The Exeter Bulletin — Fall 2009
Thomas Ehrlich '52
October 15, 2009
Promoting Student Civic Engagement
Ask Tom Ehrlich '52 how it happened that he has devoted so much of his life to promoting student civic engagement, and he will say that Exeter and non sibi came at just the right time in his life.
Exeter stressed the value of helping others at a time when Ehrlich was transiting from adolescence to adulthood. His parents had also been involved in civic activities and were good role models. After Exeter, Ehrlich was active in political affairs in college and law school, when he was a speechwriter for a Massachusetts governor. Subsequently, several mentors helped make civic engagement an integral part of his identity: Judge Learned Hand, for whom he was a law clerk; his former law professor, U.S. State Department Legal Adviser Abram Chayes, for whom Ehrlich worked as special assistant; and George W. Ball, undersecretary of state, whom he served under in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Ehrlich came to realize that young people who do not have the types of mentors he was fortunate to have often do not make civic work part of their identity. As provost at the University of Pennsylvania, he was committed to promoting student involvement in civic affairs because of his prior experiences as the first head of the Legal Services Corporation, which funds legal help for poor people. Ehrlich spent much of his time in that position urging private lawyers to give some of their time pro bono, but he found that many attorneys were hesitant to work with poor people, especially those with different skin colors. Ehrlich came to Penn convinced that young people need structured opportunities to learn about civic engagement and, in the process, to understand the satisfactions that come with helping others.
By good fortune, Ehrlich's daughter, Elizabeth, was one of the first employees of a new organization, Campus Compact, formed by a few university presidents to promote community service. When Ehrlich left Penn to become president of Indiana University, he joined the Campus Compact board and later became its chair. He also was nominated by George H. Bush to the Commission on National and Community Service, which he chaired. The commission became the Corporation for National Service when President Clinton came into office, and Ehrlich served on its board as well.
When he left Indiana University, these roles laid a strong foundation for Ehrlich to help the California State University System start the first system-wide office for civic engagement and to strengthen community service learning—integrating academic learning and community service through structured reflection—on each campus in the system.
Over the past decade, Ehrlich has been a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where he has been co-author and editor of a series of books on preparing undergraduates for responsible civic engagement. His volumes have been used as core texts by the American Democracy Project, a consortium of some 240 campuses across the country.
His most recent book is Educating for Democracy, which focuses on how college students can learn to be engaged in public policy making and politics, as opposed to individual civic work like cleaning up a park or tutoring a child. Our democracy, Ehrlich argues, requires active citizens who work in their communities on matters of systemic change.
Ehrlich sees the tools of digital media as new ways to link and empower students to be civically engaged. The tools, he says, have the potential to help teachers and students on different campuses join together in common civic learning experiences. But the challenge is how best to utilize the tools to link the students, passions with significant learning opportunities.
— Julie Quinn