The Academy and Public Life:
Healing the Rift

By Scott London

Over the last decade or two, much has been written about the decline of civic engagement in the United States and the crisis of public confidence in many of our social and political institutions. According to numerous studies, Americans feel that politics has evolved into a "system" made up of various institutions and political forces that effectively shuts them out of the democratic process. People are disillusioned not only by government but also by many professions which they feel have driven a wedge between the citizenry and the political process.

This essay appeared in the
summer 1999 issue of "Higher Education Exchange."

The trouble with institutions, in the public's view, is that they both represent and grant legitimacy to a system that no longer works as it should. Institutions also foster an ethos of professionalism that elevates the role of "experts" over that of regular citizens. As a result, people no longer perceive the professional as "one of us." The lawyer, the journalist, and the doctor are seen instead as members of a specialized elite who claim to speak on behalf of the public but do not actually represent it.

These problems have not been lost on people in the professions. Some institutions have mounted campaigns aimed at "listening" to the public through focus group studies, on-line forums, and toll-free telephone numbers. Others have reached out through extensive public service initiatives and community outreach projects. Still others have attempted to "engage the public" by inviting citizen input and participation in institutional decision-making. Good intentions notwithstanding, many of these efforts have only deepened the divide between the public and the professions.

In some cases, these failures have prompted a reassessment of traditional institutional practices. As some professionals point out, restoring public trust and promoting civic engagement cannot be achieved through public relations campaigns or, as many presume, by simply doing their job "a little better." What the professions must do is reexamine their working assumptions about public life. They need to find ways to work with the public, rather than on behalf of the public, in the words of Cole Campbell, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "In my experience, working on behalf of the public is somewhat arrogant and very much resisted by the public."

Cole Campbell is one of a growing number of journalists who are actively rethinking the role of the press in public life. The movement, variously known as "civic" or "public" journalism, is aimed not simply at improving the presentation of news or meeting the changing demands of newspaper readers, but providing a place where shared information is discussed and translated into public action. A similar reform movement is underway in philanthropy where foundation leaders are exploring new approaches to grantmaking aimed at building what they call "civil infrastructure" in American towns and cities.

Some colleges and universities are also beginning to take steps in this direction, though it is still too early to speak of a bona fide movement. For example, a number of schools are reshaping their curricula to better integrate research, teaching and community engagement. Some humanities scholars are also developing a concept of "public scholarship" aimed at breaking down the traditional distinction between specialized academic knowledge and what might be called practical "public knowledge."

Can colleges and universities be more responsive to the needs of public life? Is there a case to be made for connecting the campus to the broader community? And what are some of the practical steps that might be taken toward narrowing the gap between the public and the world of higher education?

These were some of the central questions taken up at the Seminar on the Professions and Public Life, a two-day event held in Washington D.C. in late June 1998. Convened by the Kettering Foundation, the seminar brought together a remarkable group of some seventy individuals — scholars, policymakers, journalists, foundation executives, public opinion researchers, citizen activists, and leaders in the world of higher education — to explore the role of the professions in building and strengthening American public life.

There seemed to be little disagreement that the institutions of higher education have become isolated from public life. More and more Americans look upon the academy merely as a place for professors to get tenured and students to get credentialed. Major universities raise millions of dollars to study public problems, yet they rarely apply their research to the real needs of communities. As Hofstra University's Michael D'Innocenzo remarked, "we would like to think of universities as communities of discourse, but too often they turn out to be more like fiefdoms with tenured faculty, like feudal lords, doing essentially whatever they want."

Lew Friedland described the University of Wisconsin where he teaches journalism as a "feudal" and "quasi-capitalistic" institution. On the one hand, he said, it follows the Hobbesian model of "war of each against all" — within departments, between departments, and between the institution and the board of regents. On the other hand, "we largely orient our research toward the needs of large businesses." On top of that, he added, there is an "iron wall" between academic research and society at large.

Scott Clemons of the Florida House of Representatives noted that in his experience many colleges and universities respond to public demands by passing the buck to legislators. "They come to us and say, 'What are you going to do for us?' 'Will you give us a larger slice of the budget pie?'" As a result, he said, "we see universities as a problem we have to deal with, instead of a help in the search for solutions to other problems."

Several participants spoke of the widespread shift taking place in higher education from civic education, in its broadest sense, toward professional training. The fact that higher education is directing more and more of its attention to the needs of the private sector rather than the needs of civil society is bound to have troublesome consequences for the future. Larry Vanderhoef of the University of California, Davis, pointed out that the mission of the academy has historically been two-fold — to make higher education available to more and more people, and to direct its efforts toward the needs of the greater society. "It's the second principle that seems to have gotten lost," he said. The challenge, therefore, is not so much to invent a new principle as to reinvigorate an old one.

In an after-dinner presentation, New York University's Thomas Bender offered an incisive overview of the social and historical forces that have forced a split between the academy and public life. He began his comments with the observation that the modern research university was founded by men of the highest civic ideals. Though they were educating a relatively privileged elite — future leaders in the worlds of government, finance, journalism — they nevertheless made it their mission to prepare students for an active public life. But this began to change with the rapid expansion of enrollment at the turn of the century, and again following World War II. The research university now began to assume a new mission. The aim shifted from preparing young people for public life to producing experts within disciplines who could apply specialized knowledge to the problems of public life.

This change had a number of troublesome consequences, according to Bender. First, it fostered a self-referential academic culture increasingly alienated from public life. The university was now "large enough" and "interesting enough" to "capture very smart people and keep them entertained without them having to pay much attention to a larger public." Second, it encouraged the production of specialized academic knowledge, as distinct from public or democratic knowledge. Third, and closely related, it put a premium on authority and expertise and thereby promoted the doctrine of professionalism.

Bender went on to say that any hope of restoring the civic mission of the academy depends on its adoption of a more democratic institutional culture. "The university may have to demonstrate more of the qualities it's asking the public to demonstrate before it has much to offer the public." It must also acknowledge and respect different "habitats of knowledge," he said. "The idea of authoritative knowledge is quite a noble idea, but it's also a dangerous academic dream. It discourages what I would call intellectual bilingualism." Academic theories and specialized discourse have their place. The question is whether scholars can translate their knowledge into the language of public life. "Rather than simply assert our authority, we must offer our contribution and not claim to speak for the whole."

Bender concluded with the assertion that "we can kill local democratic vitality by playing the expert; or, we can nourish that vitality, first, by providing a site for public conversation (universities are vastly underutilized as sites for public conversation), and, secondly, by becoming a partner in that conversation — not a controller, not a teller, but a partner. Authority in this model has to give way to dialogue and collaboration."

William Sullivan of LaSalle University followed Bender with some brief reflections of his own on the disconnection between the academy and public life. The trouble with higher education today, he observed, is that it suffers from a diminished authority — authority not in the usual sense of the word, but as Hannah Arendt used to refer to it: as an essential defining purpose or identity. This kind of authority has less to do with power and influence and more to do with public trust and accountability. If we understand higher education as a public good, Sullivan said, then restoring the authority of the academy can only be done under the auspices of the public. "If you scan today's discourse about education, education is described primarily as a vehicle for individual economic advance. But there is something called common goods, or public goods, that are worth achieving too, because without them our particular goods are not stable or secure."


A number of colleges and universities are taking up the challenge spelled out by Bender and Sullivan. Several seminar participants pointed to initiatives currently underway within the academy. These are projects aimed not only at creating more public spaces within the university, but incorporating deliberation and discussion about public issues into the curriculum, and building deeper and more reciprocal relationships with communities. At a more basic level, they are efforts to rethink the essential role of education in a democratic society.

Jean Cameron of the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, offered a vivid example of this sort of reform. She related how the college's administration began to push for a change in the core curriculum some years ago. "The faculty rallied and worked on it," she said. "But one of the things they discovered was they were unable to work together. They worked against each other." After repeated efforts, the dean decided it was time for a new approach. She brought in a moderator with some skills and experience in the process of deliberation. The dean also recognized that it was not enough to have just the faculty working on the problem — everyone at the college had to be involved. So the process was opened up to include the entire college community. What finally emerged from the effort was a new curriculum with an innovative community service dimension.

One of the most significant aspects of the story, according to Cameron, is that the effort began not as a grand initiative to change the college or to introduce a new civic mission. Rather, it began as a somewhat prosaic challenge — the need for a new core curriculum. "In changing our method of discourse," she said, "we were able to bring ourselves to a different level, and to create a public work we could be proud of."

Betty Knighton of the University of Charleston, West Virginia, reported on the growing number of colleges and universities convening National Issues Forums today. The forums not only offer tools for community problem-solving, she explained, they also teach participants the art of deliberation. In one forum at the University of Charleston, for example, people came together to discuss their relationship as citizens to government institutions and elected officials. She recalled how a student had spoken up at the end of the forum. "She had never been to this kind of a program before. She said, 'I can't believe that I'm 19 years old, I'm a political science major, and I've never been involved in this kind of discussion before. I've been in debates. I've been taught how to debate. I've been taught how to look at issues in partisan terms. But I've never been involved in this kind of a discussion before.' A woman across the room answered her and said, 'Don't feel bad, honey. I'm 75 and it's my first time too.'" The benefits of these sorts of forums, Knighton said, is that they teach people the skills of deliberation which they can then take with them into the community.

The College of DuPage outside Chicago has taken the National Issues Forums model one step further by incorporating public deliberation into the core practices and goals of the institution, as Sadie Flucas pointed out. "We came to a recognition that if we were really going to be serious about developing the intellectual core of civic life, then what we needed to do was to have a more comprehensive plan for modeling citizenship standards. This year our president established a special advisory council or board for a DuPage Humanities Forum in recognition of the fact that, as an institution, we needed to have a plan for how we were going to engage the entire community in public deliberations." What the college is hoping, Flucas said, is that the initiative will encourage citizens to come together on their own to address community problems. "We think that with the comprehensive approach we are now using, we will be better able to serve the people within our school districts and get them involved in public deliberation. We are the only public institution of higher education within our school district, so we feel a very special obligation to do this."


As these examples indicate, a growing number of academics are beginning to challenge conventional assumptions about civic education and experiment with new approaches. What can we learn from these efforts? How to they relate to the intellectual work being done by public scholars like Thomas Bender and William Sullivan? And do they point the way to a more clearly defined concept of public scholarship? The discussion of these questions revolved around three central themes: adopting civic practices within the academy, connecting research to the needs of the community, and reexamining the meaning and the uses of knowledge.

Modeling civic practices within the institution. Several participants pointed to the disjunction between what institutions of higher learning teach and what they practice. "We don't model for our students what it's like to engage in civic discourse," said Margaret Miller, president of the American Association of Higher Education. "In most colleges and universities — at least at the departmental level - - the conversation at the table isn't occurring." There are some schools where democratic discourse is part of the institutional culture, Miller said. But they are the exception rather than the rule. "I think the impact of that on our students is that they don't learn how to do it."

The starting point for genuine citizenship education is to cultivate the essential arts of democracy within the institution — the ability to think and frame issues in public terms, to engage with otherness, and to pursue new courses of action through deliberative inquiry. These are the skills of public problem-solving which, in Lew Friedland's words, "bind people together" and help them "accomplish some common end."

Relocalizing the academy. Healing the rift between the academy and the public also involves grounding the activities of the institution within the larger community and seeking out new relationships that bridge the gap. One of the most common suggestions toward that end was for colleges and universities to serve as public spaces in the broadest possible sense. In this respect, community colleges have an obvious advantage over larger research universities since they are seen by the public as community resources. Robert McSpadden of Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida, described his campus as a "community space." The college has served as a venue for town meetings, forums on race relations, debates about proposed highway bills, and study circles about affirmative action. McSpadden said that hosting and convening public events is a very direct and powerful way that institutions of higher learning can contribute to a more vital public sphere.

Making the academy more responsive to the community also involves working with the public, rather than on behalf of the public, by tailoring research to the real needs of people in their day-to-day lives. Harris Sokoloff of the University of Pennsylvania described it as "service research." Service research "meets all the criteria of disciplinary research," he said, but at the same time it's aimed at "making a difference in the communities in which it's conducted. It's not research on, it's research with." Sokoloff went on to say that people in colleges and universities "need to think of themselves as parts of larger communities" and "do their work in ways that create connections."

Rethinking the meaning and the uses of knowledge. A related challenge involves cultivating public knowledge, as distinct from authoritative knowledge. Public knowledge is the sort of knowledge that emerges from the give and take of collaborate inquiry. "Probably the most radical idea is that there is more than one way of looking at something," observed Caryn McTigh Musil of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The reigning idea today is that scholars provide expertise or extract information from the public rather than join with the public in the creation of knowledge. Public scholarship is a "much more dialogic, participatory, student-centered, project-oriented, collaborative" endeavor, Musil said. It recognizes that "knowledge is located in the students as well as in our heads. We certainly have a lot to offer. But the students, with the authority of their experience and with their situational knowledge, bring enormous things to the classroom." At bottom, she added, "we can't do our scholarship well if we don't have multiple sources that inform it and make it grow." The challenge is to "make the circle whole."

Thomas Bender cited a 1994 study, The New Production of Knowledge, by an international team of scholars who contend that in coming years more and more knowledge will be developed outside the halls of higher learning — in what Bender called "opportunistic and transdisciplinary" settings. The intellectual style in these places is different from that associated with the university. Theory is much closer to the "point of use" than with traditional academic knowledge. In a sense, this kind of knowledge dissolves the categorical distinction so often made between theory and practice. It's open-ended and embraces a plurality of perspectives.

The trouble with academic knowledge is that it's self-referential. Its meaning and usefulness are measured only in relation to what is already known within its given discipline. As New York University's Jay Rosen remarked, "the ultimate test of the knowledge produced by the institution must lie not within the institution, but outside of it. What you have achieved by going about the way you go about knowing has to be ultimately measured not within the university but in the community outside." The challenge is not to do away with academic knowledge but to engage what Bender called "the many habitats of knowledge."


There appeared to be a general consensus that addressing the disconnection between higher education and civil society must begin by tackling some of the systemic problems within the academy. One of the most challenging of these is the relatively low priority given to civic work. Zelda Gamson of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, observed that "until very recently, higher education has not been particularly interested in the civic agenda. College presidents have not taken that on. It's not 'normative.' It's kind of 'soft.' It's not particularly scholarly — even though the scholarly work on the issue of democracy and the breakdown of community and civic life has come from universities."

Another major obstacle is the fact that the modern research university is almost completely structured around academic disciplines. Hal Saunders, a member of the Board of Trustees at Princeton University, noted that the most promising work taking place within the academy is being done by individuals, not academic departments. The challenge is to break out of disciplinary boundaries — or perhaps to redefine and expand them. The question we must ask, Saunders said, is "how can universities encourage people to do that without asking them to throw away all they have invested in those disciplines?"

The question prompted several good observations. Fairinda West of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, commented that it's important for people within the academy not only to speak across disciplinary boundaries, but to "speak across roles." She recalled a recent forum at her community college where this method was especially productive. Trustees, faculty, staff, students, and even members of the grounds crew came together to deliberate on the issue of local governance. What they discovered was that people quickly dispensed with their professional identities and spoke out as concerned citizens.

Another way to overcome institutional boundaries is to teach interdisciplinary courses, according to West. This sort of teaching is not only professionally satisfying, but "it models for students a way in which professionals can deliberate and consider issues without being bounded by specialized language." Interdisciplinary education is really an effort to create a "third language," she said — not an academic language or a street language, but a shared language constructed in the course of addressing a common interest.

Not all colleges and universities are organized around disciplines. Some institutions are guided instead by a central mission or principle, such as service. Henry Ponder, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunities in Higher Education, explained that private colleges and universities born out of the struggle for expanded access and opportunity tend to be driven by different imperatives than traditional research universities. Service is typically an integral part of the curriculum at these schools. They often strike up partnerships with local civic associations and make campus facilities available to the community. In addition, these schools tend to emphasize the value of institution-wide forums and debates about the school's role in the community, tenure, and other issues. On occasion, they open up the decision-making process to include faculty and even students. According to Ponder, these institutions model a different relationship to public life from which other schools can learn.

Evidently, some universities and associations are learning from these examples. James Murray III, vice president of the American Council on Education, pointed to some of the discussions going on in his and other presidential associations. The work focuses not only on education for civic responsibility, but also on fostering a more active role for colleges and universities within the community. "We need to have a much greater consciousness on the part of our leadership," Murray said. "We also need better cooperation and better communication. We do a terrible job at that."

Several participants observed that the impulse to change must be a collective one. As Michael D'Innocenzo put it, "it's not going to work if it's from the top down — if it's college presidents, chancellors, or deans of the higher education establishment. And it's not going to work if it's from the bottom up. It really has to be a shared endeavor." A first step, he said, is for everyone within the institution to come together and ask what can be done.

Governing boards have an especially important role to play here, observed Thomas Longin of the Association of Governing Boards. They have control over the mission, the programs, and the resources of the institution. Unless they see the value of change, they are going to resist it and thereby prevent any substantive reforms from taking place. The key, Longin said, is for boards to recognize their role as facilitators of dialogue. They need to bring in a range of perspectives and ideas, not just from within the institution, but also from the community at large. "If the common wisdom is that students and faculty and community interests don't belong on boards of trustees, then we are very, very far away from beginning a useful conversation."

Longin went on to say that the problems of higher education "will not be solved at the departmental level or the school level or interdivisionally within the institutions, and they will not be solved by the institutions alone. Dialogue has to transcend existing structures of government within the institutions or it will not work."

Margaret Miller added that governing boards ask the crucial question: "So what?" One of their key functions is to demand accountability and self-assessment within the institution. These qualities are not well- rooted in the academy, in her view. Research tends to be directed outward, toward society at large, but rarely toward the functioning of the institution itself. As a result, it's difficult to know whether the instruction and research taking place are serving their desired purpose.


The impulse to nurture and strengthen public life is effecting widespread change across the country — in newsrooms, in foundations, on campuses, in state legislatures and city halls. Professional reform efforts aimed at rethinking the traditional dichotomy between institutions and the public are already well along in journalism and philanthropy. Whether these ideas will take root in the field of higher education remains to be seen. But as the Washington seminar drew to a close, there was a bracing sense of commitment and possibility, in spite of the many practical challenges involved.

Current trends aimed at relocalizing the institutions of higher learning, articulating a concept of public scholarship, and reassessing the relationship between the expert and the public certainly suggest a movement in the right direction. Each of these efforts is founded on the idea of higher education as a public good, as an essential component of a robust public sphere. Still, countervailing trends within the academy, especially the shift away from civic education toward preparing students for the job market, may limit the overall effectiveness of these initiatives.

Reform efforts in higher education face a different set of obstacles than they do in journalism and philanthropy. Higher education is a vast and diverse field in which scholars, administrators, students, and trustees too often find themselves at cross purposes. As Kettering Foundation president David Mathews noted in his closing remarks, "I hear very different conversation coming from students, faculty members, associations, and boards. I hear one group talking about planning. I hear one group talking about management. I hear one group talking about the pressures from legislators." Unless the academy can find a way to reconcile these conflicting modes of discourse, reform efforts may be tenuous at best.

Success may ultimately depend on whether the forces of change link up and cohere into a new movement. The main ingredients are already in place, as Jay Rosen pointed out — "leadership from the top, diversity of players, convening organizations, certain kinds of strategies, some key lessons, and some money." On the other hand, history shows that forces do not always converge. "There can be the ingredients of change, but they just never get together," in Mathews's words. "When forces do converge, though, there is the possibility of real and dramatic change."

If the forces do converge — and there is reason to hope that they will — the Washington gathering may be remembered as a small but important step in paving the way.

This essay appeared in the journal "Higher Education Exchange" in the summer of 1999.