American Democracy and University Engagement

American Democracy and University Engagement

View of the huge crowd from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, during the March on Washington]” Original black and white negative by Warren K. Leffler. Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Lou Swanson, Emeritus Vice President of Engagement, Colorado State University

Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus, Outreach and Engagement, Oregon State University

It seems commonplace, even self-evident, that public universities are cultural centers for and accountable to our most fundamental sets of beliefs.  Professor James Hansen’s work on Colorado State University’s 150-year history chose the framing title of ‘Democracy’s University’.  During the last decade, CSU went beyond its traditional mission statement to declare a set of ‘Principles of Community’ to govern its daily operations (

This blog is not meant to declare for any particular social and political dimension of democracy.  It is not our status, or responsibility, to instruct you, the reader, on ‘the’ or ‘our’ understanding of democracy. 

Rather, we mean to restate, to rededicate, institutional voices and resources that acknowledge the intersection of public engagement and its support of democracy.

Our intension is simple and perhaps best stated as questions.  Do public universities’ engagement and outreach missions embrace democracy as a form of government?  Or, do they simply pay it lip service in their mission statements but do not press this value when confronted by pushback from some of the publics they serve?

The renewal of our cultural allegiance to democracy as a form of government requires a resocialization from each generation of stewards to the next.  Democracy is not assured, even when firmly written into law.  Democracy is messy and democracy fails – for example the US Civil War and then the unsuccessful reconstruction project following the Civil War that eventually resulted in the 1960s voting rights laws confirming the principles of American democracy. The 1890 LGU history is the legacy of the US Supreme Court’s now discredited 1890 ruling sanctioning state segregation laws.  Democracy’s principles are not self-correcting.   The failure of reconstruction to fully emancipate African, Native, Mexican Americans and others are persistent examples from our vantage point in 2021.  Democracy is an on-going project with each generation leaving its imprint on history.

Public universities hold a special association with, a special responsibility toward, their many external communities.  One of these is the socialization of values and norms associated with democracy.  Nonetheless, questions continue to be asked, continue to be begged of this historic commitment.

  • How has higher education reproduced through its curricula and external engagement initiatives its stated value to embrace democracy?
  • Do institutions of higher education follow through on their self-proclaimed obligations to strenuously reinforce and advocate for democracy?
  • For university engagement, and, for a Land Grant University’s Extension services, what are the points of direct socialization of democracy for its students, staff, faculty and publics?

Indicators of higher education institutions embracing democracy include their commitments to access by qualified students, pronouncements of their commitments to inclusiveness and by highlighting their outreach activities for their local and state constituencies.

It is the responsibility of public universities to steer into the obligations and public stresses in advocating for democracy. Our institutional integrity rests in part in advocating democracy. 

How democracy is taught and how it is practiced, not always internally consistent, will reveal different political perspectives ranging from proto-authoritarian to proto-egalitarian. There will be a myriad of political interpretations that fall within explanations and meaning of democracy.  A function of public universities is to educate and advocate for democracy.  But this begs the question ‘do public universities acknowledge this dual role?’  Do they recognize and embrace democracy as a core value guiding their teaching, research and engagement missions?

Political legitimacy in the US ultimately rests on the rule of law for voting and the accountability of the citizenry.  Our history is complicated, at best.  Received narratives tend to be fragmented, fractured, and even openly contested.  Democracy is messy and conflictual.  These debates are not antithetical to democracy.  They are evidence of a functioning democracy.

Our received histories contribute to the challenges public universities continuously engage in their outreach missions.  Far from diminishing our commitments, advocating for democracy requires wading into the public domain, guided by published institutional principles and with a university’s awesome collection of talent and viewpoints.

What we think of as democracy can be illustrated by what we know it isn’t.  For example, oxymorons of for democracy include authoritarian democracy, fascist democracy, democratic communism, and a host of others.

Democracy is such a powerful universal value even totally authoritarian regimes make claims to it by using the term democracy in their self-identities.   We are pretty good at recognizing what democracy isn’t.  But, are we equally as good in determining associated values of democracy? These often include equality, freedom, access to defined rights and material qualities of life — to inalienable rights.

Again, democracy does not automatically create inclusiveness and open dialogue required for it to function in principle.  As an example, held by most, democracy was not a guiding value during legal segregation in post-Civil War America.  Some public universities did stand in opposition the many guises of segregation and exclusion.  From our vantage point today, higher education was at best irresponsibly tardy in institutionally internalizing women’s rights. 

Let’s not assume that democracy is self-correcting.  Let’s not assume that freedom rhetorically is consistent with democracy when freedom is defined as maintaining ascendency of one group of people over another by exclusionary voting practices.

Public universities are making a difference.  An example is public universities’ commitment to inclusive public deliberation.  Universities are dedicated to enhancing local democracy through improved public communication and community problem-solving (an excellent example is CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation

Land Grant Universities Youth Development 4-H programs are examples of training youth for responsible citizenship in the messy world of a democratic society.

Democracy is a core value for all public universities.  This value cannot be taken for granted uncritically.  Public universities are institutional stewards for advocating and practicing values associated with democracy.

We cannot duck and cover when confronted by anti-democratic tendencies of exclusion, the denial of our society’s continuing discussion of inalienable rights, selectively devaluing objective inquiry in science and not recognizing the many legitimate competing viewpoints in our society.

Public universities’ first principles include adhering to stated values for democracy.  This is not and will not be easy within a highly fractured society of 330 million citizens.  We continuously need to advocate for and to socialize our value for democracy as public universities.

6 thoughts on “American Democracy and University Engagement

  1. Equally important to what public institutions do to socialize the value of a democratic form of government, is a broad general studies curriculum that builds the knowledge required to be an informed contributor to a democratic process. A functional democracy requires an educated populace.

  2. Our Universities are such fertile ground for the generational transfer of democracy. Those seeds must be sown in the home, and watered in communities where we grow our roots. Extension touches each of these spaces and can make a huge difference in maintaining democratic principles through our programming and practices. Thank you for the reminder to re-center. Our Land Grant Universities and our form of government are uniquely American and every generation needs reminders along the journey of representative democracy in this republic.

    1. Sincere thanks for your thoughtful comment, Mark. Your environmental fertility and growth metaphor is perfect.

  3. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your website? My blog is in the very same niche as yours and my users would really benefit from a lot of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Cheers!

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