College presidents challenge academic leaders

Dr. Susan A. Cole, president of Montclair State University, was among the 51 college and university presidents at a July 1 meeting in Colorado who challenged the nation's academic leaders to take action against a rising tide of civic disengagement.

In a "Presidents' Fourth of July Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education," they addressed a growing concern that cynicism and a lack of trust toward the political process are leading citizens -- particularly those of college age -- to disengage from civic affairs and abandon the responsibilities of citizenship.

"As presidents of colleges and universities, both private and public, large and small, two year and four year, we challenge higher education to re-examine its public purposes and its commitments to the democratic ideal," the declaration reads. "... This country cannot afford to educate a generation that acquires knowledge without ever understanding how that knowledge can benefit society or how to influence democratic decision making. We must teach the skills of democracy, creating innumerable opportunities for our students to practice and reap the results of citizenship."

"At Montclair State University, our students are committed to engaging in public service projects, either as volunteers or by working in communities as part of their coursework," Dr. Cole said. "We are strong proponents of the belief that engaged, committed students are a vital requirement for a healthy community and strong nation."

The presidents, representing a cross-section of American higher education from community colleges to state universities to Ivy League institutions, met at the Aspen Institute 1999. In addition to their own discussions, they met with civic renewal leaders, social critics and former members of Congress -- all addressing the theme "Rekindling the Democratic Spirit." Several recent studies have highlighted the problem, including a 1998 report by the National Association of Secretaries of State which found less than 15 percent of college-age people voted in the last national election.

"We believe that the challenge of the next millennium is the renewal of our own democratic life and reassertion of social stewardship," the presidents concluded. "We can think of no nobler task than committing ourselves to helping catalyze and lead a national movement to reinvigorate the public purposes and civic mission of higher education. We believe that now and through the next century our institutions must be vital agents and architects of a flourishing democracy. We urge all of higher education to join us."

The Presidents' Leadership Colloquium was sponsored by Campus Compact, the American Council on Education and the Aspen Institute. The full text of the Presidents' Fourth of July Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher can be read at http://www.compact.org/.