Advancing the Civic Purposes of Higher Education: An Examination of an Educational Reform Movement
Matthew Hartley

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Pennsylvania

Primary Discipline

What are the civic purposes of a college or university? This question has garnered considerable attention on American campuses over the past fifteen years. In the early 1990s, Ernest Boyer, then-head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, voiced a growing concern shared by many that higher education needed “a larger purpose, a larger sense of mission, a larger clarity of direction in the nation’s life”. Of particular concern was the profound political disaffection of the American public more generally and college students specifically. In response to this crisis, prominent higher education associations have sponsored numerous national and regional conferences focusing on the public and civic purposes of colleges and universities and a number of institutions have actively sought to assert civic engagement as a defining feature.The growth of Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities committed to civic engagement, illustrates the extent to which this idea has gained currency. Founded in 1985 by three college presidents, the association currently has more than 30 state offices and 924 institutional members—approximately a quarter of all postsecondary institutions in the country. Civic engagement initiatives have found a receptive professoriate. A 2002 survey of 32,840 faculty members found that fully 60% believed it is important to “prepare students for responsible citizenship.” One in five (21.7%) reported that they had taught a service-learning course (incorporating community-based activities into the curriculum) in the past two years.The comprehensive and sustained nature of these activities has prompted some scholars to liken them to a social movement. Turner and Killian define a social movement as “a collectivity acting with some continuity to promote or resist a change in the society or organization of which it is a part”. Social movements are formed to advance certain ideals, have fluid membership, and their leadership is determined by the salience of competing ideas. Thus, studying a social movement requires not only identifying its networks of support but understanding the principals and values that have inspired action. At the heart of this study, then, is an examination of the contested purposes of colleges and universities in a democracy.This study will chart the trajectory of the civic engagement movement over the past fifteen years in part through an analysis of member survey data from Campus Compact. These data provide important insights into the characteristics of institutions that have embraced this mission and the extent to which these efforts have been supported. A review of higher education association periodicals (e.g. Academe, Change, Diversity Digest, Liberal Education) and interviews with association leaders will reveal the strategies that have been employed and delineate shifts in the rationale for civic engagement over time. Finally, this study will look closely at a set of institutions to examine how they have attempted to institutionalize civic engagement in ways that serve their distinct institutional purposes.
About Matthew Hartley

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