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The SHSU American Democracy Project: Essential Background

Getting started

The American Democracy Project (ADP) is a project jointly sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the New York Times. For an in-depth description of the ADP you can go to this AASCU website http://www.aascu.org/programs/adp/about/default.htm , but here are the essentials as far as the background of SHSU's participation in the project is concerned.

First, the ADP nationally is a response to a fundamental concern: declining participation in civic life by younger Americans. This decline is symbolized by a decline in voting in presidential elections and is widely documented, e. g., by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Two keys individuals, Tom Ehrlich, former President of Indiana University, now with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and George Mahaffey, Vice-President, Academic Leadership and Change for AASCU, met at a conference and formulated the outline of a project to turn around this trend, and to move Americans, especially college and university students, toward civic "re-engagement." Thus was born the American Democracy Project, and now there are nearly 200 AASCU universities participating in the project. In the words of the AASCU ADP website: "The goal of the project is to produce graduates who understand and are committed to engaging in meaningful actions as citizens in a democracy."

While the ADP was being born as an AASCU initiative, a "manifesto" appeared in the form of a book that advocates a renewed emphasis on E ducating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility. The book is by Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens (published by Jossey-Bass, 2003). The theme of this book and the ADP in general struck a responsive chord with our SHSU Provost, Dr. David Payne, and in the Spring 2004 semester he called for volunteers to form a Steering Committee for the SHSU American Democracy Project. The number of SHSU faculty who responded was gratifying, the Steering Committee was formed with Dr. Joyce McCauley as its chair, and the committee immediately and set to work.

Examples of areas for civic engagement: In spite of the suggestion of a focus on politics, there are a number of different areas in which the university and its faculty, students, and staff can be engaged. At SHSU there are various outreach and service projects occurring in areas such as these:

1. agriculture 2. the arts 3. small business and community economic development
4. historic preservation 5. public safety and criminal justice 6. community physical and mental health
7. public affairs/good governance 8. environmental concerns 9 education and literacy

So, since we are already doing lots of these things, what is new? Answer: Being "Intentional"

Being "intentional" implies for SHSU:

  1. having outreach and service as an explicit emphasis for the university and its faculty, students, and staff,
  2. taking care to coordinate and give incentives for outreach and service,
  3. systematically studying the scholarship of service to improve and innovate in our service activities,
  4. attending to all levels of possible service - on the campus, in the local community, at the state, national, and international levels,
  5. fostering leadership in service among our faculty, students, and staff, and
  6. being willing to make supportive changes in our campus organization and culture.

For our students this means:

  1. providing them with opportunities for service so that they can acquire the kinds of "hands-on experience" needed for successful civic engagement,
  2. preparing them to take fullest advantage of these opportunities by giving them the relevant skills in communication and team work and also the relevant background of factual knowledge and theoretical perspectives, and, finally
  3. developing the necessary affective dimensions: care and concern for the community, a willingness to shoulder responsibility and to be held accountable, and a sense of integrity in the work.

For our faculty this means:

  1. serious re-thinking of faculty roles and rewards as we move to an explicit "two-tiered" faculty, and
  2. integrating this perspective with the new IDEA faculty evaluation system.

So why bother with this project?

  1. As a public institutions of higher education we are already committed to service as part of our mission.
  2. It helps to restore a focus on what a university education should be about. We are not just a vendor supplying information services to "customers," nor are we simply in the business of "manufacturing" productive workers who have "value added" for prospective employers. We are these things, but we are also called upon to educate citizens in the world's oldest living democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our students, to do the best we can in that high and demanding calling.
  3. Legislators love it. Apart from the classroom, university outreach and service promise tangible benefits to real people. Research, as important as it can be, often seems remote and abstract by comparison. We make it that much easier for our elected representatives to support us with enthusiasm if they can point to a community literacy program, an important environmental impact statement, or a meaningful criminal justice initiative that has come from our university.
  4. Research shows that the positive impact of service and service learning projects on our students can be striking. Alexander Astin et al. of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) of UCLA. reports on the findings from a four-year longitudinal study which involved 22,236 students and notes that service participation had significant positive effects on academic performance as reflected in GPA, writing skills, and critical thinking skills, positive effects on values and on leadership skills.
Sam Houston State University is a member of the Texas State University System