Reflections on Civic Engagement

by Eric Mlyn, Ph.D | Assistant Vice Provost for Civic Engagement


…and to promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential, a sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship, and a commitment to learning, freedom and truth.

The above is an excerpt from Duke’s mission statement.


As I look back on this academic year and remind myself of Duke’s mission statement, I am struck that much has been accomplished in the civic engagement space — and that much work remains to be done.  Let me explain.

Duke is a campus deeply connected to civic engagement. It is also clear that the roots of civic engagement are firmly planted on so many parts of our campus, and that communication and collaboration amongst the many units that concern themselves with this work are strong and vibrant. From Community Health to Service-Learning to Hart Leadership and on and on, our civic ecosystem continues to grow and develop. From Duke’s mission statement to its current strategic plan, the public mission of our University could not be more clearly etched in what we do.  President Price, too, has embraced Duke’s public mission, particularly as it relates to our work here in our home in Durham and the broader region.

Although Duke’s civic engagement efforts are widespread, students, faculty and staff across campus are striving to engage with communities more deeply, intentionally and sustainably. This is clear in recent initiatives, including:

  • the Provost symposium, American Universities, Monuments and the Legacies of Slavery, during which members of the university community and the broader public gathered to confront the history of injustice at Duke and its ongoing impact;
  • a collaborative effort among the Office of Civic Engagement, Social Science Research Institute and Service-Learning to develop a training module to better prepare students for thoughtful and ethical civic engagement (a priority identified in Duke’s Civic Action Plan);
  • the Teaching for Equity Fellows program (offered by the HRC@ FHI and sponsored by Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Office for Faculty Advancement and the School of Nursing and School of Medicine), which provides tools to equip faculty on topics of race and identity.

These are just a few examples of the efforts being made across campus to strengthen and improve Duke’s work of engaging with communities.

As for the work that remains to be done? What I am referring to here is the more specific mission of democracy cited above from Duke’s mission statement. Colleagues from many parts of our University have been gathering over the last months to ask if we can do more to promote democratic participation amongst our students. This is important not only because American higher education has always embraced this democratic mission, but also because we are living in a time where some of the fundamental institutions of a healthy democracy are under serious threat.

Important bulwarks of democracy, such as a free press, independent judiciary and fact-based analysis, are attacked nearly daily in tweets and public pronouncements. Those of us in higher education would be right to see the Trump administration’s original tax proposal as a full-frontal attack on our institutions — and also as a wakeup call. And though much of the original proposal did not survive the political process, it should surely have served to get our attention.  I cannot help but think that these attempted assaults on higher education were at least partly motivated by a recognition by some that indeed higher education has the potential to protect democratic institutions and thus should be weakened. This is a time where we must rise to the occasion and to defend what our mission statement calls for and embodies.

To answer this latter call, I have enjoyed working with colleagues from Students Affairs and the Sanford School and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, as well as others from around Duke, as we shape what is tentatively called “Project Citizen.” It is our hope that this initiative will strengthen students’ commitment to non-partisan democratic engagement in its many forms. I want to be clear here that this is not an effort to support or oppose specific policy proposals, but instead a non-partisan project that aims to strengthen student democratic political engagement, to equip students to better understand themselves and the world, and to appreciate their own ability to shape that world to be a more just place.  We are so fortunate to have the resources of a great University to apply to these issues.  Stay tuned for more on this as we seek to involve the entire campus in the broader democratic initiative of higher education.