Civic responsibility is a vital part of our academic mission

Dr. Mary A. Papazian

What a busy but productive summer it has been thus far! My recent travel schedule has led to a brief pause in my blogging schedule, but I am looking forward to a full resumption as we approach next month’s Fall Welcome and the start of the new academic season.

In my unofficial role as “chief brand ambassador” for SJSU this summer, I have represented the university at several gatherings these past few weeks, including the Global Forum on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France; the Business-Higher Education Forum summer meeting and board meeting in Boston; and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities summer meeting and board meeting (also in Boston).

Though very different in terms of the participants and topics, each of these gatherings has been enlightening and instructive. One consistent takeaway for me, however—particularly at the Global Forum—was the reminder about the civic responsibility we leaders of higher education institutions carry with our communities.

During the first day at the Global Forum, Ira Harkavy—associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania—remarked that academic freedom and institutional autonomy should be directed toward the service of contributing to the common good. I could not agree more, and I am proud to be leading an institution that has a legacy of doing just that.

We spend a great deal of time in higher education talking about workforce development and the need to enhance our students’ foundational skills, most notably their digital and tech skills, to equip them for good jobs and careers. There is no doubt that this is important.

But in today’s world, in what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will need more than technical skills. To Dr. Harkavy’s point, educators need to see our public and civic responsibilities as central to the mission of higher education. This, in my view, is just as important as the tangible skills we teach and the knowledge we proffer.

One way that SJSU successfully has carved out a niche in this area is to have become a recognized convener of disparate voices.

On a variety of difficult and sometimes sobering issues, we have transformed our university into a space where diverse points of views can be heard, often even wrestling with one another in pointed yet respectful ways. We have seen this time and time again at our recent Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change town hall meetings, for instance, but also at SJSU-hosted forums and other events.

What we aim to do is to provide a framework and structure that enables and empowers voices from various viewpoints to engage in important dialogue. We have a long, proud history of that, as one of the enduring values here is our commitment to purposeful student engagement.

This past year, here are just a few of the ways in which we have manifested those values:

  • At the Hammer Theater, we hosted economists and social commentators Robert Reich and Ben Stein for a riveting yet entertaining discussion about the current political climate and the future of the U.S. economy;
  • We organized a number of events that celebrated the legacy of Frankenstein and its creator, Mary Shelley, including a panel discussion around what it means to be human in the digital age;
  • The university’s Institute for Metropolitan Studies and the Rotary Club of San Jose recently co-hosted an event that brought together a “Who’s Who” of stakeholders from throughout the city of San Jose to seek solutions to the difficult and highly challenging homelessness crisis facing our region.

In a recent piece in Forbes magazine, the results of the 2018 General Social Survey make abundantly clear that Americans with a college education are happier, healthier and enjoy a higher quality of life overall than those with a high school education or less. The survey notes, also, that college graduates also are much more likely to be active in civic and political affairs. These are important points, as such benefits traditionally have been difficult to quantify.

Democracy can be messy, but in many ways that makes ours the healthiest system of government around. So no matter how challenging it can be sometimes, the more effective we are in encouraging our students to engage in the issues that matter to them, the more effective we will be in creating a successful and more civic-minded student population ready to succeed in the world around us.

Finally, a quick word on the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the glorious accomplishment by the U.S. team.

That group of phenomenal athletes is demonstrating precisely what we mean by engaged leaders with a collaborative, team-oriented spirit and a commitment to broader social issues. Members of the U.S. women’s national team have become renowned for speaking their minds on matters related to gender equity in sports, and on other issues important to them. They truly are inspirational, and we all—educators, students and others—can learn from their example.

And, wow, can they play a mean game of soccer!

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