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Conceptualizing and Assessing Campus Climates for Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy

Civic Engagement Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement
February 26, 2019

THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM "Conceptualizing and Assessing Campus Climates for Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL OF COLLEGE AND CHARACTER, VOLUME 19, ISSUE 4.


Educating for political engagement in democracy has become simultaneously more urgent and more challenging in the current, contentious, and highly polarized context. To improve student political learning, discourse, agency, and participation, colleges and universities should critically examine and improve their campus climates, the complex ecosystem of interconnected structural, cultural, human, and political factors that provide the foundation for civic learning and engagement. Filling a gap in the literature, this article presents a theoretical framework for understanding and gauging how an institution’s climate can promote or dissuade student political learning and participation. Using the protocols provided here, researchers and institutions can replicate the study methods used to test and refine this framework.

This article introduces a conceptual framework for critically examining campus climates for college student political learning and engagement in democracy. While educating for citizenship is a well- established and accepted role for colleges and universities, student civic engagement experiences are too often designed to be apolitical. As a result, too many students finish college lacking the knowledge, skills, and commitment they need to tackle the most pressing and divisive challenges facing democracy. Higher education’s reticence to educate for democracy partly stems from the lack of a framework for understanding how campus climate shapes student political learning and engagement.

We begin this article with a brief examination of higher education’s civic purpose and approach to student political engagement, followed by a review of the literature on organizational culture, campus climates, and institutional change. We define college campus climate as a complex ecosystem of interconnected structural, cultural, human, and political factors that affect college student learning. We then introduce a conceptual framework that can be used to examine and understand campus climates as well as identify areas on which an institution can focus to strengthen student political learning and engagement in democracy (see Fig. 1). We empirically tested and revised this framework through a series of qualitative case studies. (To see protocols, contact the authors directly.)

Higher Education’s Civic Mission and Political Reticence

Higher education serves multiple purposes in American society. Beyond educating for careers and economic security, colleges and universities are also charged with educating knowledgeable, skilled, and thoughtful citizens (the term citizens is used throughout this article in the broadest sense and does not connote legal status) for a strong democracy.

Historically, higher education’s commitment to civic learning and engagement has fluctuated. The most recent surge of interest began over 20 years ago when colleges and universities responded to concerns over measurable declines in citizen participation in communities and civic life. In response, institutions added a broad range of student programs, including volunteerism, service learning, public-interest internships, and student community-based research. They also pursued new institutional strategies by revising mission statements, adding new offices for community partnerships and service learning, and providing faculty recognition for public scholarship. National associations such as Campus Compact and American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project further promoted these civic commitments. In 2006, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced a new “community engagement” classification. To achieve this classification, institutions must complete a comprehensive application on how they address and assess civic learning. By 2015, 361 campuses had received an Engaged Campus classification (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2015).

Although these investments and institutional shifts cultivated student commitment to public service and empathy for others, they have fallen short of educating for democracy (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012; Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). Too few college students graduate having developed the knowledge, skills, or commitment necessary for navigating polarized politics and bringing about sustainable social change. While more students engage in community-based service than 20 years ago, these experiences do not include learning how to change the systems and structures underlying the very need for the service experiences (Finley, 2011; Scobey, 2010). Without addressing the systemic and policy challenges underlying social problems, students do not have the opportunity to explore the state of American democracy more broadly. Therefore, higher education needs to augment these civic experiences and offer civic education that is more likely to strengthen the future of democracy (Hartman, 2013; Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011).

This kind of civic learning is unavoidably political, and it comes with challenges. Academics may feel the need to exercise caution when talking about controversial issues or public policies, particularly in the classroom. In defense of neutrality and values-free learning, educators may avoid politics altogether to evade accusations of partisanship or indoctrination. Smith, Mayer, & Fritschler’s (2008) study of political or ideological bias in higher education found that 61% of the faculty members who responded to their survey agreed with the statement, “Politics seldom comes up in my classroom because of the nature of the subjects I teach” (p. 201). Additionally, faculty members who spoke out in support of political activism feel they are considered “troublemakers who could damage their institutions” (p. 201). Inside Higher Ed regularly reports stories of academics expressing a viewpoint, only to find themselves the subject of external political pressure or internal scrutiny (Thomas, 2015). Moreover, engaging in political discussions both in and beyond the classroom is more difficult given the forces of extreme partisan polarization, legislative interventions, and highly publicized critique of colleges and universities as places of liberal indoctrination and chilled speech (Thomas, 2017).

Colleges and universities should not be dissuaded by polarization or partisan scrutiny. Indeed, their response should be the opposite. Young people are more likely to develop perspective-taking and reflective thinking skills if their ideas are challenged by opposing views and information (Flanagan & Bundick, 2011). Rice (2006), pointing to the work of Max Weber, argued that the moral obligation of faculty is to ask students “the inconvenient questions” (p. 11). The goal for framing learning in this way is to challenge students’ assumptions and open their minds to new and diverse perspectives, particularly on the most pressing moral, social, and political issues of our time. These political skills enable students to consider multiple sides of problems (Antonio et al., 2004), thus better equipping them to address and solve them. To ensure students develop these skills, institutions must support a thriving environment for lively and even uncomfortable discourse around matters of public concern.

Read the full article.

Join the Journal of College and Character at NASPA#19

Journal of College and Character will be hosting a general session on civic learning and democratic engagement at the 2019 NASPA Annual Conference in Los Angeles. In this session, Nancy Thomas, who co-authored with Margaret Brower “Conceptualizing and Assessing Campus Climates for Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy” in the November 2018 issue, will present her research. Nancy is director of research on higher education’s role in American democracy, including the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tuffs University. She will be joined by Stephanie King, NASPA's assistant director for civic engagement, knowledge community, and social justice initiatives at NASPA, and by Pete Mather, senior associate editor of the JCC and professor of counseling and higher education at Ohio University.

Promoting Civic Learning and Engagement in the Journal of College and Character

March 12, 8:00 AM - 8:50 AM

LA Convention Center, 410