With September upon us, NIRSA students and professionals find themselves at the start of a new academic year. As a profession of doers, those of us in collegiate recreation are quick to utilize the fresh energy and innovation students and staff bring back to campus with them; we’ll look forward to sharing our newest programs, marketing ideas, and departmental strategies on social media, during educational sessions at regional conferences, and while networking with our campus partners.

However, there is also a less directly visible—but perhaps even more important—initiative NIRSA members need to incorporate into their departments this fall: an emphasis on and promotion of civil discourse and engagement.

Civil discourse is a core principle of higher education

The concept of civil discourse—the ability to have conversations intended to enhance understanding for all involved—is clearly applicable within higher education; A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, the US Department of Education’s commissioned 2011 report, states, “Colleges and universities are among the nation’s most valuable laboratories for civic learning and democratic engagement.” Of course, when the current climate—from pop culture to politics—fosters polarization and the experiences students bring to campus are layered and complex, it can certainly be tempting to leave such concepts inside the classrooms.

Yet classrooms are only one piece of how student experience and learning plays out—and they’re certainly a much smaller piece of the reality they’ll go on to live. The larger issues in our communities cannot be stored like book bags in our facilities’ locker rooms. Campus recreation prides itself on inclusion and student development—both of which are rooted in civil discourse.

Without healthy outlets for working through trying issues, anger and frustrations can manifest themselves on our courts, weight rooms, and study tables. And, because we serve so many students, our facilities serve a broad cross-section of the campus population, which means students may interact with individuals whose identities are different from their own far more regularly within our facilities than in their classrooms. That is a responsibility which presents significant opportunity (see the letter to the editor titled “Push against ignorance” for one such example), especially as working to understand how others think develops students into stronger critical thinkers, leaders, and citizens.

NIRSA leaders are engaging in civil discourse

As members of the NIRSA Assembly, tasked to serve as the think-tank of the profession, it’s essential for us to bring significant issues like these to the forefront. Bringing them forward and engaging in dialogue is one way this broad cross section of volunteers intends to help members of our Association continue to embody our moniker as Leaders in Collegiate Recreation.

Civil discourse was also recently addressed in the statement on equity, diversity, and inclusion issued by the NIRSA Board of Directors. The EDI Commission is actively furthering this discussion through the building of curriculum and resources for NIRSA members. However, civil discourse found a clear fit in NIRSA before that; as a part of our health and wellbeing value, it speaks to multiple aspects of our NIRSA Health and Wellbeing Model. This includes, most directly, intellectual and social health; however, as this holistic model shows, each area overlaps and impacts the others.

Supporting civic engagement is part of the  campus rec professionals’ role

A significant extension of civil discourse is civic engagement. For NIRSA members in the US, this takes on a particular importance this fall with the approaching presidential election. Unfortunately, it is no secret that US voter turnout is significantly low, especially when compared on an international scale. NIRSA members have a responsibility to care for the holistic health of those they serve—and civic health is a part of that.

“NIRSA members have a responsibility to care for the holistic health of those they serve—and civic health is a part of that.”

Not only does exercising one’s right to vote allow them a voice in the shift of power structures that will greatly dictate their environmental, economic, and social health, but, as Crucible Moment points out, increasing students’ civic-mindedness strengthens “their overall capacity to spur local and global economic vitality, social and political well-being, and collective action to address public problems.”

Several NIRSA professionals have shared that students, and even colleagues, have said they won’t vote because they don’t know how to register, or erroneously think it’s too late for them to register. Please take action to show them this is not the case. The first step in doing this is to inform yourself and your staff. Not sure where to start?

  • With geolocation enabled, Google “how to vote” and it will display all of the deadlines and requirements for your area.
  • Voter Registration postmark deadlines vary from 30 days out to just a couple of days before the elections; online you can check out the info for your state.
  • While most campuses have plenty of canvassers with clipboards looking for folks to register, you can also easily register or change your registration
  • Emphasize that every vote actually does matter.

Supporting civil discourse and civic engagement on your campus

Being a part of a campus-wide push for voter registration does not have to mean reinventing the wheel; in fact, this presents a great opportunity to engage and connect with other campus partners. As most institutions will already have voting-related initiatives in place, taking action could simply mean volunteering high traffic areas (such as rec centers or playing fields) to help elevate these resources and messaging.

Additionally, but perhaps most importantly, please recognize and impart onto others that voting is not just about presidential elections. Voting in local elections matters; in fact, it can be argued, the smaller-scale the election, the more directly the results can affect the individual. If your city’s elected mayor, city council, or sheriff don’t represent you, you can’t expect them to suddenly represent your interests later. Similarly, it is through localized change that large-scale transformation is achieved and sustained.

The need for civil engagement has, arguably, never been stronger, and, with it, the skill of civil discourse is not one that can be taken for granted—the stakes are too great for our students, our campuses, and our communities.

  • For more information about how NIRSA is working to develop resources to help members promote civil discourse and civic engagement, please contact a member of the NIRSA Assembly.
Assistant Vice Chancellor of Campus Life at UCLA | NIRSA Profile

Mick Deluca is currently the Assistant Vice Chancellor, Campus Life at UCLA. He is a NIRSA Past President, received the NIRSA Honor Award in 2016, and is the current chair of the NIRSA Honor Award Committee.

Director of Student Life Recreational Sports at The Ohio State University | NIRSA Profile

Don Stenta is currently the Director of Student Life Recreational Sports at The Ohio State University.

Executive Director at | NIRSA Profile

Pam Watts is currently the Executive Director at NIRSA.

The NIRSA Assembly is a forward-thinking leadership group focused on the future of collegiate recreation in “big picture” terms, rather than the daily operations of NIRSA as an organization. Learn more about the NIRSA Assembly or contact one of the Assembly members.