The Problem With Student Engagement

“Student engagement” is a movement and a cause that has made steady progress on our campuses. According to Inside Higher Education, it has reached a “critical mass” of participants, though many in the world of colleges and universities are only half-aware, or perhaps unaware, of what the movement is all about. The National Survey of Student Engagement, an organization driving the cause, is at least partly a product of both a nation-wide administrative push and the nation’s education schools. Student engagement activities, ranging from community service to deeper involvement in more academically-oriented concerns, are gaining more official status with the passage of each year. Last year, for example, leaders of the University of Wisconsin system declared their intention to require students to maintain a “second transcript” that tracks students’ extra-curricular activities. Students would not be required to do anything, but such supplementary transcripts would become part of their record alongside the traditional academic transcript. Such pressure no doubt would compel many more students to enhance (or pad) their resumes, for better or for worse. (I raised many questions about this program here last year.) As far as I know, the program has yet to be instituted.
Robert Morris University, a private school of 4700 students in Pittsburgh, pioneered the next stage of development last month by establishing the nation’s first known deanship to oversee the school’s new Student Engagement Transcript program. According to another recent story in Inside Higher Education, the program “tracks and certifies a student’s participation in faculty-sponsored extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Activities must fall in one of seven areas: arts, culture and creativity; “transcultural/global” experiences, which include studying abroad; research; community service; leadership; professional experience; and independent study projects.” In addition to completing the requirements for traditional majors, Robert Morris University will now require freshmen students to “demonstrate participation in at least two of the seven categories in order to graduate.”

It is not entirely clear what to make of this movement. On the one hand, encouraging students to involve themselves more deeply in such activities as research and cultural work can enhance established educational experiences. The program also strives to prod the growing number of academically disinterested and indifferent students to become more engaged in their real studies. On the other hand, many of the projects covered by such programs (internships; community service; and even “study” abroad, which often amount to something other than actual study and immersion in foreign cultures) exacerbate the tendency of contemporary universities to veer away from the kind of intellectual work that comprises the central intellectual mission of the university. Universities are coming to resemble the Tower of Babel more than institutions strengthened by a core, distinctive sense of mission.
In many respects, the student engagement movement is another example of the continuing influence of the 1960s on higher education. In that seminal era, student activists, along with their supporters among the professoriate and the echelons of administration, protested the “irrelevance” of higher education distanced from social and political engagement. Learning for its own sake was deemed inferior to learning linked to action and engagement. (Marx famously wrote that the purpose of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to change it.) This claim, in turn, harkened back to the educational theories of the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, who emphasized the importance of practical and action-based pedagogy earlier in the century. Whether Dewey would have approved of the later reforms enacted partly in his name is an interesting question that continues to generate debate in educational circles.
Regardless, campuses across the land began to expand their curriculums to include subjects relevant to political concerns (e.g., black study and women’s study programs, social justice programs, peace study programs, etc.), and launched programs promoting internships and the support of student activist groups financed through such measures as student fees. Given the political slants of most institutions of higher learning and the climates out of which such programs emerged, most have mirrored left-liberal agendas, though conservative and religious schools have hardly been immune to this trend in their own rights.
The ghosts of Sixties politics coexist with other forces that have affected higher education over the course of recent decades. One such force is the swelling of administrative positions due to the aggrandizements of law, bureaucracy, and supra-pedagogical missions. (The new “dean” overseeing student engagement transcripts is but the tip of this expanding iceberg. Ever wonder why college education is so expensive these days?) As Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, the growth of central bureaucracies reflects and causes a decline in the senses of personal responsibility and community. Is it any wonder that the increasing bureaucratization of the university has gone hand in hand with a decline of the sense of campus community and citizenship upon which many thoughtful observers have commented?
The last decade has witnessed the birth of yet another mission of the university: University as Fundraiser. Strapped for cash in an environment of exploding costs and fees, academic departments and units (including athletic departments, which are becoming tails that wag the university dog) have become preoccupied with fundraising, further blurring the line between business and academic life, and contributing steroids to the Babel in our midst.
Another such force is what political scientist Theodore Lowi labeled “interest group liberalism” in his classic 1969 book, The End of Liberalism. Interest group logrolling (Babel) prevails when a country or an institution forgets why it exists, when it loses confidence in itself and in providing what it can distinctively bring to the world. Symptoms of this condition exist throughout the contemporary university, where non-intellectual missions have gained prominence in administrative circles. How many universities have an administrative office dedicated to academic freedom? Someone needs to write a book tracking how universities allocate expenditures. Many of these missions and agendas have proved hazardous to academic freedom, as countless writers have disclosed.
The contemporary curriculum speaks a thousand words. Students are offered a smorgasbord of often disconnected courses, not the coherent choices that make for a good meal. In addition to worshipping at the one-sided altar of political correctness, faculty and campus politics are besieged by the decline of a sense of community citizenship as individual faculty and departments go their own separate ways in an age of bureaucratic governance. Attempts at curricular reform are repeatedly met with resistance by entrenched institutional interests that usually carry the day. Anthony Kronman (Education’s End) and Harry Lewis (Excellence without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?) have chronicled this problem in penetrating detail in recent books. We are now more a “versity,” than a “university.”
However valid it is in some respects, the student engagement movement is in many other respects the latest manifestation of these historical trends. Its dark side represents the further entrenchment of bureaucracy, the curriculum as smorgasbord, and the emphasis upon social and political relevance. We live in an age in which fewer and fewer college graduates can compose coherent essays and recall key facts about the nation and world in which they live. Is the student engagement program a remedy to this widespread problem, or just a capitulation?


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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One thought on “The Problem With Student Engagement”

  1. I wonder how para-curricular “student engagement” affects a university’s budget. When students get credit for internships or “service”, isn’t it billed as tuition, just as other courses are? Yet the university may not have to use classroom space or pay an instructor. Given the high price of tuition and the volume of students at many campuses, a university might run quite a lucrative scam by channeling tuition-paying students into non-courses. Once universities have decreed that such-and-such an “experience” is good for the students, it becomes just part of the “college education” package that tuition payers (including providers of financial aid) automatically cough up for to cover the supposedly necessary cost of spreading opportunity and technological skills via higher education.
    Given the high cost of tuition, it is reasonable to insist that tuition dollars pay for academic education, and high quality education at that. It is unimaginable that universities have any means of monitoring the quality of work that students do off-campus under the supervision of non-university employees who are not educators. Such programs must be educationally dubious at best. But parents, donors, and financial aid bureaucrats should also be asking what sums they are paying, or will pay, for credit-earning “student engagement” at universities.

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