Featured Interview: George Mehaffy and Brian Murphy

George Mehaffy and Brian Murphy
American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and De Anza College

George L. Mehaffy, Ph. D, is the Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). His division is responsible for a number of special programs and projects for AASCU presidents and chief academic officers in the areas of leadership and organizational change in higher education, focusing on issues such as technology, teacher education, international education, and civic engagement. He organizes and directs two national conferences annually for AASCU chief academic officers and manages a variety of leadership programs and special projects. Much of his current work focuses on civic engagement in higher education. In 2003 he launched a civic engagement initiative, the American Democracy Project (ADP), in partnership with The New York Times, involving 214 AASCU institutions representing 1.8 million students. That project has generated a broad range of national and campus-based activities, including 10 regional and 4 national meetings, a Wingspread Conference that created a monograph for senior university leaders, a partnership with the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to develop an instrument to assess civic engagement, and a trip to eastern Europe to develop university partnerships to promote civic engagement. (http://www.vtcampuscompact.org/necc/Featured_Speakers.htm)

Brian Murphy has been president of De Anza College since 2004. A key focus of his presidency is the preparation of students to be active, involved citizens committed to transforming their communities. This vision lead to the creation of De Anza’s Institute for Community and Civic Engagement.

In 2006, he spearheaded a participatory Strategic Planning Initiative for the college with input from faculty, staff and students, generating initiatives in the areas of Outreach, Individualized Attention to Student Retention and Success, Cultural Competence and Community Collaborations.

President Murphy served for 12 years as executive director of the San Francisco Urban Institute at San Francisco State University. Among other positions, Murphy was chief consultant to the California State Legislature’s reviews of the Master Plan for Higher Education and the community college reform process in the late 1980s. He has taught political theory and American government at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara University and San Francisco State University. (http://www.deanza.edu/president/bio.html)

The Journal for Civic Commitment is an outlet for practitioners. It publishes articles from faculty, staff, administrators, and community partners about how best to build civic engagement into the learning environment. But while The Journal has this specific focus, its goal is much larger–to use service learning as a tool to improve higher education, and particularly community colleges, so they can more effectively improve the lives of their students and their communities.

Questions for our Interviewees

George Mehaffy,
Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change
American Association of State Colleges and Universities
Brian Murphy
De Anza College

  1. To George Mehaffy:  What is the American Democracy Project? How did it come to be affiliated with AASCU? How can its work connect with the work of community colleges?The American Democracy Project (ADP) is a multi-campus initiative focused on higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. The project began in 2003 as an initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), in partnership with The New York Times.The goal of the American Democracy Project is to produce graduates who are committed to being active, involved citizens in their communities. More than 230 AASCU colleges and universities are participating in ADP. Since its inception, ADP has hosted eight national annual conferences, a number of regional meetings, a national assessment project, and a number of national initiatives. The project has also created hundreds of campus initiatives including voter education and registration, curriculum revision and projects, campus audits, specific days of action and reflection such as MLK Day of Service and Constitution Day, speaker series, and many recognition and award programs.Because AASCU institutions are often where community college students continue their education, and because 50% of the graduates of AASCU institutions begin their academic careers in community colleges, there is a natural fit between the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment.[Editor’s note: You can read The Democracy Commitment, a civic engagement initiative of community college leaders, by clicking on the above link or by clicking on the link at the end of this article. The Commitment is a living document, and may be rivsed before its public unveiling in the Spring. Thanks to George and brian for sharing it with us in this early version.]
  2. To Brian Murphy:  Why have you emphasized active, involved citizenship and community transformation during your presidency at De Anza College? How has that emphasis shaped De Anza’s students?When I came to De Anza College, I found many faculty, staff, and students deeply interested in issues of equity, diversity and social justice. We asked ourselves: “What are the kinds of educational opportunities and experiences that will enable students to be more effective in their work for a more just world?” All of our students – activists of not – will live in a world in which their ability to advocate and organize, their ability to be discerning and thoughtful voters, their openness to opposing views, and their capacity to lead their communities will matter deeply, for themselves and for their communities.I’m very proud of the leadership and skills that our students have demonstrated over the past several years. They have their own voice, they have made student government a serious space for democracy, they are organizers and leaders, and they have helped create a culture of engagement on the campus. And, I’m glad to say, they’re also quite successful at graduation and transfer.
  3. Both:  Your vision for the civic purposes of colleges and universities includes service learning but extends beyond it. Why?Service learning has become a powerful tool for student engagement and learning outcomes. There is much to commend about the use of service learning as a tool for civic engagement. However, to rely on service learning as the only tool of civic engagement is problematic. Sometimes service learning produces unexpected outcomes. For example, some service learning projects encourage a notion that citizenship is about helping those less fortunate, that it is about service, not political activity. Service learning is one aspect of citizenship, but certainly not the only form of citizenship. CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) suggests that citizenship has a variety of forms, a continuum from volunteerism to political activity. To prepare students to become informed and engaged citizens for our democracy, we have to address a number of civic elements: civic skills, knowledge, and dispositions. Some of those qualities can be taught through service learning, but others can be taught in classrooms, in student organizations, in research and study, or in other forms of community involvement.
  4. Both:  If colleges and universities fully welcome civic engagement, how will they be different in the future? How will the communities they serve be different?First, students will be more engaged in discussions and deliberations of the civic nature of all that they study. For example, what are the civic dimensions of the career that someone intends to enter? The curriculum will likely focus more frequently on questions of public policy and practice. Second, students will have more opportunities to develop civic skills. Today employers complain about graduates from our institutions but they seldom complain about discipline knowledge. Instead, they complain that students don’t know how to work with others who are different, problem solve, work collaboratively, communicate effectively in writing and speaking, or persuade others. Those are crucial job skills for the 21st century but they are also civic skills.Third, in a new world of civic engagement, colleges and universities will be more closely connected to their communities. Students will do more than simply go out in to the community to undertake a service learning project. They will study their communities, identifying areas of success and failure. They will undertake research, using both students and faculty, about issues that the community identifies as important to study. They will become involved in local issues in various ways, and then use their academic work to reflect on that involvement.
  5. Both:  Many commentators argue that the biggest problems facing higher education are limited access, high costs, and low graduation rates. How can civic engagement initiatives respond to these challenges?For too many students, college doesn’t seem relevant to their lives. Because of that apparent lack of relevance, students are not engaged in their academic work, which leads to lower learning outcomes, and high levels of failure and withdrawal. We believe that civic engagement is critical to preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens but we also believe that civic engagement creates courses and experiences that are inherently engaging. Students see meaning in the civic engagement curriculum, in working closely with others to solve problems and address issues. So we believe that a rich civic engagement curriculum can engage and retain more students who need a sense of relevance to become interested in their academic work. We also believe that a civic engagement curriculum can foster new models and new approaches to instruction, ones that may reduce or at least hold down costs.
  6. Both:  Many of our readers are faculty and staff members who have embraced civic engagement themselves but feel stymied by their institutions. What can they do to lead their institutions to fully adopt civic engagement?For the past eight years, the American Democracy Project has emphasized the concept that civic engagement cannot be a single course or program. There are examples of that all over American higher education. But those “islands of innovation or excellence” do not, by themselves, have much impact on the rest of the institution. We argue, instead, that for civic engagement to produce significant learning outcomes and community/university engagement, campuses must become “intentional” about a commitment to producing informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. Institutional intentionality requires leadership at many levels from the president to students. Through the American Democracy Project or The Democracy Commitment, faculty will have to learn from others, on other campuses, about the best ways to exert leadership for institutional change. At the same time, because both the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment involve senior administrators, faculty, staff and students, project activities will naturally bring together different constituencies on a campus, where the faculty work can be magnified and broadened.
  7. Both:  How can we expect to see your organizations advance civic engagement in the coming years?First, we plan to be partners and close allies in this work. One example of that partnership is that we plan to share an annual meeting each year, reducing costs for both projects, and leveraging greater resources. In our partnership, while we plan to continue to develop separate initiatives for the ADP institutions and launch a series of new initiatives for community colleges, we’ll seek opportunities to work closely together by also building collaborative projects. We plan joint projects in civic agency, global citizenship, voter registration and action, and a variety of other efforts. We also plan to work closely with both community college and university presidents to emphasize the critical role of higher education in preparing citizens for our democracy. We hope to develop new programs to facilitate the transfer of community college students to four year institutions by creating a civic thread that will connect experiences students have in both their two year and four year programs. We also hope to increase attention to civic engagement as a critical outcome of all of our public institutions.Link to The Democracy Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.