U launches civic responsibility task force

Jessica Thompson

The University Task Force on Civic Engagement will meet for the first time tomorrow afternoon to discuss plans to increase civic responsibility throughout the school.
Task force and advisory panel members will kick off the meeting in the Humphrey Center Atrium at 3 p.m. by discussing ideas for the initiative. At 4 p.m., Thomas Ehrlich, president emeritus of Indiana University, will present an address on “Democracy and Education: Roles of the Public Institution.”
The task force intends to return to the University a sense of public engagement which many feel has deteriorated, said Harry Boyte, senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute and task force member.
“Even a generation ago, the University was seen as a great public institution which was strongly connected to society,” Boyte said. “This strong public spirit has been lost.”
The task force will focus on what can be done to reverse this trend. Boyte said the group hopes to promote a more community-based environment at the University.
“There has been a major culture change,” he said. “(American society) is intensely competitive, and people are trained to win at any cost. We need to see ourselves as more of a partnership.”
The 41-member task force was chosen by Executive Vice President and Provost Robert Bruininks in October. It includes administrators, faculty, staff and students chosen to represent all campuses, colleges and disciplines at the University.
The task force is divided into six communities, each responsible for a certain area of civic engagement — the civic mission of the University, public scholarship, institutional priorities, community partnership, civic learning and institutional connections.
Earlier last year, more than 190 of the nation’s public education leaders, including University President Mark Yudof, endorsed a statement calling for a “reinvigoration of public purpose.”
Task force chair Edwin Fogelman said the University is a leader in the initiative.
“There is a movement around the country to review civil mission and public responsibility,” he said. “But the University is the first to think of it comprehensively, in terms of the entire institution.”
Boyte said the University was targeted for this project partly because of the strong reputation held by the University’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship. The center, where both Fogelman and Boyte are co-directors, began collaborating with the federal government in the early 1990s to discuss public engagement.
“We had worked with the White House from the beginning of the Clinton administration to try to build a new model for citizen-government relationships,” he said. “We began a national bipartisan effort called the new citizenship.”
In 1995, Boyte met with President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and other leading officials at Camp David to discuss recommendations for reducing the detachment between government and citizens.
As a result of this work, the center was given a grant in 1997 by the Kellogg Foundation to examine detachment and civic engagement at the University. Boyte said they were surprised by the similarities.
“Federal agencies and the University are both very detached from people,” he said. “In both cases, people are too specialized and narrow in their thinking.”
These discoveries led to the creation of the task force this fall. Fogelman said the group will present a final report of specific recommendations to the provost in May.
Fogelman said steps made by the University could pave the way for national change.
“An institution like the University is so large that it can be an important trendsetter,” he said. “If we really can impact this, I think it will make a big difference in the state.”

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]