Allies, Advocates and Academics

Mary Morrison, Assistant Dean and Director The Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, Elon University

September 9, 2016

Imagine that you have accepted a new position at Civic University.  The President of CU has charged you with one goal:  make civic learning and democratic engagement an integral part of CU's educational experience. Civic learning must be incorporated in both the curricular and co-curricular work of faculty and staff.  With your leadership, democratic engagement will become the hallmark of a Civic University education.

The University Mission Statement and Strategic Plan

Begin by reading CU's mission statement and strategic plan.  How does civic learning and democratic engagement fit with the mission?  What goals in the strategic plan align with your goals?  Read everything you can about the history of the University, advancement's fundraising goals, admission materials, the faculty and staff handbooks, and annual reports from the Board of Trustees.  How does your work relate to these essential documents?

Build It and They Will Come

Find out what structures already exist on campus that support civic learning and democratic engagement.  Student government, the political science department, and political student organizations are obvious.  But you may discover that the Provost's sister is a County Commissioner or the Director of Residence Life has a commitment to voter registration.  As you begin to network across campus, think about people who you could invite to serve on a campus-wide Civic Engagement Council.   The purpose of the Council would be to share information, identify strengths and gaps, develop strategic initiatives, encourage others to get involved and tell the story of civic engagement.

Find Allies and Advocates

Get ready to start drinking coffee and building relationships.  Begin in your own department or division.  Find out who cares about civic learning and democratic engagement personally or professionally.  Ask each person you meet who else you need to meet.  You will begin to see a network emerge along with a list of formal and informal leaders in this work.  Who do people admire and listen to?

Burst the Bubble

If you are charged with institutionalizing civic learning and democratic engagement, then you need to familiarize yourself with the local community.  Once again, you need to know who cares about this work in the surrounding community.  Read the local paper, find out about elected officials, and get a list of civic organizations.  Remember the Provost's sister?  Maybe she would be willing to show you around and give you an insider’s perspective.  Meet with the directors of nonprofit agencies that host student volunteers.  Find out about their connections on campus and learn more about their experience with the University.  Who are the bridge builders between town and gown?  Keep your eyes open for potential representatives for the Civic Engagement Council.  

Faculty, Staff, and Students

Faculty members are crucial supporters for institutionalizing civic learning on campus.  Create a list of academic courses that relate to civic engagement and begin networking with faculty members teaching those courses.  Find out about promotion and tenure guidelines which provide powerful incentives for faculty buy-in.  Staff members in student life and admissions know a great deal about the culture, values and key leaders on campus.  Student life staff members are the key to co-curricular engagement and have goals that align with your work.  Advancement and University Relations communicate with internal and external audiences on a daily basis.  They understand the priorities of the University and will be great allies for you in the future.  Student activism is increasing across the country.  Get to know influential and active students who care about civic engagement.  Isn't better to have students encouraging each other to register to vote? 


Read A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future published in 2012, by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  It is a powerful document of support for our work.

Campus Compact is very committed to civic learning and democratic engagement.  They provide a strong network of like-minded individuals, relevant publications, conferences and consulting. 

The important thing to remember is that this work begins with building strong, collaborative relationships and that takes time.  Building a foundation for your work is the hardest part but a necessary component of long-lasting change. 

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