Presidents' Declaration


View the current Presidents' Declaration [PDF]

Presidents' Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education

The purpose of this statement is to articulate the commitment of all sectors of higher education, public and private, two- and four- year, to their civic purposes and to identify the behaviors that will make that commitment manifest.  It was reviewed and endorsed at a President's Leadership Colloquium convened by Campus Compact and the American Council on Education at the Aspen Institute on June 29- July 1, 1999.


As presidents of colleges and universities, both private and public, large and small, two-year and four-year, we challenge higher education to reexamine its public purposes and its commitments to the democratic ideal.  We also challenge higher education to become engaged, through actions and teaching, with its communities.

We have a fundamental task to renew our role as agents of our democracy.  This task is both urgent and long-term.  There is growing evidence of disengagement of many Americans from the communal life of our society, in general, and from the responsibilities of democracy in particular.  We share a special concern about the disengagement of college students from democratic participation.  A chorus of studies reveals that students are not connected to the larger purposes and aspiration of the American democracy.  Voter turnout is low.  Feelings that political participation will not make any difference are high.  Added to this, there is a profound sense of cynicism and lack of trust in the political process.

We are encouraged that more and more students are volunteering and participating in public and community service, and we have all encouraged them to do so through curricular and curricular activity.  However, this service is not leading students to embrace the duties of active citizenship and civic participation.  We do not blame these college students for their attitudes toward the democracy, rather we take responsibility to help them realize the values and skills of our democratic society and their need to claim ownership of it.

This country cannot afford to educate a generation that acquires knowledge without ever understanding how that knowledge can benefit society or now to influence democratic decision making.  We must teach the skills and values of democracy, creating innumerable opportunities for our students to practice and reap the results of the real, hard work of citizenship.

Colleges and universities have long embraced a mission to education students for citizenship.  But now, with over two-thirds of recent high school graduates, and ever larger number of adults, enrolling in post secondary studies, higher education has an unprecedented opportunity to influence the democratic knowledge, disposition, and habits of the heart that graduates carry with them into the public square.

Higher education is uniquely positioned to help Americans understand the histories and contours of our present challenges as a diverse democracy.  It is also uniquely positioned to help both students and our communities to explore new ways of fulfilling the promise of justice and dignity for all, both in our own democracy and as part of the global community.  We know that pluralism is a source of strength and vitality that will enrich our students' education and help them to learn both to respect difference and work together for the common good.

We live in a time when every sector-- corporate, government and nonprofit-- is being mobilized to address community needs and reinvigorate our democracy (Gardner, 1998).  We cannot be complacent in the face of a country where one out of five children sleeps in poverty and one in six central cities has an unemployment rate 50% or more above the national average, even as our economy shows unprecedented strength.  Higher education-- its leaders, students, faculty, staff, trustees and alumni-- remains a key institutional force in our culture that can respond, and can do so without a political agenda and with the intellectual and professional capacities today's challenges so desperately demand.  Thus, for society's benefit and for the academy's, we need to do more.  Only by demonstrating the democratic principles we espouse, can higher education effectively educate our students to be good citizens.

How can we realize this vision of institutional public engagement?  It will, of course, take as many forms as there are types of colleges and universities.  And it will require our hard work, as a while, and within each of our institutions.  We will know we are successful by the robust debate on our campuses, and by the civic behaviors of our students.  We will know it by the civic engagement of our faculty.  We will know it when our community partnerships improve the quality of community life and the quality of the education we provide.

To achieve these goals, our presidential leadership is essential but, by itself, it is not enough.  Faculty, staff, trustees and students must help craft and act upon our civic missions and responsibilities.  We must seek reciprocal partnerships with community leaders, such as those responsible for elementary and secondary education.  to achieve our goals, we must define them in ways that inspire our institutional missions and help measure our success.  We have suggested a Campus Assessment of Civic Responsibility that will help in this task.  It is a work in progress. We ask you to review the draft and to as yourself what aspects of this can work on your campus and also to share with others practices that are not on this list.

We ask other college presidents to join us in seeking recognition of civic responsibility in accreditation procedures, Carnegie classifications, and national rankings and to work with Governors, State Legislators, and State Higher Education Offices on state expectations for civic engagement in public systems.

We believe that the challenge of the next millennium is the renewal of our own democratic life and reassertion of social stewardship.  In celebrating the birth of our democracy, 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.

We invite you to add your campus to our list.  If the president or chancellor of your institution wishes to sign on they should send an e-mail to Madeline Yates.  We urge all readers to use this document to encourage dialogue on your campus among administrators, faculty, staff, and students.