90-001 (Civic Disengagement)
Distributed July 2, 1999
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Mark Nickel

A Fourth of July Declaration

College presidents challenge U.S schools to address civic disengagement

At a meeting in Colorado, 51 college presidents challenged their colleagues across the country to assess civic involvement on their own campuses and to take action against a growing trend toward civic disengagement among college-age people.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- At the close of a national meeting in Aspen, Colo., Thursday, July 1, fifty-one college and university presidents challenged the nation's academic leaders to take action against a rising tide of civic disengagement. In a Presidents' Fourth of July Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, the presidents addressed a growing concern that cynicism and a lack of trust toward the political process are leading citizens - particularly those of college age - to disengage from civic affairs and abandon the responsibilities of citizenship.

"As presidents of colleges and universities, both private and public, large and small, two year and four year, we challenge higher education to re-examine its public purposes and its commitments to the democratic ideal," the presidents said. "... This country cannot afford to educate a generation that acquires knowledge without ever understanding how that knowledge can benefit society or how to influence democratic decision making. We must teach the skills of democracy, creating innumerable opportunities for our students to practice and reap the results of the real, hard work of citizenship."

The presidents, representing a cross-section of American higher education from community colleges to state universities to Ivy League institutions, met at the Aspen Institute June 29 through July 1, 1999. In addition to their own discussions, they met with civic renewal leaders, social critics and former members of Congress - all addressing the theme "Rekindling the Democratic Spirit." Several recent studies have highlighted the problem, including a 1998 report by the National Association of Secretaries of State which found less than 15 percent of college-age people voted in the last national election.

"On college campuses across the country, more students than ever are engaging in public service projects, either volunteering on their own or working in communities as part of their coursework," said Elizabeth Hollander, executive director of Campus Compact, a national organization of college and university presidents based at Brown University and dedicated to higher education's civic mission. "Fewer students, however, are making important connections between community service and the civic involvement and responsibilities that are essential to citizenship in a democratic society. That problem must be addressed, and colleges are uniquely able to address it."

As a first step in their call to action, the presidents offered the draft of a questionnaire to help individual colleges determine:

  • Whether the campus has a clearly articulated civic mission that is widely known and discussed;

  • How well the curriculum helps students develop civic competencies and civic habits;

  • Whether co-curricular activities provide sufficient opportunity for civic engagement and reflection;

  • The level and quality of civil argument and public discussion among students;

  • Whether the campus offers students, faculty and staff a level of economic, ethnic, racial, religious and ideological diversity that reflects their communities and American society;

  • How well the faculty creates, participates in and takes responsibility for a vibrant public culture on campus;

  • Whether campus hiring, promotion and tenure standards explicitly recognize and reward faculty who link their courses, research and service to community needs;

  • Whether the president is actively engaged in community or public policy development and whether the president has engaged the board of trustees;

  • To what extent the college has improved conditions in the surrounding community.

"We believe that the challenge of the next millennium is the renewal of our own democratic life and reassertion of social stewardship," the presidents concluded. "We can think of no nobler task than committing ourselves to helping catalyze and lead a national movement to reinvigorate the public purposes and civic mission of higher education. We believe that now and through the next century our institutions must be vital agents and architects of a flourishing democracy. We urge all of higher education to join us."

The Presidents' Leadership Colloquium was sponsored by Campus Compact, the American Council on Education and the Aspen Institute, with support from the Corporation for National Service, the KPMG Peat Marwick Foundation, and the Sallie Mae Foundation.

Editors: The full text of the Presidents' Fourth of July Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, including the questionnaire, can be read or downloaded at the Campus Compact Web site, http://www.compact.org/.