April 18, 2024

61 College Presidents Unite to Advance Civic Preparedness and Uphold Free Expression on U.S. Campuses

Photo of a stately institution of higher education

Princeton, NJ, April 18, 2024 – Recognizing this urgent moment for American higher education and our democracy, 61 college presidents of diverse institutions from across the country are uniting to advance higher education’s pivotal role in preparing students to be engaged citizens and to uphold free expression on campus.

Through College Presidents for Civic Preparedness, a unique consortium designed by the presidents and convened by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, participating presidents are dedicated to preparing the next generation of well-informed, productively engaged, and committed citizens; defending free expression, civil discourse, and critical inquiry as essential civic norms; and increasing thoughtful engagement and better understanding by students for the effective functioning of our democracy. The consortium, first announced with 15 members in August 2023, has grown significantly, demonstrating momentum for this movement.

Participating presidents will take campus-specific and collective action, reflecting three shared Civic Commitments:

  • Educating for democracy is central to our mission.
  • We will prepare our students for a vibrant, diverse, and contentious society.
  • We will protect and defend free inquiry.

Taken together, these fresh commitments embrace both free speech and diversity, two values often pitted against each other, by instead emphasizing meaningful engagement and inquiry with different voices and viewpoints. The commitments stress diversity as a strength of both American democracy and campus life and affirm the truth-seeking role of higher education through curiosity and inquiry. They also enable campus leaders to take substantive action to promote democratic engagement among students, with public accountability for progress through publication of an annual impact report.

“In an era of extreme political polarization, increasing social instability, and declining faith in the nation’s institutions, I am more committed than ever to working with university presidents to prepare students to be engaged and educated citizens,” Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway said. “Together, with our students, we will explore how we can preserve our freedoms while being respectful and openminded, intellectually honest and curious, and civil, decent, and understanding of one another.”

Presidents are developing campus-specific programming to advance the Civic Commitments in 2024, including new courses, outside speakers, student orientations, presidential speeches, technology tools, and voter education initiatives, all listed on the consortium website, such as:

  • James Madison University will require students to begin skill-building in civic dialogue before they arrive on campus through e-learning, then on-campus through peer-facilitated deliberative dialogue and individual assessments to measure the program’s effectiveness.
  • This fall, Wellesley College will offer all sophomores the opportunity to participate in a year-long program focused on developing the skills of active citizenship, while learning to understand and address global challenges, part of multi-faceted new programming.
  • Macalester College is partnering with local leaders, other Minnesota colleges, and the nonprofit Braver Angels on a campaign,Reduce the Rancor, to promote civil discourse and respect during this election year.
  • Indiana University is developing a new app, “Democracy Quest” that offers an immersive, virtual-reality journey through the workings of representative government and helps build skills of advocacy, compromise, and consensus building.
  • Carnegie Mellon University has dedicated an assistant dean to civility initiatives.
  • Bennington College is launching a new, two-semester course on elections and education, available to students, alumni and the broader community to deepen understanding and commitment to democracy.

“In every aspect of life in open societies, including on college campuses, the ability to engage in civil discourse is a challenge—and a critically important skill,” said Bates College President Garry W. Jenkins. “I believe it is the responsibility of the full scope of our education system, up through and including our colleges and universities, to help children and young adults cultivate the powers of constructive dialogue, active listening, respectful debate, openness to different viewpoints, negotiation, and collective problem-solving. If our students cannot talk to one another, especially across differences in view or belief, we can’t expect them to become the engaged, effective members of society and leaders that we need them to be.”

In addition to championing these commitments on their own campuses, the presidents will undertake together and through the Institute a set of collective actions:

  • Meet regularly and confidentially for peer learning and the exchange of information, ideas, practices, and tools, including on such topics as the 2024 elections and student activism;
  • Help faculty engage effectively with free expression and civil discourse in the classroom by participating in the Faculty Institute on Dialogue Across Difference; and
  • Create and seize opportunities for shared advocacy and public outreach on civic preparedness in higher education.

“Higher education has a responsibility to provide students with critical civic skills and knowledge to participate effectively in our constitutional democracy,” said Rajiv Vinnakota, President of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. “College campuses are among the most diverse spaces in our country, and college is an important time for students to develop the habits, practices, and norms to live in a multicultural and interconnected democracy. Doing so can create a ripple effect, making young people more optimistic and increasingly committed about their future and our nation.”

 

College Presidents for Civic Preparedness has been supported by ECMC Foundation, Einhorn Collaborative, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, One8 Foundation, Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Lumina Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, and Teagle Foundation, with individual campuses providing support for their own related projects.

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The Institute for Citizens & Scholars cultivates talent, ideas, and networks that develop young people as effective, lifelong citizens. We unite the left, right, and center to develop breakthrough solutions that create stronger citizens in our country, and we bring these solutions to life by forming strategic partnerships with an intentionally diverse group of young people, scholars and education leaders, and civic and business leaders—including the 27,000 world-leading Fellows in our network. Together, we’re on a mission to ensure that Americans everywhere are civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy. 

Media contact: Andy Solomon, andy@stratfordcommunications.com, (202) 841-9049