Preparing a generation to do public work
August 13, 2013

President Weinberg delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Ohio Campus Compact, which took place on the Denison campus. The Ohio Campus Compact is a statewide non-profit coalition of 47 college and universities working to promote and develop the civic purposes of higher education. Dr. Weinberg's talk was centered on connecting campus and community. In his speech, he traced higher education to its civic roots, and discussed colleges' obligation to capitalize on opportunities for civic learning, their position in capturing the jobs debate, and recalibrating the relationship between campuses and communities.


It's fun to be standing in front of a Campus Compact group. Thank you for being so welcoming. Over the last twenty years, I have been an active participant in Campus Compact in New York and Vermont. I am excited to join the Ohio Campus Compact community.

Like many academics of my generation, I owe part of my career to Campus Compact. When I arrived at Colgate University in the early 1990s, it was difficult to get a service learning class approved by the faculty. It was the leadership of Campus Compact that paved the way, creating space for faculty to share ideas, building publishing networks, and pushing college presidents to exert leadership on their campuses.

We have come a long way. Most of our campuses have community engagement projects that include service learning and student led community work. Many of our campuses have community-engagement centers. Denison is fortunate to have amazing resources through our endowed Alford Center for Service Learning, which serves as an umbrella for our student-led community work, our signature Orientation and America Reads tutoring programs, and our faculty led service learning classes.

The Challenge of Public Work

As I scan the higher education landscape, I feel heartened by the civic education efforts that are underway. In many respects, higher education has re-found its civic roots. The multi-year effort of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities called the American Democracy Project and The American Commonwealth Partnership are two examples that support the incredibly important work being done across the higher education landscape. 

Still, I worry that our circle is too small and our impact not what it needs to be. I worry that John Saltmarsh was right when he wrote, “While the movement [to date] has created some change, it has also plateaued. ” As many of you know, John is the Director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education and one of the people who helped build Campus Compact. I worry about this despite the correct observation of David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, that “(h)aving studied the relationship between higher education and the public for more than 30 years, the foundation hasn't seen anything like the current interest in civic engagement. ” I worry that there is a disconnect between this interest in civic engagement and the impact we are having.

What do we need to do? This is an ambitious group. Compact folks are doers who are willing to be self-critical as a way to push our work forward. Let me take a step back and make some observations about what the next generation needs to do to be citizens and change agents and then frame some ideas that I believe need to drive our work forward.

For the last eight years, I have had a great adventure in civic education as part of a global organization called World Learning. Some of you know the organization as The Experiment in International Living or The School for International Training (SIT). Each year, World Learning works with young people in over 70 countries who are working to address critical global issues. World Learning is one of the largest global civic education and engagement organizations with about 10,000 people participating in its programs each year   

Doing this work, I became struck by a tension between the possible and the likely. The possible is huge. We have what we need to address the challenges we face. In the sociological sense, we have the technology (e.g. knowledge, methods, processes and physical tools) and the locally rooted assets to address climate change, human rights abuses, water shortages, lack of jobs, conflict and other critical global issues. What we lack is the capacity to come together as human beings and socially organize ourselves to use our technology and assets to address the problems we face.

For me, this is the central challenge of preparing a new generation to see civic opportunity and to engage in public work.

The essence of the Compact has always been built around the notion that magical things happen when people come together across difference to create things of lasting social value. We all get excited when we see our students see past the morass of obstacles to see opportunities. Public work is the ability to move beyond seeing civic opportunity to actually working with others to create things of lasting social value. To quote the political scientist Harry Boyte, “(p)ublic work is sustained, largely self-directed, collaborative effort, paid or unpaid, carried out by a diverse mix of people who create things of common value determined by deliberation: work by publics, for public purposes, in public. ” Public work is the essence of a free and democratic society. I would argue that public work is the defining outcome we are aiming for when we talk about civic education and community-engagement efforts .

I worry that our students have the desire and ambitions, but lack the capacity do to public work. This generation of students has wonderful hearts and strong social ambitions. There is no lack of students on our campuses who want to be engaged citizens and positive change agents. It is also a creative generation that has great ideas for making change happen. As my last act at World Learning, we hosted a social innovation summit. Participants came from Ghana, India, Nepal, and the United States. I was humbled and energized by their ideas for reimagining basic education, local water issues and a range of other issues. It is a generation filled with citizens, social innovators and community activists.

But, I worry that too many aspiring young people lack the skills and habits to act on these passions. For example: to be an effective citizen, one needs to be able to effectively work with people you don't like. Modern institutions prepare our students to do the opposite. We use technology to listen to and interact with those who already agree with us and our daily lives are shaped by social institutions that demonize those who hold different views. Simply put, our social institutions are not holding up their end of the bargain. They are not up to the task of preparing young people to be effective citizens who can do public work. Higher education is going to have to fill that void.

How do we do so? As I transition back to a campus and think about Denison, I get excited about five things:

  1. Capacity Development: First, we need to focus on helping our students develop the capacity to do public work. Too often, we send students out into communities with very little training. Once they are in the community, we fail to provide the ongoing coaching they need and deserve to be successful. We do a great job of giving students opportunities to get off campus and take actions in the local community, but we do a poor job using these actions to train students to be successful in the arts of community engagement. People learn the arts of public work by doing public work. It is an experiential process. But it is one that requires coaching and training.

    Through my position at World Learning, I had the opportunity to work with young people from across the world. Watching the next generation take on local and global issues, I came to believe that we need to help students develop some core attributes. The future will be shaped by people who can thrive in diverse environments, embrace change as a daily reality, think creatively across categories to see old problems in new ways, and who possess the persistence, humility, conflict resolution and communication skills needed to align people across long periods of time.

    Our students should know how to do the mundane stuff, including asset mapping, agenda setting, meeting facilitation, and evaluation. And they should be well versed in the arts of the tougher stuff: how to listen and hear somebody who sees the world differently from yourself, how to persevere through repeated failure until you succeed, and how to understand how the local, regional and global fit together.

    There is a range of skills that good community organizers and managers know that allow them to organize diverse people to get things done over sustained periods of time. For most of us these attributes need to be taught. During my time at World Learning, I saw the power of offering ongoing coaching, mentorship and training to young people who are engaged in doing public work.

  2. Looking For Lost Opportunities: Second, we need to capture the lost moments that already are taking place on our campuses. There are plentiful places where students are engaging in activities that could and should be sites for civic learning, but often are not. These are the lost moments in higher education. We need to capture them.

    For example, we need to connect more deeply and broadly with our colloquies in study abroad/international programs. On too many campuses, our internationalization and community engagement efforts are parallel play. This is a lost opportunity.

    Study abroad can be a great place for students to get outside their comfort zones, to learn to read cultures, to walk across difference, and to start to think in more sophisticated ways about how the local and global intersect. But too many study abroad moments are lost because students select culturally thin programs or simply don't have space to reflect and learn from the experience when they return to campus. Our students study in communities where people are doing interesting and creative public work, but our programs don't make the connections. They rarely, if ever, get off the tourist path to see and learn from the communities they have traveled far to experience.

    Another place where we are losing the educational moment is residence halls. These are amazing places to teach public work. Let me be blunt: I believe residence halls are the best places on our campuses to teach the arts of public work, and I believe that almost nobody in the civic engagement community is paying attention to them.

    In the typical residence hall, we pack a diverse group of people into tiny rooms (on many campuses!). Students come to our residence halls with an incredible array of needs, likes, dislikes, passions and goals. As those goals clash, we have moments to coach them as they learn to come together and work effectively to create things of lasting social value. Instead, we often avoid conflict and professionalize problem solving. Before students have a chance to learn to work through difference, we ask our professional staff to step in and mediate conflict, move roommates or enforce rules. I believe we would be better off training students to communicate more effectively, resolve conflict and creatively problem solve.

    Finally, we need to reexamine and re-imagine student organizations. If one treats the campus as community, then student organizations are our local associations. Imagine using the language of civic opportunity and public work to get student organizations to take themselves more seriously as community-based organizations. Most of our institutions have devoted significant resources to diversity. Compared to the past, we are more diverse in all kinds of ways. But, we are not taking advantage of that diversity. Too often, students involved in campus organizations are learning poor organizing skills. And too often campus organizations break us into groups rather than bringing us together across groups to experience the joys of diversity.

    Sociologist Erving Goffman reminded us that humans will go to great lengths to avoid embarrassment. Difference scares us because we fear the unknown and worry that we may say or do something stupid. We need to help students learn that they will make mistakes, but on the road to learning they also will come to understand the incredible joy and opportunities that diverse groups of people and difference provide. To do this, we need to challenge student leaders to use organizations to make the campus alive and vibrant, filled with dialogue and public work.

    All of this requires breaking down silos, giving students more authority, and being willing to live with more campus conflict. Our campuses are filled with processes and offices that seek to avoid conflict. I am very interested in taking a different approach that sees conflict as positive and de-professionalizes campus life in favor of community-based approaches that work to coach students to be problem solvers and citizens who own their community spaces.

  3. Capturing the Jobs Debate: The third interesting opportunity is around career development. Across the world, we have a generation that craves jobs that matter. They are starting small scale NGOs and seeking out firms that work for the social good. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter had it right when she said that we need to “prepare young people for citizenship that extends across family, community and work. “

    The American Commonwealth Partnership has been exploring models to help students think about and prepare for jobs that deepen our citizenship, or, as Harry Boyte puts it, “turning jobs into public work. ”

    I find this deeply exciting. At the most basic level, we are talking about preparing students for jobs in non-profits, education, socially responsible businesses and as social entrepreneurs. At a deeper level, we are preparing students to work in ways that transform the professions from work that disempowers to work that empowers; or, stated differently, to shift the professional from somebody who acts on us to somebody who acts with us. Imagine doctors, lawyers, financial investors, and others who approached their jobs as citizens. It's one thing to prepare students to seek jobs that have a positive social impact. It's even more exciting to nurture a generation to transform jobs into jobs that have a social impact.

    There are some complex shifts in this idea that we don't have time to go into today. One shift is about how professionals see themselves in relation to others. Are they experts who act for us, or partners who act with us? A second shift is how professionals see their work in relation to their role as citizens. Are they compartmentalized, or do we break down silos and let people work together as citizens?

    This requires rethinking the career development process. It starts with orientation before students even begin college. It starts as we frame large questions about human history and students’ place in it. It needs to connect classes to ethical development, to development of liberal arts frameworks and skills, and to real conversations about careers, jobs and professions. It needs to include our alumni who can speak to the current generation of jobs and about the wide range of ways people blend jobs and public work. There is a lot going on in the corners of peoples’ work lives, but it is often hidden. We need to give people permission and space to make the hidden visible to our students and faculty as part of a larger process of linking jobs to citizenship and public work.

    This topic stretches beyond the limits of this talk. We live in a time when higher education is being questioned for its return on investment, and in a historical moment when students are fixated on jobs and security, we have a moment to capture an important debate in ways that transform the futures of our students, higher education and communities across the world.

  4. Re-Situating the Relationship between Campus and Community: As Mathews and others have noted, there is tremendous energy coming “from faculty members who want to integrate their scholarly interests with their public lives. ” There are also students, staff and administrators clamoring to do more. To get this right, we have to rethink our relationship to local communities. Some of the most exciting work is happening at places like Portland State and Auburn University where students become part of the local community working in collaboration with community members across sustained periods of time. Describing more successful projects, Mathew’s describes how, “The students didn't just drop into communities; they lived there long enough to see the consequences of their work. ” Partially, this is about time. Students need to work on projects that are sustained across a period of time, allowing them to move beyond volunteerism to public work.

    But it also is about the depth of the culture interaction. I often have wondered why we don't have students doing homestays in the local community as they get oriented to their community work. Even our summer internship programs often have students dropping into one community during the day and retreating to another community to live at night. My time at SIT was a remarkable reminder of the lost learning moments and the missed opportunities to re-situate our relationship with the local community. The homestay is one of the most powerful educational tools we have, and yet it is one we rarely use.

    To quote Mathews one more time, we need to create “a solid connection between the strong democracy movement off campus and the civic engagement movement on campus .” In doing so, we become co-learners who work with, not on, local communities.

  5. Classrooms to Community: I would hope that some of you are surprised that I have not yet mentioned the classroom. This is the last frontier. It's typical at Campus Compact meetings to call for more service-learning and community-based learning. Of course, I believe we need to continue to make this happen, but my reasoning is slightly different than what you might expect. The skills and values of civic engagement are the liberal arts. What I worry most about is the retreat from the liberal arts to a very narrow and specialized education. We need to push back hard on this tendency. Why train students narrowly for jobs that will change before they even pay back their loans, when we could provide them with the broad-based education that prepares them for the myriad challenges that lie ahead? Classrooms are the core of any academic institution, and the kind of learning that works best is also the kind that will prepare our students to do public work. The liberal arts provide this kind of learning.

    The historian William Cronon put it well in his famous article “Only Connect,” when he called for a liberal arts education that fosters certain abilities within a student: they can listen and hear; read and understand; talk with anyone; write clearly and persuasively and movingly; solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems; respect rigor as a way of seeking truth; practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism; understand how to get things done in the world; nurture and empower the people around them; and see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.

    Whether our students are English majors or in nursing programs, we need to provide them with a broad-based curriculum that gives them the attributes needed to be engaged citizens. Liz Coleman, the long standing president of Bennington College, captures this well when she writes, “‘Deep thought’ matters when you're contemplating what to do about things that matter. xiii”

    In terms of the ongoing work with our faculty, we must start with ensuring that our students are getting exposure to the liberal arts. We then need to make sure the pedagogy works, which for me is the strongest reason for embracing active learning techniques like service-learning, community-based research, and other academic work that Campus Compact has championed.


As I arrive at Denison, what gets me excited is our very long and proud tradition of civic engagement. Generations of our alumni have gone on to be active citizens and social change agents. We take our mission statement seriously, to produce autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and active citizens of a democratic society.

I am interested in working with our faculty and staff and with you to make higher education in Ohio a place where our students are developing the capacity to do public work. We are well on our way.  I am excited to work with you to continue the journey. This requires a focus on: (1) Adopting a coaching framework that takes capacity development seriously; (2) Capturing lost opportunities by connecting with our peers focused on international efforts, residence halls, and student organizations; 3) Engaging in career development that transforms work into work that matters; (4) Deepening the campus-community relationship and (5) Ensuring that all of our students are exposed to the liberal arts.

We live in times with great challenges and opportunities in front of us. The next generation is ready and eager to confront those challenges. Higher education is our best hope of making that happen.


Read more of Adam Weinberg's remarks and writings.