Shared Path Forward: Panel Explores Higher Ed’s Role in Future of Democracy

Carol Quillen speaking on panel

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Citizenship requires not just debating but also figuring out how to identify, pursue and advance shared interests that emerge through collaborative conversation and inquiry.

It means service on the front lines of pressing issues, such as homelessness or drug abuse, as well as learning to navigate government to change policies or actions.

And calling someone out does not qualify as activism. 

These were some of the lessons of teaching citizenship offered this week by Davidson College President Carol Quillen and two colleagues, Howard University President Wayne Frederick and Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels.

The trio were invited to address a conference on civics and the future of democracy organized by The Atlantic magazine and Johns Hopkins, and held at the Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue halfway between the White House and the Capitol Building. 

They focused on fostering democratic values on campus, which loosely translated into how colleges can help build the values and skills of citizenship.

Quillen emphasized three obligations a college or university has: facilitating direct participation, such as voter registration or helping gain internships in government offices, enabling conversations on campus so that students can learn from their differences, and helping students figure out how to move a conversation past debating toward goals on which they agree. 

Carol Quillen speaks at panel

“It isn’t deciding which of us is correct but, rather, figuring out how understanding our differences can open up new ways of pursuing a shared purpose,” Quillen said. “And colleges are a really good environment in which to do that because there is enough commonality among students so that they can identify and pursue common goals.”

She highlighted how Davidson students from a range of political groups have worked together to register voters and to help ensure the college’s ID cards will satisfy a new North Carolina law that eventually will require photo identification to vote.

Activism as Engagement

Davidson and other colleges and universities also help students find opportunities for service learning, working directly on efforts around social justice or the environment, for example, and increasing their understanding of, and sensitivity to those problems.

Daniels said that isn’t enough. 

“Is that bringing them into direct contact with our formal, political institutions?” Daniels said, “And is that equipping them to fulfill the ideal of the democratic citizen, where it’s not just that you have sensitivity, that you don’t just have an appreciation of the problems of inequality but you actually are moving to engage formal, political institutions. And I would say that’s something that we’re struggling with.” 

Frederick extended that idea to question whether students too often see protest alone as sufficient to qualify as civic engagement. 

“They have to believe and see that they can change the system, or they will opt out.”

“Sometimes I think our students romanticize activism,” Frederick said, noting similar comments a few days earlier by former President Barack Obama. “You have to be educated about what you are protesting about, not protesting for the sake of protesting…not just calling people out, but you have to have some substance behind…why it is you want to do these things.”

The trio of presidents circled back to the same themes: coalition building and compromise. They described the messiness of a pluralistic democracy, of forming a coalition around one issue in order to get something done.  

“The people in the coalition share one thing,” Quillen said. “They disagree on a lot of stuff, but they all have one goal that they share…You work and try to accomplish what you want to accomplish, and that involves some compromise…In my experience, our students learn how to do that by doing it on campus.”

Quillen and the other presidents warned of the heightened skepticism among students toward whether the political system works and how colleges and universities need to help guide students both to understand that the system doesn’t work for everyone and how to navigate it and make it better.

“They have to believe and see that they can change the system,” she said, “or they will opt out.”


  • November 8, 2019



  • Kris Tripplaar