Office of Public Affairs

Democracy, civic action center of lecture at USM

Andrew Seligsohn

A lecture addressing the significance of equality and its implications for democracy in institutions of higher learning was held at the University of Southern Maine on Wednesday, Nov. 1.

Andrew J. Seligsohn, President of Campus Compact, gave the address, “Equality, Democracy, and Higher Education,” discussing the obligations of colleges and universities to participate in community change.

Campus Compact is a national coalition of 1,100 colleges and universities dedicated to the public purposes of higher education. The coalition describes itself as relationship- and values-driven, building democracy through civic education and community development.

Universities are uniquely-poised as engines of democracy, argued Seligsohn, as they are obligated to identify — and work to solve — barriers preventing people from exercising their political voices in their communities.

“Democracy is essentially the idea that each of us deserves an equal share in determining the future of our communities,” Seligsohn said. “Once you accept the idea you are equal to others in a substantive way ... then the ideal of democracy as a way of governing ourselves becomes inevitable.”

The first step in identifying and breaking down these barriers — such as poverty, racism and discrimination, among others — is tackling difficult questions, which Seligsohn said is a university’s purpose.

“Institutions of higher education have a special role to play in identifying barriers, what causes them and how to overcome them,” he said. “They have a deep tradition of academic freedom, the idea that we ought to be free to pursue questions and answers wherever they lead.”

“There is no other part of society designed for taking on (such) questions,” Seligsohn added. “Only higher education is set up to do that.”

To begin effecting social change, Seligsohn said, colleges and universities must connect their students with their communities.

“There needs to be a kind of porousness between the boundaries of the institutions to communities,” he said. “We need universities where there’s a real back and forth between the world on campus and the world off campus. It has to be linking to the realities beyond the campus.”

That could entail service learning, community education programming or classes designed with civic engagement in mind to, “cultivate an expectation that we are making life more livable for those around us,” Seligsohn said.

“It is valuable to get students in conditions where they understand the realities of the world around them … there is no citizenry that can change the world without understanding the world around us,” Seligsohn said.

USM is already doing this, President Glenn Cummings said in his closing remarks to the event, which was held in conjunction with USM’s Gloria S. Duclos Convocation.

The University has signed a Civic Action Plan as part of Campus Compact’s 30th Anniversary Action Statement goals to engage colleges and universities in a shared commitment to be more civically-engaged.

The University is one of dozens across the nation to submit such a plan. While 12 institutions in Maine have signed the 30th Anniversary Action Statement, USM is currently one of only two schools in Maine to formally submit an action plan.

Through the plan, USM hopes to introduce a new engaged learning requirement to its curriculum by fall 2018 and establish a Community-Based Learning course designation for service learning, internship and community research.

Among the University’s other goals are:

  • Creating feedback loops for all outreach and engagement to collect and use information about addressing needs and building partnerships;
  • Providing all students with curricular and co-curricular opportunities to prepare for internships, service learning, and community-based research experiences;
  • Incorporating student perspectives into more committees and councils to round out the voices in any conversation to ensure the inclusion of student perspective;
  • Providing public forums where faculty practitioners share results of community-engaged research, scholarship and creative activity.

USM’s action plan was submitted as the basis for its application for Carnegie Foundation Elective Community Engagement Classification. The full Civic Action Plan can be read on the Campus Compact website.

“When we look at being civically- and community-engaged, we know it’s really good for students, and that should be enough,” Cummings said to the crowd, acknowledging there is, “a fatal flaw in higher education where we get really smart and we aren’t transformed.”

“That’s why we do civic engagement,” he said.

By Alan Bennett, Office of Public Affairs