Higher Education and Society

Institutions of education and the system of which they are a part face a host of unprecedented challenges from forces in society that affect and are influenced by these very institutions and their communities of learners and educators. Among these forces are sweeping demographic changes, shrinking provincial budgets, revolutionary advances in information and telecommunication technologies, globalization, competition from new educational providers, market pressures to shape academic and scholarly practices toward profit-driven ends, and increasing demands and pressures for fundamental changes in public policy and public accountability relative to the role of higher education in addressing pressing issues of communities and the society at large. Any one of these challenges would be significant on its own. Still, collectively, they increase the complexity and difficulty for education to sustain or advance the fundamental work of serving the public good.

Through an education forum, we can agree that strengthening the relationship between higher education and society will require a broad-based effort that encompasses all of the education, not just individual institutions, departments, and associations.

Economic Update: Higher Ed Class Struggles - Democracy at Work (d@w)

Piecemeal solutions can only go so far; a shared vision and a set of common objectives must inform strategies for change. A “movement” approach to change holds greater promise for transforming academic culture than the prevailing “organizational” approach.


Mobilizing change will require strategic alliances, networks, and partnerships with various stakeholders within and beyond education.

The Common Agenda is specifically designed to support a “movement” approach to change by encouraging the emergence of strategic alliances among individuals and organizations who care about higher education’s role in advancing the ideals of a diverse democratic system through education practices, relationships, and service to society.

A Common Agenda

The Common Agenda is intended to be a “living” document and an open process that guides collective action and learning among committed partners within and outside higher education. As a living document, the Common Agenda is a collection of focused activities to advance civic, social, and cultural roles in society. This collaboratively created, implemented, and focused Common Agenda respects the diversity of activity and programmatic foci of individuals, institutions, and networks and recognizes the whole’s common interests. As an open process, the Common Agenda is a structure for connecting work and relationships around common interests, focusing on serving society’s academic role. Various modes of aligning and amplifying the common work within and beyond education will be provided within the Common Agenda process.

This approach is understandably ambitious and unique in its purpose and application. Ultimately, the Common Agenda challenges the higher education system, and those who view education as vital to addressing society’s pressing issues act deliberately, collectively, and clearly on an evolving and significant set of commitments to community. Currently, four broad issue areas are shaping the focus of the Common Agenda: 1) Building public understanding and support for our civic mission and actions; 2) Cultivating networks and partnerships; 3) Infusing and reinforcing the value of civic responsibility into the culture of higher education institutions, and 4) Embedding civic engagement and social responsibility in the structure of the education system.

VISION We have an idea of higher education that nurtures individual prosperity, institutional responsiveness and inclusivity, and societal health by promoting and practicing learning, scholarship, and engagement that respects public needs. Our universities are proactive and responsive to pressing social, ethical, and economic problems facing our communities and society. Our students are people of integrity who embrace diversity and are socially responsible and civilly engaged throughout their lives.

MISSION The purpose of the Common Agenda is to provide a framework for organizing, guiding, and communicating the values and practices of education relative to its civic, social, and economic commitments to a diverse democratic system.


I believe social justice, ethics, educational equity, and societal change for positive effects are fundamental to the work of higher education. We consider the relationship between communities and education institutions based on equality, respect, and reciprocity and the work in education to be interdependent with the other institutions and individuals in society.

We will seek and rely on extensive partnerships with all types of institutions and devoted individuals inside and outside higher education.

We realize the interconnection of politics, power, and privilege. The Common Agenda is not for higher education to self-serve but to “walk the talk” relative to espoused public goals. We understand the Common Agenda as a dynamic living document and expect its activities to change over time.

THE COMMON AGENDA FRAMEWORK The general framework for the common agenda is represented in the following diagram. It is clear that while goals and action items are organized and aligned within certain issue areas, there is considerable overlap and complementarity among the issues, goals, and action items. Also, following each action item are names of individuals who committed to serve as “point persons” for that particular item. A list of “point persons” with their organizational affiliation(s) is included with the common agenda.

Public understanding increasingly equates higher education benefits with acquiring a “good job” and receiving “higher salaries.” To understand and support the full benefits of higher education, the public and higher education leaders need to engage in critical and honest discussions about the role of higher education in society. Goal: Develop a common language that resonates inside and outside the institution. Action Items: Develop a common language and themes about our academic role and responsibility to the public good through discussions with a broader public.

Collect scholarship on the public good, examine themes, and identify remaining questions. Develop a national awareness of the importance of higher education for the public interest through marketing efforts.

Goal: Promote effective and broader discourse. Action Items: Raise public awareness about the institutional diversity within and between higher education institutions.

Identify strategies for engaging alum associations to articulate public good and build bridges between higher education and private and public sector companies. Develop discourse guidelines to improve the quality of dialogue on every level of society. Organize a series of civil conversations with various public sectors about higher education and the public good.

Approaching complex issues such as the role of higher education in a society that requires a broad mix of partners to create strategies and actions encompassing multiple valued perspectives and experiences.

Broad partnerships to strengthen the relationship between higher education and society involve working strategically with those within and outside of higher education to achieve mutual goals on behalf of the public good.

Goal: Create broad and dispersed communication systems and processes.

Action Items:

Create an information and resource network across higher education associations. Create information processes that announce relevant conferences, recruit presenters, and encourage presentations in appropriate national conferences. Develop opportunities for information sharing and learning within and between various postsecondary institutions (e.g., research-centered communities).

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