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Student participation in the political process is on the decline in the U.S. as skepticism for political candidates and processes rises.

In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, voter turnout among 18 to 24 year-olds fell to 41 percent, a six percentage-point drop from the 2008 election, The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement recently reported. (In comparison, participation among older adults was down one percentage point).

We met with fellow higher education leaders from Europe and North America this summer to discuss the role of the university in a civil society to reinvent, or at least reinvigorate, our respective democracies.

The conference, at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, allowed us to explore how our institutions collectively can prepare students — and society at large — for productive civic engagement and find remedies for our gridlocked political environment.

Kevin Kruger president of NASPA, left, and David Maxwell, president of Drake University, right.
Kevin Kruger president of NASPA, left, and David Maxwell, president of Drake University, right.

We discussed the strategies universities can use to participate meaningfully in their societies, ranging from responding to workforce needs and ensuring an educated electorate to serving as the locus for civil and respectful discourse on the issues that challenge the viability and vitality of our democratic institutions.

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” And that is where our responsibilities lie.

“What is the role of the university in reinventing our democratic processes and behaviors in a way that enables us to attack the critical problems that face us, rather than one another?”

We must find ways to encourage greater participation in the electoral process. But we must also ensure informed participation by people with thorough knowledge of the facts and issues and who are not easily swayed by the hyperbolic, misleading and often mean-spirited campaign ads that saturate our media.

One only has to observe the U.S. Congress and most state legislatures to recognize that our democratic process is paralyzed and dysfunctional. Higher education institutions have a sacred responsibility to educate a citizenry that can and, through their informed and thoughtful participation in the process, will break the political gridlock.

We must demand real collaboration in the search for answers to the complex challenges that face our nation. Failure to address these issues, which include the disproportionate number of low-income students in poorly performing schools that do not prepare them for post-secondary education, not only isolates us from those who need us most, but is an abdication of our social compact and erodes the foundation of our democracy.

It is also critical that we serve as the conveners of discussions about the very structure of our democracy. How much of our dysfunction derives from the frightening influence of money on the electoral process, the toxic political discourse that is not only covered but seemingly encouraged by the media, the social issues that are polarizing us and how much from a structural dysfunction? As Snezana Maradzic-Markovic, the Council of Europe’s director general for democracy, stated at the forum in Belfast, “we are trying to solve 21st century problems with 19th century institutions.” Her statement raises an exciting and challenging question: What is the role of the university in reinventing our democratic processes and behaviors in a way that enables us to attack the critical problems that face us, rather than one another?

America’s colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to serve in this capacity. A critical component of an institution’s social compact is to bring communities together to debate the important issues of the day with civility and respect. We must foster an environment in which diversity of opinion and perspective is not only tolerated, but valued highly as a means to expand our understanding, stretch our imaginations and together discover newer and better truths.

Unfortunately, many of the nation’s campuses have lost sight of that role to some extent. The celebration of intellectual and ideological diversity in academia has deteriorated, as illustrated by the recent flurry of revocations of invitations to commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients. We must allow those with whom we disagree to subject their actions and their words to public scrutiny, and a civil, if critical response. If we are indeed to bring people of diverse perspectives and ideologies together to reinvigorate our democracy, it is essential that we participate in conversations that will be difficult and often uncomfortable.

It was evident in our Belfast conversations that globally, there is an increased focus on employability as a key outcome of the higher education experience — in some cases the only important outcome. It seems that, as a higher education community, we have ceded ownership of the public discourse about our enterprise to posturing policy-makers and sensationalist media.

There is, of course, no question that we have a core responsibility to prepare a workforce that ensures America’s economic vitality and competitiveness, and we should be held accountable for our success in doing so. But the relentless emphasis on that issue has led public attention away from our essential role not only in the discovery and transmission of knowledge, but in the preparation of educated citizens of a participatory democracy. That is a return on investment that is much harder to measure objectively than job placement rates and the average salaries of graduates, but if that role is not recognized, valued and supported, the very health of our democracy is at risk.

The DNA of the academy uniquely positions us for the role of reinvigorating democracy. At the heart of our genetic makeup lie a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, a passion for discovery and for finding solutions, and an insistence that there must be better ways of knowing and doing than what we have in the present. It is those traits that we must bring to bear in educating our students and in our engagement with society at large if we are to truly contribute to the future health and vitality of our democracy.

Kevin Kruger, PhD, is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

David Maxwell, PhD, is president of Drake University

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