Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

College Presidents: Voices of Civic Virtue and the Common Good of Democracy

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

College Presidents: Voices of Civic Virtue and the Common Good of Democracy

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

America's colleges and universities have contributed significantly to civic virtue and the common good of democracy. College presidents undergird this heritage by affirming the relationship of education to fundamental civic virtues and values of democracy. Contemporary presidents and their actions navigating controversies and issues are exemplary of this continuing commitment today despite the challenges of increasing pluralism and diversity. The argument presented is that presidents can and should use the values of the academy to express their voice to respond to these situations and to recreate a civil religion capable of maintaining the civic virtue and common good of democracy.


The history of the relationship between higher education and democracy in America is a long one, traceable to the founding of colonial colleges and of the Republic. Despite their enormous variety, America's colleges and universities, both private and public, have from colonial times enjoyed close ties and contributed significantly to civic virtue and the common good essentially embedded in democratic society and the nation.

As the leaders of the academy, college presidents have with remarkable consistency affirmed the important relationship of a college education to fundamental civic virtues and values, and the civil demands and responsibilities of democracy. Presidential appeals and actions have underscored the engagement of colleges and their students in upholding the critical social and civic virtues engrained in American society and fundamental to the formation of democracy. At times this has required firm criticism and disagreement with national and state policies, yet still underscoring the high ideals of a deeper democratic spirit. For example, in 1970, John Kemeny, President of Dartmouth College, responding to protests of the Vietnam War and the killings of two students at Kent State argued before his campus community that the nation was facing nothing less than a constitutional crisis. He proceeded to liken the circumstances facing the College--his decision to suspend the remainder of the term in order for students and faculty to examine the issues of provoking that crisis--to those of the Revolutionary War. (1)

But whether as critic or servant, presidents have educated and challenged both college communities and the public about civic duty and about the values critical to democracy. Presidents regularly exert leadership directing the attention of their communities to civic life beyond the gates of the academy. The civic duty of the educated is rooted in expectations about the contributions students should be led to make to society, to the nation, and to the world. It is in this realm of the values and spirit of democracy that presidents make the case for the crucial connection between the ivory tower and the world outside the gates.

As they do so, presidents tend to stress two major themes--the importance of education to democracy and to the development of the civic virtues--both of which are crucially linked to the aforementioned fundamental principles of the American nation. (2) The rhetoric and actions of college and university presidents about civic virtue and democratic principles are also substantially shaped by three concomitant elements. Presidential philosophy about the relationship of the academy to democracy nearly universally reflects these political and educational assumptions. First is that the democratic heritage of the nation is imbued with fundamental moral, religious, and spiritual beliefs. Second is the notion that America's colleges have an incumbent duty to nurture the principles underlying civic virtue and democratic values, and that the students' education should inspire the upholding of those values. Lastly is the Jeffersonian tradition that educated citizens are crucial to maintaining democracy. Public education is federally established and funded because a literate citizenry is essential to the health of democracy. …

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