Reflections on the Importance of CLDE

William J. McKinney, Senior Advisor for Regional Campus Affairs Indiana University

April 2, 2019

The annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Conference (CLDE) is built around the four pillars of the CLDE Theory of Change: Purpose, Learning Outcomes, Pedagogy, and Strategy. When I volunteered to write this blog for CLDE 2019, I started to assess the plethora of work that is CLDE within the context of those four pillars. In the midst of that assessment, I repeatedly asked myself why I am committed to CLDE and, more specifically, the work of AASCU’s American Democracy Project (ADP). What is it in my own belief system that has me so committed, and how does it relate to the CLDE Theory of Change? I hope that you, too, will reflect on why CLDE is important to you, your community, and our democracy.

I am a higher education professional. I am a teacher, a scholar, and an administrator. My beliefs about democracy and higher education were shaped by my own education. They are framed well by the oft-quoted remark by President John Adams that the ideal education should be one that teaches us how to earn a living and also how to live. It is an education that seamlessly blends the practical importance of earning a livelihood with the responsibilities of citizenship. It reminds us that our responsibilities to ourselves and to others are mutually reinforcing.

The deeper foundation of my higher education vision was formed as an undergraduate at Bucknell University. While earning degrees in both chemical engineering and history, I discovered the interdependence between professional programs and the more traditional liberal arts, and within that interdependence, the strong links between science which can be applied for the common good, and the liberal arts which can help us to define and refine the meaning of the common good. As such, education in the sense in which Adams conceived it has a clear purpose. The survival of our way of life, including our democracy, requires an educated population.

While I have been in academic leadership roles for over two decades, I first spent nine years as a professor of philosophy. I came to realize in a short period of time that in order to frame the proper role for the study of philosophy in the contemporary university, I needed to focus on learning outcomes and pedagogy. How would my students, and society in general, be better for having studied philosophy? Given my commitment to education and democracy, there was an obvious answer. The proper role for the study of philosophy was to embrace its role in the liberal arts core, and to emphasize the importance of philosophy as a study in intellectual history. While emphasizing a critical examination of the fundamental assumptions underlying our modern institutions (e.g. science, religion, democracy), philosophy and the liberal arts can also emphasize the importance of critical thinking and communication skills.

As a scholar, I came to realize that higher education and the democracy it protects should be mutually reinforcing. The pursuit of knowledge in its modern sense is a self-correcting enterprise that opens itself to scrutiny and recognizes that its baseline of intersubjectively agreed upon facts is fallible. At its best, it is anti-orthodoxy and self-consciously aware of its own fallibility. Democracy is very similar. As a system of self-rule by the consent of the governed that also seeks to protect the rights of individuals, it too is self-correcting when the citizenry has the will and knowledge of its flaws. Our democracy is not perfect, but has shown an incredible capacity for correcting imperfection and injustices, and must continue to do so. An educated population can ensure that our democracy remains open to corrections over time.

My career has been spent in the service of this purpose and these learning outcomes, and for the vast majority of that time, it has been either on or working closely with AASCU institutions. I have been involved with the AASCU ADP in one form or another starting in 2009 as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, through my tenure as President of Valdosta State University, and now in my job as Senior Advisor for Regional Campus Affairs with Indiana University. I have been on the ADP Steering Committee since 2016, and will conclude my term as chair of that committee at the end of CLDE 2019. In these roles, I have had the opportunity to think strategically about the role of higher education in the 21st century. I concluded that at their best, our public universities should serve two purposes:  they should be learner-focused and they should be community-engaged. As a matter of strategy, all that we do in these institutions should serve those two purposes.

Why am I committed to this work? Quite simply, for the past 25 years, I have dedicated my professional life to advancing the missions of public comprehensive universities. These institutions educate the vast majority of students attending four-year institutions in the U.S. They are indispensable cultural and economic resources for their communities, regions, and states. They are, to use AASCU’s apt term, “Stewards of Place.” They are also heir to my conceptualization of the great promise of American higher education:

Higher education institutions exist to preserve and proliferate democratic values and economic opportunities; consequently, they are also responsible for imparting those intellectual skills required to protect those values and provide those opportunities.

Consequently, as someone who has dedicated is professional life to higher education, I have a responsibility as a professional, as a leader, and as a citizen, to engage in this work. I look forward to CLDE 2019 and the opportunity to learn from all of our attendees. The CLDE Theory of Change provides a robust framework within which to conceptualize and actualize our efforts to support, sustain, and improve our democracy, I cannot imagine a better purpose.   

William J. McKinney, Ph.D.
Senior Advisor for Regional Campus AffairsIndiana University
Email:  [email protected]
Twitter:  @WJMcKinney

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