Syracuse University joins yearlong initiative to promote higher education as agent of democracy

Chancellor Cantor to moderate Jan. 10 White House panel on public scholarship

Syracuse University will join with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the U.S. Department of Education and other civic and educational groups tomorrow, Jan. 10, for a White House event to publicly launch the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), a yearlong initiative to promote higher education as an agent of democracy and a force for public good. As part of the launch event, SU Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor will moderate a panel discussion about promoting and facilitating public scholarship.

The ACP initiative coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges and universities throughout the United States to promote access to higher education across social classes and equip students with the relevant skills and knowledge to address the important needs of the day.

A broad alliance of educational, civic, philanthropic and business groups, the ACP includes, among others, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, a national consortium based at SU and dedicated to advancing public scholarship through the humanities, arts and design; the Association of American Colleges and Universities; the American Democracy ProjectCampus Compact; and other K-12 schools, colleges and universities. Director for the initiative is Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, who provided the initial concept for the ACP. Chancellor Cantor serves as co-chair of the ACP’s Presidential Council.

“The American Commonwealth Partnership embraces a wide range of commitments by colleges and universities—public and private—focused on their shared public mission to spur innovation and create opportunity,” says Cantor. “These commitments grow out of our fundamentally shared identity as place-based, anchor institutions positioned to catalyze cross-sector collaboration for the public good that strengthens our communities and simultaneously strengthens democracy.”

The ACP, which evolved out of a planning meeting of higher education and government leaders hosted by Chancellor Cantor in New York City last September, embraces three overarching goals: to build a stronger democracy and healthy civic life; to prepare more college graduates for civic work and 21st century prosperity; and to expand capacity to create solutions across differences. Within those larger goals, the initiative will focus on five thrusts of activity: strengthening community-campus connections; expanding public scholarship and research; advancing civic learning and democratic engagement; deepening civic identity, values and vision; and assessing achievement levels of civic learning outcomes.

“The American Commonwealth Partnership builds on multiplying efforts across higher education to reclaim education’s public purposes,” says Timothy K. Eatman, an assistant professor in SU’s School of Education, director of research for Imagining America and senior research adviser for the ACP initiative. “It also recognizes that tackling the nation’s complex challenges in an interconnected global environment requires that creative minds and different kinds of knowledge come together from schools, businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods and government as well as higher education. This means valuing knowledge produced not only for specialized academic audiences, but also knowledge-making, which addresses pressing public problems. It also means moving beyond the ‘expert-knows-best’ syndrome, developing deep collaborative partnerships that value different kinds of knowledge.”

In the spirit of the land-grant colleges created by  the Morrill Act that went on to become known as “democracy colleges,” the theme of the ACP’s yearlong slate of activities is “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission.” Over the next 12 months, the ACP aims to build on the Morrill Act’s legacy and spark a resurgence of civic learning and democratic engagement throughout higher education.

“If America is to regain control of our collective future, we need to reinvent citizenship for the 21st century, and higher education has a critical role to play in that process,” says Boyte. “The next stage of civic engagement is moving from a focus on developing activities to developing civic identity.”

ACP activities will include hosting national deliberative dialogues; conducting an extensive social media campaign under the banner “DemocracyU,” which includes blogs, stories and videos showcasing civic initiatives; and developing curricular and co-curricular reform that combines civic education, the humanities, science, technology, engineering and mathematics scholarship. In addition, Cantor will host a meeting about the ACP with senior administrators at colleges and universities across the country as part of Imagining America’s Oct. 5-7 conference in New York City.

The Jan. 10 White House launch activities will be streamed live at, and during breakout sessions online participants will have the opportunity to host their own discussions.