the lessons to be learned are not limited to engineering education. These are just a few of the perspectives presented from the institutional level. Taken together, they provide exciting lessons of scale, implementation, and change.

Other authors look at the broad accomplishments achieved from seeking particular goals, such as building a first-year writing program for a diverse student population, finding ways to link global and local learning, or organizing programs to meet the often disparate goals and schedules inherent when working in our neighborhoods and with our communities. Still other pieces consider how to organize and where to house the civic work of the institution, how to make it work, and what the trade-offs of engaging in this work might be.

Much inspiration, hopefulness, and good ideas will be found in the experience of these authors and the ideas presented.