2014 Imagining America Presidents’ Forum Report

By Imagining America | December 15, 2014

In a time when higher education is facing significant challenges, how can colleges and universities address the critical social and economic challenges of our time? What responsibility do higher education leaders have to perpetuate the great public, civic, and democratic legacy of American higher education?Presidents, provosts, and other national leaders are betting that part of the answer to these questions is embedded in publicly engaged scholarship and in the humanities, arts, and design. The Imagining America (IA) Presidents’ Council and Presidents’ Forum are designed as means for generating strategy and leadership on such questions that will bring Imagining America to a new stage of effectiveness and impact.

Planning the October 9, 2014 Forum in Atlanta: “What’s holding presidents, provosts, and other national leaders back from being bolder, and how can IA provide more support and leverage?” This question guided the design of the agenda for the 2014 Forum, co-chaired by Brian Murphy. Council Co-Chair Nancy Cantor challenged the Planning Team to think about how presidents can simultaneously make the case for social justice and for business. A case study of interdisciplinary publicly engaged scholarship that demonstrates how a college is contributing to the reduction of poverty in rural America was chosen because of its focus on finding a new economy for arts and humanities, and on advancing a paradigm for development driven by culture.

Brian Murphy, co-chair of the IA Presidents' Council and president of De Anza College, speaks to the Presidents' Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference in Atlanta Georgia.

Brian Murphy, co-chair of the IA Presidents’ Council and president of De Anza College, speaks to the Presidents’ Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference.

Forum Presentation: Gladstone “Fluney” Hutchinson of the Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) at Lafayette College and Dudley Cocke of Appalshop, the arts and humanities institution in the central Appalachian coalfields, presented. By joining the expertise and knowledge of economists with that of artists, their project is developing an investment plan to simultaneously support the economic development of Appalshop and the Appalachian region. Faculty, students, and artists have been identifying and testing entrepreneurial strategies for wealth creation that tap the area’s singularly rich cultural traditions. For example, a for-profit business for software development is being incubated, and its strategic advantage is proving to be its orientation to the cultural strengths of its location.

The collaborators’ approach resonates with the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015, which points to the emergent intellectual coalescence around the principle of inclusive growth as a critical pillar for achieving sustainable economic development and social justice. By treating poverty as a problem that can only be solved by government and outside experts, Hutchinson and Cocke argue that the previous wars on poverty have not sufficiently supported the development of individual agency and a latent collective spirit of entrepreneurship. The Appalshop—EEGLP partnership represents an asset-based alternative that leverages the special ways in which cultural organizations create civic space and how culture, and its offspring art, shape individual and collective identity, bound or expand imagination, and ultimately contribute toward determining economic behavior.

Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater at Appalshop, presents on the Appalshop-EELGP collaboration to the Presidents' Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dudley Cocke, interim director of Appalshop and artistic director of Roadside Theater, presents on the Appalshop-EELGP collaboration to the Presidents’ Forum at the 2014 IA National Conference.

Forum Discussion: Responding to the presenters’ focus on the relationship between culture and economy, Forum participants challenged the idea that there is a tradeoff between “preparing for jobs” and “contributing to a sustainable democratic society.” The forthcoming volume edited by Harry Boyte, Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities, includes strong case studies of higher education addressing immediate political imperatives while being resources for “the changing world of work.”

Responding to EEGLP’s use of asset mapping, David Scobey asked, “What if IA were to map the assets of our collective efforts to institutionalize publicly engaged scholarship in higher education? For example, one asset is the infrastructure that has been created by new centers, programs, and institutes that have been founded in the last 15 years, which cut across the immobilizing silos and bureaucracies.” George Sanchez added, “How might IA better understand the motivations of different populations who have a high sense of civic engagement, such as undocumented students, and involve them in our mission?”

Participants discussed possibilities for organizing culture change in research universities, including the ways the civic identities of faculty are developed. Opportunities noted included Civic Science as an avenue for scientists to work in deeper and more satisfying cultural contexts beyond delivering technocratic solutions. Building on this point, Boyte suggested IA look for ways to support college presidents as public philosophers who think deeply about the purpose of higher education and the meaning of democracy. Chancellor Bjong Wolf Yeigh recommended that IA design a research protocol to help stakeholders better understand the leadership qualities and characteristics of sitting college presidents, and how those qualities and characteristics are shaping their institutions.

The Appalshop—EEGLP presentation argued that the transformation of higher education and its arts, design, and humanities disciplines can be greatly enhanced by institution-to-institution partnerships between community-based organizations and colleges and universities. To what degree do IA and its membership believe in the power of partnering with cultural organizations as a core strategy? What would it take to increase the breadth and depth of such partnerships? 

Actions for Further Consideration:

  1. Produce a research report about the assets created to date by efforts in the last 10-20 years to institutionalize publicly engaged scholarship in higher education. Through a yearly update that would consider the gains and losses for institutionalizing civic engagement within the IA membership of 100 colleges and universities, the finding could become the basis for an annual State of the Field report.
  2. Develop an institution-to-institution partnership between IA and Appalshop to test the supposition that such higher education and community-based collaborations are poised to create new knowledge that is compelling in its democratic, populist orientation and consequently effective in solving persistent community problems both on and off campus.
  3. Convene presidents in a retreat setting to consider questions relevant to IA’s transition to a new institutional home in 2017: What are the most important achievements and values for IA to hold onto and cultivate as it seeks a new institutional home? Given the current circumstances in higher education and public life, what are the pressing roles and tasks for which IA is needed? Do these questions and their answers affect how you would advise IA to think about its move and the new institutional home or arrangement it might seek?

Get involved: IA and its Presidents’ Council depend on the vision and efforts of national leaders. Please contact IA Co-Director Tim Eatman at, and the report author, IA Assistant Director Jamie, with your thoughts and commitments for 2015.