Perhaps Change Starts at Home: University Outreach Programs

February 16, 2010

Many university community involvement programs and outreach programs represent the problem I suggested in my first installment, in that they represent much more supply push than demand pull. The theme of this engagement has been at best, “We have a lot to offer the community, so we will invite ourselves in. ” At worst (and my own university has been roundly accused of this), it is “Let’s figure out what we are going to do, then tell them.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, colleges and universities observed the urban blight that surrounded them, and the ambition of engagement looked a lot like gentrification. The economic development work that my own alma mater, Connecticut College, engaged in resulted in one of the more famous court battles of a homeowner fighting eminent domain action. Cities and towns have gotten a lot tougher on their large tax-free residents, and universities have a lot more examples of the good, bad, and ugly in community affairs. A few weeks ago, as a resident of Wellesley, MA, I received a truly remarkable communication from my friend Len Schlesinger, the president of Babson College for the past few years. It was an excellent information piece about what the college is up to, including partnerships with the Olin College of Engineering and Wellesley College, the level of local sourcing they do, facilities and activities open to the community, etc. Public relations, sure, but good information and outreach, absolutely.
Harvard College has engaged in community service through Philips Brooks House for decades. Most universities around the country are not only supporting similar student volunteering initiatives, but have begun to integrate service learning, graduate student projects, etc. into their curricula. Tufts University has gone so far as to make civic engagement a key objective of its degrees. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been encouraging the adoption of best practices by the development of a process to achieve an elective Classification in Community Engagement. Clearly the aim of this initiative and the classification itself is to encourage deep institutional commitment and investment, which is admirable. However, of 49 requests from the foundation for answers or data, there are only 5 that refer to data from or about the community. Only one gets directly at the notion of demand from the community itself, asking, “Does the community have a 'voice' or role for input into institutional or department planning for community engagement?” We can do better. Along with service, we should be equipping students to understand community dynamics, initiative, and leadership and encouraging them to use their skills to help organize and support community initiative. We need to equip the community to figure out how the university can and should be contributing.
I was recently in Puerto Rico chairing a program for graduate students that is a partnership between the Harvard David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the University of Puerto Rico (several examples in this series will come from that trip). Juan Giusti-Cordero, the Executive Director of the Rio Piedras Urban Action Center at UPR, commented that universities may find themselves facing a challenge to their legitimacy when trying to influence high profile and “macro” policies if they are not able to form effective and equitable partnerships in their own backyard. He also noted that the barriers to pursuing such partnerships are often found inside the university, amid the internal politics and potentially conflicting interests of trustees, administration, deans, and faculty. No doubt these are some of the things that the Carnegie Classification hopes to break through, but we still have a long way to go to form true partnerships.
Monday's post: Striking a Balance Between Supply and Demand.

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