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Obama Aide Challenges College Presidents to Encourage Civic Engagement

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Valerie B. Jarrett—who for eight years served as a senior advisor to President Barack Obama—told college presidents that they had an important role in preparing students for civic engagement.

Jarrett—who was named a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Law School last month—told those gathered at the Presidents Institute, sponsored by The Council of Independent Colleges that college presidents can use their “bully pulpit” to support and groom students who are committed to justice, equality, free expression and inclusive democratic engagement.

“You have a captive audience,” she told the crowd of college leaders. “Your students should really be students of history. It’s on them to make a difference.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with Elizabethtown College President Dr. Carl J. Strikwerda, Jarrett recounted her own entry into politics more than 30 years ago when she became involved in the broad coalition to elect Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first Black mayor.

“He woke me up,” said Jarrett about Washington, adding that she had been engaged in the “very boring practice of law”  before working on Washington’s campaign that resulted in his election in 1983 and ignited an interest in politics.

She said that during the 2016 presidential election, Americans in general, and college students in particular—simply “slept in, and forgot” to vote.

“A lot of young people have become complacent,” she said, adding that college leaders should encourage students to exercise their civic responsibility to vote and promote dialogue on campus across ideological lines. Colleges, she said,  should not be afraid to bring controversial speakers to campus, so long as they are not incendiary and that they “model good behavior.”

Free speech, she said, is a hallmark of the college experience.

“You have to encourage young people to keep an open mind and to remind them that it’s okay for them to change their mind,” said Jarrett. “If you don’t like what is, then change it, and what better place to learn how to do it than on our college campuses.”

Jarrett said that the crisis of sexual assaults on college campuses, where 1 out of 5 women report being assaulted on their campuses, has morphed into a national epidemic that has to be addressed by college officials.

“You can’t brush this under the rug,” said Jarrett who co-chaired The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault with former Vice President Joe Biden. “Culture is hard to change and it’s easy to change. You have to have ownership of the culture.”

Jarrett’s comments at the CIC Presidents Institute—one of the largest annual gatherings of college presidents in the nation—helped to solidify a packed four-day agenda that provided an opportunity for college leaders to share best practices, network and brainstorm together about how to improve their institutions.

A separate program has also been created in recent years for the spouses and partners of presidents.

“This is an opportunity for presidents to let down their hair and talk candidly,” said said Dr. Richard Ekman, president of CIC.

The gathering, he said, puts a spotlight on the issues that college and university leaders confront on a daily basis, including fundraising, enrollment and the perception of a liberal arts education in a rapidly changing society.

Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson

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