2015 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker
Dr. Andrew Seligsohn became the 5th president of Campus Compact in June 2014, bringing to the organization his extensive experience in bringing higher education together with communities to solve problems and improve lives from a wide range of roles, from faculty at a small liberal arts college to executive level administrator at large public and private universities.
Immediately prior to his appointment to Campus Compact, Seligsohn served as Associate Chancellor for Civic Engagement and Strategic Planning at Rutgers University–Camden, where he worked across the campus to develop a framework for enhancing the impact of the school’s civic engagement efforts in a focused manner, and oversaw the comprehensive leveraging of resources to positively impact and integrate students and faculty with the community. His leadership at Rutgers–Camden was also integral in advancing college access and success for under-represented students by creating a home in the Office of Civic Engagement for the Hill Family Center for College Access and the Rutgers Future Scholars. Both programs provide support for first-generation students as they prepare for, apply to, and embark on post-secondary educational opportunities.
Prior to Rutgers–Camden, Seligsohn was the Director of Civic Engagement Learning at Princeton University. He also served as a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Hartwick College from 2001-2007, where he earned tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor. Seligsohn holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. from Williams College. He also serves on the board of directors for several community organizations in the Trenton and Camden, NJ areas.
I have a history that involves two tracks. On the one hand, I have followed an academic and professional track that began with studying to become a political scientist. I served as a faculty member in political science before I moved into doing administrative work supporting campus engagement. I was interested in issues of participation in democratic life from an academic perspective. On the other hand, I have also always been engaged in public life, as a participant in my own communities, in politics and other forms of community work, such as volunteering and serving as a member of a number of boards. Eventually, those two things found their way together. I had experiences disconnect in my own life between teaching about democracy and engaging on my own, but not feeling like the two were linked. So I experimented in my own teaching with different ways to get students connected to the world they were learning about. That work reshaped my own career direction. To cite one example, when I was taught at Hartwick College in New York, a colleague and I there developed a course that immersed students in the New Hampshire primaries. Hartwick has a January term, and we took the students for that month to Manchester, NH. They all worked on campaigns and studied presidential campaign politics, and we went out and saw the candidates doing town hall meetings in bowling allies, high school gyms, community centers. It was a highly interactive experiential course and a really powerful teaching and learning opportunity. I was also involved in projects where students did community-based research, working to understand political views and goals of members of the community in and around the area, again, working with a set of colleagues. The more I did that work, the more I saw the real power in experiential learning and engaging students in the communities beyond the campus . That led me to think that that’s really what I wanted to focus on. So I went from Hartwick to Princeton University, where I was Director of Civic Engagement Learning, helping to shape engaged learning experiences and to infuse learning into students’ service and civic work. I went from Princeton to Rutgers-Camden, where I served as Associate Chancellor for Civic Engagement and Strategic Planning; there I had the opportunity not only to advance student learning, but also to connect student learning to community impact. We were creating structures and processes that would connect students to real needs and opportunities in communities beyond that campus in ways that made a powerful difference in those communities.
Having done this work at a campus level, and having been on a campus with the responsibility of shaping our approach to engagement broadly, I think that turned out to be great preparation for this role at Campus Compact because we are trying to enable, facilitate, and encourage campuses all over the country to pursue engagement in a broader way. I have a strong understanding of what it is like to be on a campus–of the necessary tools, the useful resources, and the kinds of models that help campus personnel do their own work well. It’s helpful that I have worked in small colleges and large universities, been in both public and private institutions, urban and rural settings, so I have a sense of how different kinds of institutions are positioned with respect to this work. I have a feel for the sorts of things that will reach the individuals doing the work as we seek to expand the national movement. For me, it has been a really interesting transition to thinking about ways to coordinate this work and build some synergies to make the load a little bit lighter for everybody. Also, to deepen the work, create more opportunities for students, and advance the role of higher education as powerful change agent in communities across the country.
One aspect has to do with the nature of the relationship between the institution and the community around it. If you are in an urban environment, it can produce a situation where the case that the campus needs to engage can be made relatively easily to a broad range of constituents. It is obvious what the opportunities are, what the needs are, what the assets are. All of that makes it easier to generate support for engagement. On the other hand, historically many urban campuses put up barriers between themselves and the cities around them. So the case can be made, but it involves learning a new way of relating to communities beyond the campus. For a rural or suburban community the challenge is often that the issues may be there, but they tend to be a little bit more hidden. They are not as obvious and upfront. The question becomes: How do you find people with whom to build the relationships necessary for working effectively with communities? I think that is often the challenge outside of urban settings. There can be a public/private differences–for public institutions it’s quite natural to connect engagement with their public identity. Sometimes for private institutions, figuring out where public goods fit into the institutional mission can be more of a challenge. And community partners might be a little skeptical about whether the institution is really there to work with them. So it is up to the institution to be very clear about that. There are differences between research institutions and those that are focused more on teaching. For example, in research-focused institutions, there is often a conversation about whether there are opportunities with community-based work to produce high-quality, rigorous research. Those opportunities exist, but they aren’t always as obvious as the teaching opportunities. So it’s often important in research universities to find people who can show their colleagues examples of rigorous research that grows out of community engaged work. In building this work nationally, we do well when we are clear about the differing missions and situations of colleges and universities and can help everyone move forward in a way that fits their identities.
Colleges and universities exist to serve the public good. That is why private institutions are non-profits, and are granted a tax exemption, because they are serving a public interest. It is the reason we have public universities at all, because our states and cities identify our public interests. The obligation of these institutions is to identify which public goods they can effectively advance. One obvious answer is that colleges and universities teach students and produce research and knowledge to benefit society. But we have the opportunity to do much more than that in a number of ways. We can bring people together to focus on the important issues in communities. We can leverage the enormous human capacity that in embedded in our institutions to address local and national needs, we can even think about colleges and universities as purchasing agents, employers, real estate developers, and we can ask how to connect those roles in a way that serves the community around us. In addition to the direct experiences we can create for students, we need to think deeply about the model that the institution is for the students who are within it. We cannot teach our students to be engaged citizens and expect them to ask questions about how they can serve the needs of the community if our institutions are not themselves asking that question. If our institutions step back and say “we are only here to do particular things and not concern ourselves with broader public goods,” I don’t think we can expect students to get the message that it is really important for them to concern themselves with such things.
I would characterize it as an approach rather than a curriculum, and I would describe that approach as engaged civic learning. I think of that as a category that is larger than just service learning, which is just one form of engaged civic learning, but there are others. For example, you might engage students in advocacy work, which isn’t exactly service, but it engages them in the community and gets them asking questions. We’ve learned a lot through research that has been done in the field. There needs to be a strong experiential component, meaning we need to put students in real settings where they are seeking to achieve real goals. The more students feel like it matters, the more powerful the experience. We need to focus on preparing them for the work specifically with skills and information they need in the particular setting. But I also think it is very important that we provide students with an understanding of the broader context in which the work is situated. For example, when I was at Rutgers, a colleague and I developed a course we called Rutgers-Camden Civic Scholars. Our Civic Scholars were very engaged in the city of Camden, and we also taught a course called Making Social Change that was their introductory seminar to the program. We framed it around the theme of inequality, and we examined the growing economic inequality in the United States, for two reasons. First, we wanted students to understand that virtually every movement for social change is grounded in a claim that there is some inequality that needs to be rectified. We also did it because we knew at the practical level that Camden is one of the poorest cities in the United States. If our students were going to be out working in a context where many of the people they work with are struggling with getting by on very low incomes, we want them to understand why that is. It’s one thing to know about someone’s particular situation; it’s something else to understand that this is a structural reality. You might be seeing one school, family, or health clinic, but that fits into a broader picture that needs to be understood if you want to make change in the long run. That creates an opportunity to interpret, analyze, critique–to try to make sense of the experiences you are having–in addition to asking questions about claims you’ve read on literature of inequality. Are the things you’re seeing matching up with what you’ve read? Is there experience-based knowledge that you are able to bring to the table that may cause you to reevaluate what scholars are saying about these issues? It shows students that they can become creators of new knowledge if they get themselves into the world. I’ve seen it be a very powerful thing for students to recognize that. They become creators of new knowledge as they put themselves in situations where they are seeing things that no one has seen in that particular way. That changes their learning, and it changes the questions that are putting on the agenda for all the students in their classes.
In 2004, when we took the students up to New Hampshire, we stopped in Cambridge, MA on the drive back to New York for a panel at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. There were experts on the panel, and one of the students asked a question in which he referred to the field work the students had been doing. All of a sudden, all of the panelists turned the table and began asking the students questions about what they had seen and what voters had said when they knocked on their door. They wanted to know how people were responding and engaging. Suddenly the students saw that because they had been out there doing the work, they had knowledge to contribute that was unique and valuable.
As a practitioner in this area, I have learned an awful lot about structuring classes, programs, and training faculty. There is real value in the couple of decades of research that has been done in this area. I think the research has moved us past just saying something might be a good idea. Instead we can say that we actually have systematic evidence of the impact of these practices. We know they make a difference and that they need to be structured with careful attention to outcomes achieved, or else you won’t get the benefits. As the work has developed, so has the body of research. It is important that each institution critically reflects on its own practice. In other words, we learn from the research, seek to implement things, but we also need to pay careful attention to the outcomes we are achieving with our own students because the setting is different from wherever the research was done, the student population might be different, so we need to find where we need to adjust in our own practice given the specific factors of our environment. In terms of the future direction, there are two areas that I am really interested in. One is research that helps us identify the benefits to the communities we are connected with. We know an increasing amount about the impact on students, which is important. But we need to know more about the impact on communities. We need to identify partnerships that are producing positive change and learn from them. The other aspect I am interested in is research that explores the relationship between student learning and community impact. In other words, it is my intuition that student learning will be at its maximum where community impact is at its maximum because I have seen that when engagements are deep, consistent, and involve many parts of an institution, there is a lot of impact for the community. Those are the same conditions that produce student learning, since students are engaged more deeply in deep partnerships than if they come in for a one-time experience and that’s the end of it. I haven’t seen research about that, and it is something we should explore. I think we would find that it makes a difference. We need to create sustained partnerships between campuses and communities and study whether teaching and learning is most powerful in that setting.
It suggests that we need to move to an environment where faculty who are already interested in doing this kind of work step forward and take it on. We need to move to where institutions are actively creating partnerships and inviting their faculty in. That still leaves freedom for faculty to innovate, develop their own individual ways of approaching their teaching and the research that comes with partnerships. I think institutions need to be creating more infrastructure to support faculty work in partnerships. That creates greater opportunities for impact, while lowering the barriers to entry for faculty. It says to the faculty, “We want to know what you have to contribute to partnerships we are working on, and we will help you put that into practice.” Similarly, institutions need to think more seriously about the ways that faculty work is recognized and rewarded. One of the barriers to deepening faculty participation is concern about tenure and promotion; the more we recognize and reward this work, the more people will step forward. Tenure and promotion standards should recognize that universities exist to serve the public. So forms of knowledge that are generated by engaged scholarship need to be valued in the tenure and promotion process.
In my experience, faculty members generally want to contribute to the public good. That is why they chose a career focused on teaching and research. When we create the pathways, many faculty members will step forward and take the opportunity. There are other things that can be done such as creating space through fellowship programs or giving faculty course releases to develop new courses. Any time there is an undertaking of innovative teaching methods, there is an initial investment of time. So the more institutions can create through the tools available to them, the space for faculty to put in that time without overwhelming themselves will certainly be an advantage.
Some of the barriers are very practical. When engagement opportunities exist only in the co-curriculum, that can make it hard for students from low-income families to participate. If students are working for pay many hours each week, it is hard to carve out time for anything beyond work and classes—and in many cases family responsibilities. At Rutgers-Camden, we worked hard to integrate civic engagement into credit-bearing courses and paid jobs. We didn’t want it to become a third thing. But there are other kinds of barriers as well. When we emphasize the language of service, there is often a barrier erected between the students and the communities they are serving. So students who come from or continue to live in those communities can be put in a difficult position. They sometimes see their peers approaching their community with an attitude of noblesse oblige, and they cannot participate in that attitude. So they opt out. For that reason and others, I think it’s important to frame this work for students in terms of shared commitments: We all believe in a world characterized by meaningful equality, so we need to work with allies to make that real. It’s not about me serving you. It’s about all of us working together to create the world we want. When we use that language, we also recognize that we all bring different resources to that work. We learn to value local knowledge that we don’t have. We put ourselves collectively in the service of our shared values. And we invite the participation of various people with varied perspectives and experiences.
One thing is that we have to be focused on issues of central importance to the communities where we are located and to the nation and the world. So individual universities or coalitions of colleges and universities might choose specific issues on which to focus. For example, Campus Compact has identified partnerships focused on educational goals as a national priority. We are not saying that Florida Campus Compact can’t work on something that’s different from Ohio Campus Compact, but we are saying nationally we have a set of issues that we share—issues such as college readiness, college access for historically underrepresented groups, college success for first-generation students, and preparing students for active citizenship and success in their careers. So that pathway from education through engagement and achievement is something we are going to work on collectively. The more we can do that, either on the university level or in a city with multiple universities collaborating, the greater our impact, and the more we can create opportunities for students to participate in a way that matters in the community. This creates pathways for them to continue to be effective throughout their lives. The other key is to continue to focus on areas in which we see progress and achievement but also to be honest about where we need to do more. We need to be ready to reach out to new partners whose strengths complement ours. Higher education institutions can be tough to work with. We have our own calendars and languages and norms. So the more we can be clear about what we have to offer and what is not our strength, the more we can have transparent conversations with partners about what we will need from them as we work together in pursuit of the common good.