As a Board member of the Corporation for National and Community Service, I recently had the good fortune to have lunch with Harvard professor and author of Bowling Alone Robert Putnam. Putnam is well known for his scholarship on trends in American civic engagement and he shared his recent findings that I found of particular interest as a college president.
Putnam argues that in the months after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Americans of all age groups became more involved in their communities, volunteering their time and generally being more engaged in civic matters. Since then, only college age students continue to show these increased trend lines of civic engagement; all other age cohorts have returned to pre-9/11 activity levels. Putnam explains this by pointing to the impact of 9/11 on young students nearing and in high school. He believes they have stayed involved in service work as they seek ways to make a difference in their world. Furthermore, he sees their involvement in this year's presidential election as evidence of this particular age group's desire to be involved.
I believe Putnam's thesis is good news for our nation and we have a responsibility to nurture this growing ethic of civic engagement among America's young people. I was particularly pleased, therefore, when Hobart and William Smith was named to the President's Honor Roll for colleges and universities nationwide for our community service efforts. In response to Hurricane Katrina, students have traveled to the Gulf Coast region on seven trips contributing 15,000 hours of service gutting and rebuilding homes through Operation Helping Hands. During the 2006-2007 school year alone, HWS community members provided 34,000 hours of community service in the Geneva area.
I have seen the engagement of our students in this year's presidential election as well. Our students have traveled to early primary states in support of their candidates. The College Republicans teamed up with the College Democrats in an effort with HWS Votes! to sponsor a Super Tuesday election night party in the Cellar Pub. Visiting speakers, including chief political writer Adam Nagourney of the The New York Times brought large crowds to hear and discuss issues. Applications to live in the Current Events theme house are up and interest generally in the Republican Club, Democratic Club and Progressive Student Union have increased. By my count, recent graduates have worked on virtually every Republican and Democratic primary campaign.
All of this is good news for our country and reflects well on the Colleges. It confirms my belief that this generation is equally idealistic as those of prior years. While the public demonstration of their views may not mirror those efforts of the 60s and 70s - one should not conclude that they do not care. Indeed, they are engaged in different, tangible ways to make a difference.
Robert Putnam's work is a challenge to each college and university to continue to provide students with a sense of the importance of civic engagement in the 21st century. At Hobart and William Smith, we have a strong platform to build upon and a talented faculty and staff to advance these ideals.
Mark D. Gearan
Spring 2008 Pulteney St. Survey