Thomas Ehrlich- The Interview by Maggie Stevens
At the core of his life’s work, Tom Ehrlich has been an engaged scholar and teacher, pushing higher education to educate citizens. While currently a Visiting Professor at Stanford University, over his career Tom has served as the president of Indiana University, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and dean of the Stanford Law School. It was in his role at Indiana University, that he helped start Indiana Campus Compact, the 11th Campus Compact state affiliate office, in 1993.
Often, as organizations grow and adapt, we find that they stray from their founding principles or mission. As I spoke with and listened to Tom’s reflections on why Indiana Campus Compact (and the national Campus for that matter) was established, it affirmed to me that we are on track and continue to move in the right direction as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Indiana Campus Compact. As we talked about the importance of Indiana Campus Compact to our state 20 years ago, Tom pointed out the fact that this was one of the first organizations that brought together presidents and chancellors from public and private institutions of higher education in Indiana. Because of the connections that were made through Indiana Campus Compact, the leaders of the state’s higher education institutions developed relationships across institution types to work toward a common purpose—educating their students to be responsible civic leaders in their communities. Twenty years later, that is still one of the most significant aspects of Indiana Campus Compact as I talk with presidents and chancellors throughout the state.
Even more important though, is that Indiana Campus Compact works to ensure that not just the institutional leaders are engaged in collaborative work to advance the civic purposes of higher education. We work every day to ensure that the faculty, staff, and students on college and university campuses across the state are realizing the active role that they should and can take in our democratic society through programs focused on civic leadership and voter engagement and events focused on continuing to build the network of educators connecting campuses with one another and with their communities.
While our conversation included more information than I could ever put into one story, there were two themes that guided our discussion. First, why was (and is) Campus Compact important for higher education? And second, where does Campus Compact need to go in the future? Our conversation was rooted in the establishment of Indiana Campus Compact 20 years ago and its future as we look forward, it clearly reflected that Indiana Campus Compact is part of a much larger organization and an even larger movement to ensure that colleges and universities and their students continue to recognize their role in a world much larger than their own.
Campus Compact’s role in higher education
Although Tom was serving as a provost at the University of Pennsylvania when Campus Compact was established in 1985, he was well aware of the organization that was being built by his colleagues to elevate and advance the work that colleges and universities were doing throughout the country to ensure that students understood the greater responsibility that they had to their communities both during and after college. While Tom was the first president of the Legal Services Corporation, he struggled to persuade practicing lawyers to understand that there was a need for them to give their time and services to those in need—those living in poverty—in their communities. They always had a reason why they couldn’t give of their time and services and Tom always had an answer. If they didn’t know how to do family or housing law, then the Legal Services Corporation offered them a course. Over time he realized that it wasn’t a lack of knowledge or a lack of time that inhibited them, but rather a lack of comfort. Sitting in a room and helping someone with a different color of skin, a different life experience, a different story than their own, made these highly educated, successful lawyers feel uncomfortable. It was in that experience that Tom realized that people need to interact with people who were different from them and given his place in an institution of higher education, he saw no better place for that to happen than on a college campus. So even before Campus Compact came to be, Tom was actively working to push students outside of their comfort zone and serve people in our communities.
When Tom took on the role of president at Indiana University and as Campus Compact grew as a national organization and state affiliates began to develop to help localize the services and resources of Campus Compact, Tom became involved in the national organization as a board member and board chair and eventually helped open the doors for Indiana Campus Compact.
Campus Compact’s evolution
Even before Tom became involved in Campus Compact and then as a leader of the organization, he realized that if we “wanted service to be viewed as something more than an after school activity then we had to do something more.” Tom, along with many others, believed that we needed to connect the service to academic disciplines and demonstrate that not only could service be connected to any academic discipline, but that through structured reflection it could enhance academic and civic learning in any discipline. It is because of this strong belief that he supported the publication of 23 discipline-based monographs demonstrating the benefit of service learning to the community and to the students while he was chair of the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE).
As service learning grew and practitioners and skeptics came to realize that it wasn’t just about service, but also about civic learning—“learning how to be an engaged citizen”—they realized that they needed a larger body of scholarship to show the impact of service learning and community engagement and many became involved in building what we now recognize as the scholarship of engagement. But even, as the research and the field of practitioners was growing, many faculty teaching service-learning courses still felt on the fringes. Campus Compact played a critical role in letting faculty know that they were not alone and reminding them that this work is about more than service to the community, it is also about helping students become more engaged in their communities through advocacy and political engagement.
In 1992, while Tom was serving as president of Indiana University and on the national Campus Compact board, he realized that there was a group of presidents in Indiana who were ready to join this national movement and sign on to Campus Compact. In March 1993, Indiana Campus Compact became the 11th state affiliate of the Campus Compact network with Butler University, DePauw University, Earlham College, Indiana University, University of Notre Dame, and Valparaiso University signing on as founding members. Tom recalled that having then Governor Evan Bayh support the group and attend their inaugural meeting helped elevate the visibility of Indiana Campus Compact.
Campus Compact’s future
Viewed broadly, Tom feels that Campus Compact has moved from service and service learning to supporting service learning for civic and political engagement (i.e. policy making, social justice based on policy). That said, he acknowledges there is still work to be done in this realm and one of the most important things that we need to do is determine how to “utilize new technologies effectively to promote civic work.” While he feels that are students who are ready for this, he acknowledges that many faculty are not always equipped to work in this way and that is something Campus Compact needs to be supporting and advancing. He said that the revision of the Frank Newman Award is one way that Campus Compact is using technology to connect civic minded students from across the country with one another.
In addition to leveraging technology in the civic engagement movement, Tom feels that Campus Compact should be encouraging students to get engaged in public policy conversations. While he wishes that more students were involved in partisan politics, he realizes that many of today’s college students are turned off by the divisive nature of partisan politics. Tom suggests that there are many issues that are important to students which they could take up and lobby for a change, including the environment, energy, health care, and education. He points out that Campus Compact and individual campuses should be finding ways for students to focus on substantive issues at the state, national, and international level through policy work, as many are now doing.
Next, Tom suggested that Campus Compact should continue to support the Carnegie Foundation’s Engagement Classification by helping campuses learn from one another and in turn strengthening the “multiple dimensions of civic engagement” on their campuses. He highlighted the strength that Campus Compact brings through affiliates like Indiana Campus Compact saying, “it’s hard to connect 1200 campuses nationally, but it can happen with 40 campuses in one state” and pointed out that this is part of what brought Alan Harre, a founding Indiana Campus Compact board member and president emeritus of Valparaiso University, to Indiana Campus Compact. President Harre saw this state based organization as a way to highlight the good work that was being done on campuses across the state.
And finally, Tom and I talked about the “overlap between social entrepreneurship and civic education.” Tom has had a long standing relationship with Bill Drayton, founder of ASHOKA, and has worked with ASHOKA as it has grown its higher education programs through ASHOKA U and “collective social entrepreneurship,” He suggested that I use this conversation to explore linkages between the two. Until recently, entrepreneurship has been seen as a fringe activity taught by adjuncts on many campuses, but Tom hopes that we can find successful models of courses that link social entrepreneurship and civic engagement.
As we concluded our conversation, and I asked if Tom had any other thoughts or reflections to share with us as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Indiana Campus Compact—the group he helped launch—he said that the “most important thing we can do is to keep going.”