An Agentic Approach to Democratic Engagement in Higher Education

Craig Berger is UMBC’s Coordinator of Student Life for Campus and Civic Engagement

Craig Berger--SquareSocial science measures our choices and interactions, but it also subtly constrains our assumptions about what’s possible for ourselves and our communities. As Peter Levine explained in a recent blog post, invoking Hannah Arendt’s writings on revolution and the human condition, this happens in two ways.

First, by focusing retrospectively on explaining who has acted and why, social science makes history seem determined and scripted. We imagine historical figures (and, by extension, ourselves) as going through the motions, simply doing what was already destined to occur. Arendt argues that in our de-emphasizing the doubts, anxieties, and messiness of the real people connected with these events, we erase freedom and bury any empowerment and humanity those moments hold. That we view society as a fixed, permanent world that is unable to be influenced (short of a revolution) is the most harmful consequence of simplifying our past. Arendt believes that the way we study the past keeps us from adopting a more liberating perspective on our world, one that allows us to see our environments as accessible and moldable.

Additionally, social science often points to massive societal structures and systems (e.g., capitalism) that determine our everyday life and will shape our lives indefinitely, until other massive structures and systems replace them. Imagine how different it would be to examine our circumstances with what Levine calls the “agentic” perspective, which views our world as moldable and sees institutions in our lives (government, corporations, organizations, education) as fluid, able to be transformed without replacing the entire system (after all, as Levine notes, these institutions are products of human agency themselves).

The deterministic social science orientation is ubiquitous in higher education. Even universities committed to preparing students for democratic engagement often subtly communicate a sense of our past and physical/cultural surroundings as static and untouchable, whether by unintentionally or unthinkingly excluding students from campus planning conversations or neglecting to share the stories behind the naming of noteworthy campus landmarks or the events that birthed campus traditions. Experiencing our past and our physical/cultural surroundings as fixed leads us to view ourselves as consumers and robots controlled by macrolevel dynamics and structures.

How would higher education look if it adopted an agentic approach to its work? How might students’ experiences change, and what might it be like to work in this new environment? Here are some things colleges and universities taking an agentic approach to education would do:

  • Integrate responsibility for civic learning and democratic engagement across the institution: Universities would diffuse the responsibility for civic learning and democratic engagement work across every divisional and departmental boundary rather than marginalize it by assigning the work to a particular center, institute, or office. Each discipline, and the institution’s activities, symbols, and cultural practices would reflect its commitment to democratic engagement and learning. All learning would be civic learning; all engagement would be democratic engagement.
  • Diminish functional divides among students, staff, faculty, and administrators: Members of the university community would view each other as genuine partners with different experiences and perspectives, capable of engaging in innovative, transformative work. Students would view faculty, staff, and administrators as real people with their own unique experiences, passions, and struggles. Faculty, staff, and administrators would experience students as uniquely talented adults with unlimited potential whose education should encompass working with others in an unscripted fashion to improve their campus and community. Universities would redefine “shared governance,” with as much of the business as possible being shared by members of the campus community who commit to each other as well as to the work of co-creating the university.
  • Transform leadership education and development: Universities would challenge students to free their imaginations and re-conceptualize institutions as human-created and open to change. Instead of adopting the mainstream social science view of the world (viewing public problems as byproducts of root causes and systems, and that the latter that must be vanquished to make any meaningful progress) as we often do in service-learning work and alternative break service trips, students would learn how to work with campus and community stakeholders to determine which aspects of the problem could be transformed and embark on relationship-building and strategic planning in pursuit of that change. This approach would emphasize continually improving environments and cultures, thereby creating new opportunities and frontiers for positive change.
  • Reconceptualize assessment: The quantity and the nature of assessment would change. Students would experience learning with others and, as a part of this learning environment, would feel free to blaze trails of inquiry that do not exist at the outset. Assessment efforts–and ultimately, professional and academic accountability–would be more flexible, accommodating and encouraging civic creativity. Staff and faculty would constantly examine how learning outcomes are presented to students (if at all) to avoid contaminating and/or reducing the power of the learning experience, and to preserve students’ agency.

If universities are genuinely committed to preparing students for democratic engagement, they must examine what messages their cultural practices and campus traditions transmit to students and other members of the university community regarding their agency. Taking an agentic approach to our work in higher education would encourage students to view themselves as co-creators of the campus and authors of their own experiences.

What do you think? What other changes can you imagine consistent with the agentic approach, and are they worth pursuing?

Contact the author, Craig Berger, at

The Power of Becoming Visible

David Hoffman is UMBC’s Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency.

David Hoffman[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC]

We had started the week as strangers, but the twelve of us had bonded by sharing experiences and stories at UMBC’s winter 2015 STRiVE student leadership retreat. Over the preceding few days we had dropped most of our pretenses, and together created a space in which we could comfortably be both honest and uncertain. As we sat in a circle facing each other on the retreat’s final night, two coaches and ten STRiVE participants giving each other constructive feedback, positive energy filled the room. Andrew, marveling, pointed out that we didn’t even know each other’s last names (we immediately shared them). Yet somehow each of us had become visible to the others in ways that revealed both our enormous potential and our necessity to the group.

That moment of power and possibility has important implications for all of us concerned with preparing undergraduates to be capable participants in democracy and agents of positive change in their communities. Conversations about civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education often focus on building knowledge and skills. Both STRiVE and the class I teach with Craig Berger on Civic Agency and Social Entrepreneurship (AMST 205/POLI 205/SOCY 205, fall semesters) highlight analytical frameworks, tools, and tactics for working in groups, communicating across difference, developing strategic plans, and managing projects. Yet without the sense of presence, connectedness, self-worth, and indispensability that STRiVE also inspires, all that information and all those tools would have limited value, like so much firewood without a spark.

All of us in that room, and others in similar groups in other rooms at the retreat site, had contended with feelings of powerlessness and isolation in other settings. My own anxieties about my worth and potential contributions began in childhood, and no amount of jumping through hoops on the straight and narrow path to conventional success ever allayed them. My life changed when I finally allowed myself to choose a career in which I could express and be my authentic self: curious, vulnerable, and incomplete; in which my ongoing growth could serve and fuel others’ growth. I became newly and truly visible to myself and others, and alive to the ways people can pool our passions and talents to shape our world together.

Sitting with my new friends in our circle last week, I could see very clearly how our individual struggles and stories had put us in a position to help each other. Each of us mattered, in part because each of us knew what it was like to doubt the value of our presence and the possibility that we could make a difference. The genius of STRiVE is that it engages coaches and participants in opening spaces in which all of us, students and non-students, can become visible to each other and discover our collective power. If higher education is to teach and inspire a new generation of students to renew our democracy and tackle the great problems of our age, our colleges and universities also must be spaces for liberation.

STRiVE Winter 2015



Contact the author, David Hoffman, at

Working on the Leader in the Mirror

Katie Cano ’16, Political Science, is the 2014-2015 student Commissioner on the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Katie Cano

One of my earliest memories features a four-year-old me, dejected and bitter, sitting in my kindergarten class thinking that I would be a better Class President than the boy chosen by the classmates with whom I spent six hours a day. Even then I felt like I needed to prove to people that I could be someone.

As time passed, others saw that I had potential; I earned leadership roles in various organizations in my high school. I felt like the support I had earned from other people was something I deserved, because I knew that I could produce results, which I equated to leadership.

However, as I attempted bigger and bigger projects, I lost more and more friends. My peers didn’t like me. Sure, teachers praised me, and my parent’s friends thought that I was the vision of a perfect child, but my fellow students were the ones who could have helped me accomplish my goals, and most of them wanted nothing to do with me.

By the end of my senior year, I had raised thousands of dollars, was the leader of various local and even statewide organizations, and had won college scholarships and contributed hundreds of volunteer hours. And I had no friends. Despite all the plaques and awards I had acquired, I was a miserable person.

Throughout high school, I attributed my misery to other people’s small-mindedness. It’s just lonely on the top, I told myself.

Finally—after a very lonely friendless summer before starting college—I  realized that everyone had a problem with me, because I was the problem! I was bossy, I micromanaged, I was cold with people, and I had no sympathy for everyone who had to deal with my terrible leadership. I was an ugly manager. I was the complete opposite of a good leader. I decided that when I got to UMBC, I would do things differently.

During my freshman year of college, I forced myself to listen more and observe the leadership styles of my classmates. I saw that people had teams, and coalitions. It wasn’t one shining star fixing the world. It became very clear to me that it wasn’t worth being a big shot if other people weren’t growing with me. I became determined to stop inadvertently hurting and disrespecting the people who were trying to work with and support me. I wanted to help others accomplish their goals, celebrate my peers’ accomplishments, be a part of a collective, and create a sky full of stars. I wanted to be much more humble.

I still struggle with being a micromanager, taking on too much, and expecting too much of people. Recognizing those obnoxious traits in myself has brought me down to Earth, and deflated my enormous ego. Those natural inclinations force me to constantly work on myself, and that’s okay.

I’m taking on a completely new leadership role this year: the student commissioner of the Maryland Higher Education Commission. I’ll be representing all higher education students in Maryland. That responsibility is pretty overwhelming. I’m going to remember my past leadership roles though. I’m going to remember what worked and what failed. I’m going to remind myself to listen more than I rant. I’m going to be humble and recognize that there is so much for me to learn from others. I’m going to be the best leader that I can and try to help as many people as I can. I’ll never be a perfect leader, but I’ll always be ready and willing to grow.

Contact the author, Katie Cano, at

Transforming the Here and Now

David Hoffman is UMBC’s assistant director of student life for civic agency.

[Cross-posted on Co-Create UMBC].

David Hoffman

STRiVE 2013, UMBC’s fifth annual homegrown student leadership retreat, sponsored by the Office of Student Life and Student Government Association, took place last week at the Skycroft Conference Center. I served as one of 12 coaches (6 staff members, 6 students). Each STRiVE is different (I’ve participated in all five), but they are always life-altering. [My reflections on previous STRiVE retreats: 2012201120102009].

B-1The phrase “leadership retreat” really doesn’t do STRiVE justice. It obscures the poetry and magic of the lived experience. What happened in the hills west of Frederick last week was mostly spontaneous, profoundly real and deeply poignant. 62 UMBC students and staff members, most of us strangers to each other when the week began, helped each other to discover that despite our fears and vulnerabilities, and partly because of them, we are strong, wise and perfectly capable of transforming our lives and world together. We know this now without a doubt, because by week’s end the transformations already had begun.

C-14STRiVE’s intellectual foundations include the “social change model” of leadership developed by higher education scholars, student development theory, social cognitive theory, and Harry Boyte’s pioneering ideas about preparing people for active roles in democracy. Based on our synthesis of these ideas, one of the core principles of STRiVE’s design is that we coaches empower the participants as co-creators of all their experiences, including the retreat itself while it is happening. To do otherwise would risk stunting their growth by equipping them to thrive only in leadership simulations, when authority figures are available to give instructions and assign roles. [Read more…]

Leadership Education, Co-Created

Virginia Byrne is Coordinator for Leadership Development and Education in UMBC’s Office of Student Life

This summer I moved to Maryland to join the Office of Student Life staff, and I couldn’t be happier. In my role, I facilitate the creation of experiential and reflective leadership learning opportunities for UMBC students. Partnering with students to create these programs is essential. While I could prepare leadership development activities on my own, students are the best sources of expertise about their own experiences. And learning from experience–making leadership real by locating it in students’ lives on campus and beyond–is crucial if students are going to solve real problems and contribute their communities in ways that make a difference.

LeadingOrgs, November 2012

One of the programs I co-create with students just happened: LeadingOrgs is a weekend retreat for 30 student organization officers that took place this past weekend. You can see more of our fun photos here.

What may be UMBC’s best-known and most popular leadership program created collaboratively by students and staff is STRiVE, for which the application deadline is less than two days away (Thursday, 11/5 at 5:00 p.m.; apply here). Held each January during winter break, STRiVE is a five day, intensive and engaging off-campus leadership retreat for about 50 students. Participants experience thought-provoking hands-on learning activities, facilitated by a team of student and staff coaches. The coaching team spends the four months prior to STRiVE reflecting on previous retreats and tweaking the curriculum to provide a unique experience each year. I think the best way for students to understand why they should apply to STRiVE is to hear it from the coaches themselves:

Contact the author, Virginia Byrne, at