centers for politics in higher ed

I am spending today at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, NH. I will give a public talk here and also meet to discuss the Institute’s programs. I’ve done much the same thing (i.e., speak and consult) at several similar centers, including the Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, PACE (the Political and Civic Engagement Program) at Indiana University, and the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at University of Illinois-Chicago. I also serve on the advisory boards of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI in Indianapolis, Cambridge University’s Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy; the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College; and the California Civic Engagement Project at UC-Davis. I am recently back from the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at Penn, and I work full-time for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts.

In reflecting on these centers (and many others that I know more vicariously), I see some common themes and strategic choices:

They are all nonpartisan efforts, but they are concerned, in part, with explicitly political participation. They challenge two prevailing trends. In political science, politics is treated remotely and dispassionately, as something to be analyzed but not practiced by the political scientist or student. Meanwhile, in community service and service-learning, explicitly political action is often marginal or even discouraged. In contrast, most of these centers cite political action in their mission statements.

They almost all seek to combine practical experiences for students (such as internships or service projects) with academic study, plus intellectually challenging events and discussions, faculty-led research, and collaborations between the college or university and its neighbors.

They are almost all physical places on campuses that attract people with political and civic interests, but without a bias toward a particular ideology or party.

The differences among the centers are also significant. They indicate the choices one would have to make in starting or reorienting a center like this:

  • Geographical scope. Local, regional, national, or international?
  • Type of engagement or participation. Should the center emphasize deliberation (as at Colorado State’s Center for Public Deliberation)? Or preparation for public service careers? Or activism for social justice? Or policy analysis?
  • Place in the curriculum. Should the center offer a a certificate, as at PACE, or a minor, as at the Graham Center? One specialized course or short list of courses, like “Education for Active Citizenship” at Tufts? A co-curricular leadership program, like the Graham Center’s Civic Scholars, or the Bonner Network‘s more than 75 programs nationwide?
  • Role of faculty. Does the center promote research on politics and policy, broadly defined? Or research on citizen engagement in politics, as at Illinois-Chicago? Or research on civic education, as at IUPUI? Or research that requires civic engagement, such as participatory-action research?
  • Public programs and products. The Graham Center, for example, serves the whole state by offering high-profile conferences on state and national issues. Harvard’s Institute of Politics does the same with a national and global focus. The California Civic Engagement Center produces reports on topics like voting rates in California counties. The Illinois-Chicago center maintains a web portal for Chicago citizens.

Clearly, no single recipe is best, but these are some of the tradeoffs and choices that any institution must address.