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A newly announced effort to promote students' civic engagement largely through a campaign to spur colleges to get them to register to vote seems like a no-brainer for higher ed leaders to endorse, given how campus officials often make the case that going to college builds citizenship.

But some higher education groups are staying on the sidelines of the All In Campus Democracy Challenge -- which was unveiled Thursday by Civic Nation, a nonprofit group -- because of concerns about the effort's perceived lack of independence from the Obama administration in the run-up to a major national election. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which 20 years ago helped found a campus voter registration initiative known as Your Vote Your Voice, opted not to endorse the All In Challenge because it seemed to be linked to a fledgling White House civic engagement summit, which made it appear partisan. More young people tend to vote Democratic than Republican.

"It was hard to know where one ended and the other began," said David L. Warren, president of the private college association. "The issue of the White House and Civic Nation, either separately or together, moving in this direction struck me as an entangling perception at best that I did not want."

The nonprofit organizations and campus groups involved in the All In challenge say the campaign has been misunderstood, and that it is exactly what it appears to be: a nonpartisan effort to recognize colleges that measure and improve their students' informed participation in the democratic process, for the long term.

“Preparing graduates for their public lives as citizens, members of communities and professionals in society has historically been a responsibility of higher education,” said Zaneeta E. Daver, director of the All In challenge. “What we hope to achieve with the All In challenge is a refocusing on this vital part of higher education’s mission."

What Is All In?

Numerous well-respected groups are behind the All In Campus Democracy Challenge. In addition to Civic Nation -- which builds coalitions of groups and companies in public interest campaigns on education, immigration, gender and other issues -- its partners include higher education organizations like Campus Compact, the American Democracy Project and both major student affairs groups in higher education, ACPA: College Student Educators International and NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education. (Other partners include Rock the Vote and Ideas 42.)

The organizations were motivated to create the new project, Daver said, by research showing that while students are "very active these days" in certain kinds of civic behavior -- protesting, volunteering and the like -- "for some reasons they are not particularly active in the electoral process."

The initiative is designed to make headway on that problem by giving colleges incentives to encourage their students. Participating campuses (73 have signed up so far), with input from students and faculty and staff members, develop and carry out a plan to increase "informed participation in the electoral process." They then agree to join the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement at Tufts University, which measures colleges' student voting and participation rates. Campuses will be recognized (gold, silver, bronze awards) based on the rates at which their students vote in the 2016 election.

"A lot of students are coming to campuses never having voted before, and encouraging them to participate is part of the process of higher education," said Daver. "The ultimate mission of All In is to help them graduate students who will participate, and over the long term have them more active in the electoral process."

That's a pretty noncontroversial goal. "Who can't be in favor of civic engagement?" Warren of NAICU said. And indeed, officials at many of the colleges who were told about All In at events like last month's Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Meeting in Indianapolis came away enthused, saying it meshed with their own longstanding efforts.

White House Entanglement

But many of the questions about the initiative emerged because of one particular element of its rollout -- at a meeting at the White House in May -- and the timing, mere months before the November election.

Obama administration officials invited leaders of the major associations of college and university presidents to a discussion of the administration's own young effort to spur campus civic engagement. In a series of high-profile speeches and comments this year, from the State of the Union through South by Southwest to a commencement speech at Howard University, President Obama has exhorted young people to become more civically engaged. At South by Southwest, the president said he would host a White House Summit on Civic Engagement this summer, and it was that event at which administration officials sought to get the higher ed group leaders interested in becoming partners.

Folded into the presentation they gave the association officials about the summit was information about the "campus democracy challenge," which left Warren and at least some of the other higher ed leaders with the impression that the initiatives were linked. And that was troubling to Warren, since it appeared to suggest involvement by a Democratic White House in a campaign with a clear goal of encouraging participation in the 2016 election.

"It's when the conversation moved into voter participation" that Warren said he became concerned about involving either Your Vote Your Voice or NAICU in the campus challenge.

"Your Vote Your Voice was created explicitly as a nonpartisan entity, and we have managed to sustain it in that form for 20 years," and the college association also strives to maintain its independence, he said. "But here we were about 150 days from the election, and I think that with a White House sponsorship, either directly or indirectly, on voter participation, tying Your Vote Your Voice or NAICU to it would be inappropriate."

White House and All In officials describe the perception of White House sponsorship of the campus challenge as a misunderstanding.

Daver, the All In director, said that as White House officials were discussing plans for their summit, "they discovered this project and were excited about it, and said they wanted to help support it." Civic Nation and its partners were trying to "soft launch" the project and begin to get word out about it, "and if someone calls you from the White House and says, 'We love your project and want to promote you,' are you really going to say no to that?"

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, a White House aide described the democracy challenge as "something that we support the intent of, but is run completely by outside organizations …. Our hope is that higher ed institutions participate, but it is separate from the summit." White House officials had no further comment on the summit, originally envisioned for this month.

To concerns that the campus challenge is also suspect because it is being unveiled so close to the 2016 election, supporters of the project say they had hoped to launch it earlier to avoid such perceptions, but that a series of unfortunate delays occurred. Yet while the initiative is designed to build democratic engagement over students' lifetimes, getting them to vote in the upcoming election is a key part of the effort.

"This is long-term issue, but we do want to get students to the voting booth -- but we don't care who they vote for," Daver said. "It's to get colleges to help their students navigate this complex process -- do I do absentee, or vote in my home state? -- to do programming to help them be informed on the issues, and to actually follow through."

Daver said she was upset but not surprised, that some have questioned All In's motives, as voter registration and other civic engagement efforts have increasingly been attacked as partisan.

The initiative's sponsors are doing their best to combat the perception as they try to build support for it. Its website contains an FAQ with questions that include, "Is the All In challenge a partisan initiative?" and "Is the All In challenge a voter registration or 'get out the vote' effort?"

The answer to both questions: no.


Please follow me on Twitter @dougledIHE.

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