The University and Civil Society in the 21st Century

Winter Commencement
Assembly Hall
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
December 17, 2016

The University and Civil Society in the 21st Century

Ms. [Linda] Greenhouse, Trustees, Provost Robel, honored guests and colleagues, and members of the Class of 2016:

Public universities like Indiana University put a great emphasis a public mission that includes educating students for citizenship and preparing them for public service; contributing to advances that enhance the quality of life for all; contributing to the economic development of local communities, states, and the nation; and fostering a public manner of conducting debate and inquiry that has been crucial to modern science and to civil society.

While there is no universally-accepted definition of the concept of “civil society,” the idea has become a major staple of academic and political discourse in recent years. It is generally taken to refer to the network of values and institutions that are not part of the government sector—instead, it refers to values and institutions that connect us to each other in society through custom and culture. Civil society includes the worlds of nonprofit associations and philanthropy, as well as churches, neighborhood groups, trade unions, self-help movements, service organizations, volunteer activities, and much, much more. Civil society is, in many ways, the glue that holds together life in democracies. The richer and more diverse a civil society is, the greater its impact as a stabilizing force in a democracy.

The distinguished sociologist, Michele Lamont, writes that universities contribute directly to civil society in a number of ways: They foster a culture of diversity in which the widest range of individuals possible are recognized as valued members of the community. They help to improve the quality of life through research and creative activity that serve the public interest and address some of society’s most pressing problems. And they help create a middle class of college-educated professionals and managers who are essential to the success of society. 

Professor Lamont writes: “Social workers, urban planners, journalists, and a range of other professionals play an essential role in organizing collective life at the institutional and cultural levels. Without them,” she continues, “and without the institutions of higher education that impart them expertise, much of what we take for granted in terms of the organizational resources and shared cultural framework that empower our lives would simply be nonexistent. These are essential in fostering collective resilience.”1

Indiana University's Contributions to Civil Society

In the fields mentioned by Professor Lamont—social work, urban planning, and journalism—and in hundreds of other fields—Indiana University preserves and cultivates knowledge and skills, and imparts expertise to future professionals who help to organize our collective life and strengthen our civil society. 

Our Commencement speaker, Ms. Greenhouse, is an outstanding example of how journalists, in particular, contribute to civil society by keeping citizens well-informed and through their vigilant and often courageous efforts to hold those entrusted with power accountable. 

Today, members of the Class of 2016, you can take great pride in graduating from a university that has—for nearly 200 years—made extensive contributions to the development of a curious, productive, and public-spirited civil society.

As a major research institution, Indiana University’s faculty and students contribute to civil society through progress that enriches humanity through the most advanced work in a multitude of disciplines from life sciences to the humanities, from information technology to the social sciences, and in many, many other areas. Many of you who are receiving advanced degrees today—as well as many undergraduates—have been partners in the enterprise of research and scholarship, and I am certain that you will continue to make lasting and memorable contributions, and by doing so contribute to the building of civil society.

IU also contributes to strengthening civil society around the globe by preparing students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world. Today, you graduate from one of the nation’s most international universities. Around a third of you have spent time studying and serving abroad, and, for many of you, those experiences have been life-changing. They have broadened your horizons and, in many cases, they will lead to a new range of professional opportunities.

Also among the nearly 2,000 students who graduate today are approximately 400 international students from 26 different countries. Some of you will undoubtedly make your careers in the United States, bringing your talents and drive to this country as so many others have done before you. Others will return to your home countries where you will become leaders in business, industry, the arts and sciences, higher education, and government, following the examples of the many successful international IU graduates. Your presence on the Bloomington campus has allowed your fellow students from Indiana and around the world to learn more about other perspectives, other customs and traditions, and has opened all of our minds to new ways of understanding.

More than a quarter of the members of today’s graduating class are first generation college students, many of whom are members of under-represented minority groups and some of whom come from low-income families. Many of these students have overcome enormous obstacles to achieve success—and through the examples they have set and through their mentorship of future students, they will help to ensure that many others will follow in their footsteps in ever-growing numbers.  

The Class of 2016

Members of the Class of 2016, you have been preparing for years to take your place as active, engaged, and committed global citizens in democratic society.

Many of you have already helped to improve the quality of life for citizens of this country and for people around the world during your time as students at Indiana University. 

Members of today’s graduating class have served as peer tutors, as sustainability interns, and as AmeriCorps volunteers.

Many of you have helped to raise money for IU scholarships through your participation in one of our great traditions, the Little 500, and you have raised record amounts in support of Riley Hospital for Children through your participation in and leadership of the IU Dance Marathon, IU’s largest student philanthropic event and one of the largest events of its kind at any university in this country. This year, for the first time in its 26-year history of fundraising, IU Dance Marathon broke the $4 million mark. This is a remarkable achievement that will benefit countless children and families who receive treatment at one of the nation’s leading pediatric hospitals, and great credit is due to all of the students who worked so hard to make the event such a stunning success.

Learning that Molds a Lifetime

At Indiana University, you have been engaged in learning that molds a lifetime, learning that shapes the future.

As members of this outstanding class of 2016, you are now ready to make your mark on the world, to make new discoveries, to seek solutions to the challenges we face in the 21st century.

It is to you, and thousands like you graduating all over the country, that the world now looks for your commitment as citizens, for your energy and seriousness of purpose as you grapple with the most formidable problems that confront us, for your commitment to human dignity and freedom, and for all you can do to innovate, to invent, to build, to heal, and to teach.

Members of the Indiana University Class of 2016, I wish you the very best good fortune as you embark on the next phase of your lives. May you create an ever-brighter future for yourselves and for all of us.

Thank you very much.

Source Notes

  1. Michele Lamont, “How Do University, Higher Education, and Research Contribute to Societal Well-Being?” in Gaels Goastellec and Frances Picard (eds.), Higher Education in Societies: A Multi-Scale Perspective, (Sense Publishers, 2014), 14.