Rethinking the Role of the University in Promoting Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement

Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend,

This essay was originally published in the Political Science Educator’s Fall 2020 issue. 

As a political scientist, and teacher-scholar, I am eager to use my research and teaching skills to equip my students with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and experiences they need to be informed, engaged voters and community members. As director of our campus American Democracy Project (ADP), I am eager to extend my reach beyond my own classroom in ways that benefit the campus and broader community.[i]

The ADP views college campuses as “stewards of place” that both serve the community and are part of it.[ii] There are many ways to fulfill this mission, including working with P-12 schools, promoting community and economic development, and promoting widespread service learning using community leaders as co-educators while focusing on community-defined needs.

Another way for colleges and universities to fulfill their broader public purpose is to make our space more public and to promote democratic learning and engagement that brings the community to the campus and the campus to the community. Such activities can take place on campus, throughout the community, and online.[iii]

What if every public university thought of themselves and their faculty, staff, and students as engaged citizens and community members? What if each college and university placed the widespread development of civic knowledge, skills, and engagement at the heart of its mission – in order to improve the lives of people in the region? What if the university saw its resources as public resources and did more to encourage the public to utilize these resources to promote civic learning and democratic engagement? For example:

  • Instead of focusing on classroom-based (practice) activities designed to equip tuition-paying students with critical thinking and deliberation skills, what if faculty incorporated public events and “open classrooms” into all courses to allow students and non-students to deliberate together about the issues that matter most to the local community?[iv]
  • What if campuses nationwide became the site of local, state, and national political debates? What if colleges worked with diverse community partners to host candidate forums and debates for all contested races on the ballot, allowing voters to compare candidates side-by-side in live (and live broadcasted) public events?[v]
  • What if the campuses continued to host town hall meetings with elected officials between election cycles?
  • What if campuses volunteered to serve as polling places and to work with county election administrators to train students to work the polls?[vi]
  • What if campuses developed civic leadership academies, working with municipal, county, state, and national political leaders and community activists to equip people with the combination of knowledge and skills they need to make a meaningful difference in their communities? Such academies could be held on campus, at community locations, and online.[vii]
  • What if campuses hosted free campaign colleges for local citizens from all demographic and partisan backgrounds to demystify the process and promote competitive elections in all jurisdictions nationwide?
  • What if campuses became central meeting places for civic organizations of all kinds? What if working with such organizations became an expected part of what it meant to be a member of both the community and the university, with diverse and interdisciplinary groups of students, faculty, and staff joining others across our communities to address the “wicked problems” that defy easy solutions and require all of us to harness our collective experience, energy, wisdom?

These are just a few ideas for making our campuses more public and serving a broader public mission. Such campuses would become environments where students not only learn about democracy and community engagement, but also live democracy and practice engagement. Political scientists possess the knowledge and skills required to lead these efforts, in collaboration with other faculty, staff, students, and civic leaders outside the academy. Opening our campuses and classrooms to the public is one way to act as stewards of place and to fulfill the public purpose of higher education: bettering our communities and educating the next generation of engaged civic leaders.

[i] Learn more about the American Democracy Project here:

[ii] An interesting piece on becoming a Steward of Place is available here:

[iii] This essay is a lightly revised version of a “provocation” I submitted as part of a “Gallery of Wicked Provocations” at the 2020 meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education. My team of American Democracy Project directors at regional IU campuses addressed the topic of “Higher Education and Democracy After 2020.”

[iv] The National Issues Forum provides free training guides, moderator tips, discussion launcher videos, and issues guides for organizations to host public deliberations on a wide range of local and national policy issues. You can access most materials for free here:

[v] Footage of sample local, state, and national candidate forums and debates hosted by the American Democracy Project of Indiana University South Bend and local League of Women Voters chapters is available here:

[vi] Like most states, Indiana, where I teach, faces a poll worker shortage. IUPUI professor Tim Koponen has argued that college students could be the solution. You can read his op ed, available on the Secretary of State’s website, here:

[vii] For more information, including suggested topics and organizing advice see: Elizabeth A. Bennion, 2018. “Hosting a Civic Leadership Academy on Your Campus.” The Political Science Educator 22 (2): 2-6, available here A complete video archives of the Civic Leadership Academy series is available here:



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