Dean Cunningham, Tisch College reflect on year of civic engagement, community involvement

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life inside Barnum Hall is pictured on May 10. Mina Terzioglu / The Tufts Daily
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The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life has worked this year to integrate civic engagement into higher education, private and public institutions and active community involvement. Under the leadership of Dayna Cunningham, who just concluded her first academic year as dean, Tisch College has been focusing its research and initiatives on building a multiracial democracy through civic education. The college houses several research institutes, hosts events and leads an array of community initiatives, all of which progressed in their work amid the turbulence of the past year.

In an interview with the Daily, Dean Cunningham spoke about the role that Tisch College plays in building a multiracial democracy, especially in the face of unexpected challenges. 

What we bring is so relevant and so in service to this moment,” she said. “We have to understand better: What does fair representation look like now in a country where there won’t be a single governing majority?”

In 2021, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement celebrated its 20th year of research. CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg spoke about the center’s plans to introduce a new, more comprehensive framework for growing voter participation among young people in June.

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That’s really a culmination of the last 20 years of work and thinking about and watching these challenges of inequality. … Representing that inequality in voter participation then leads to different representations of different segments of our communities, including youth, but especially young people of color or immigrant youth or low-income youth,” she said.

One of the major outputs of Tisch College’s research is the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, a study created by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. Since its inception, more than 1,100 campuses have participated in the NSLVE. Nancy Thomas, director of IDHE, spoke about the importance of work like the NSLVE in managing threats to democracy.

Our work is about an educational agenda,” she said. “It is in the context of threats to democracy that we are developing this framework for higher education’s role. … Colleges and universities should be the truth tellers; they should be the ones clarifying the record when there’s disinformation out there.”

Because of its focus on civic engagement, much of the work of the Tisch College research institutes operates on a timeline that aligns with the U.S. election cycle and fiscal year. Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tisch College, highlighted the institute’s research into certain ballot initiatives for the upcoming midterm election.

This year, cSPA released a report on a 2022 ballot question that would label rideshare and gig workers as independent contractors rather than employees. It also analyzed the potential impact of the Massachusetts Fair Share Amendment, or “millionaire’s tax,” a ballot question that would change the state constitution to institute a 4% surtax on annual incomes over $1 million. 

I think on the public-facing side, [a highlight] has been the work we did on the millionaire’s tax with Professor [Thomas] Downes, which has been great and has really reset the debate in terms of expected revenues,Horowitz said. “I’m very proud of that work and the way it’s been received and the effect it’s had in terms of getting people to appreciate the risks and the likely impact.” 

Many of the initiatives that Tisch College is spearheading are still feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as health restrictions continue to make it difficult to “build trust and to do hands-on work,” as Cunningham put it. Cunningham also noted the ways that the pandemic has created new opportunities for civic engagement.

It has strengthened our audiences for our marquee program, the Solomont Speaker Series, so we have gotten bigger audiences than we have ever had,” she said. “We did our Leadership for Social Change program, which is [for] high school students already recognizing themselves as civic leaders and wanting to begin a process of strengthening their leadership in community with other like minded people. We were able to expand that.”

Kawashima-Ginsberg noted the ways that youth populations stepped up during the pandemic, as young people and college students are a key demographic that Tisch College works with to enhance civic engagement.

We were able to ask questions about how the pandemic itself is letting young people serve in different ways in the community,” she said. “But of course, we highlighted the fact that there’s so many young people that are struggling with mental health issues and how that was exacerbated by loss of employment, financial instability and so on.”

Looking forward, Cunningham mentioned the recent launch of the Generous Listening and Dialogue Center at Tufts, which hopes to “promote authentic connection through dialogue and generous listening, even across differences,” according to the Tisch College website

Cunningham also noted the role of Tisch College in Tufts’ upcoming presidential transition, as University President Anthony Monaco is set to step down from his position in 2023. 

Tufts has always had a focus and a strength in prioritizing civic engagement, and I think that is going to continue to be really important during the transition and onboarding of the new president,” she said. “How do we help make palpable for that person the strengths, the importance and the contributions of Tisch to the overall culture and value proposition of Tufts?

Tisch College is currently nearing the conclusion of the Strategic Plan it developed in 2015, which set a series of goals and commitments for 2016 to 2023 structured around education, research and practice. Strategic planning is in process for the future of the College beyond this framework, and Cunningham is optimistic about the important role that Tisch College will continue to play in addressing essential questions about democracy and civic engagement.

We’re an institution of higher education, and so our greatest contribution is knowledge and preparing the next generation of leadership,” she said. “For us, what is important is remaining connected to people who are frontline changemakers, so that we understand the kinds of questions they’re asking that we can help to inform.

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