Andrew Furco, who recently co-authored a white paper on the centrality of engagement in higher education for the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (ACLU), spoke to a large audience today at McMaster University on the topic of “Building the Engaged University: Toward a Comprehensive Approach to Community Engagement.” Furco encouraged the audience to participate in campus-community collaborations as part of its answer to the growing criticisms levelled at higher education about being an elite or ivory tower institution. Furco added that community engagement has always been part of the university, though perhaps not recognized explicitly as such, and outlined several benefits of engaged scholarship identified by students, faculty, and institutional leaders in the research literature.
Sponsored by the McMaster Seminar on Higher Education, Furco’s presentation was wide-ranging, but particularly emphatic on the point that community engagement should be conceived as part of an institution-wide strategy that is “intentional and explicit” about its motives and goals. Positive outcomes from community engagement initiatives such as service learning were linked to the development of thoughtful, high-caliber programs, suggesting the need to be wary of essentializing community engagement as an unequivocal good apart from the means by which it is accomplished.
Questions posed by the audience included how to ensure the participation of community voices and the fair exchange of resources in engagement processes, to which Furco replied that the best approach would involve consulting the community itself. Community involvement in university teaching and research should not be an afterthought, but initiated at the beginning stage of any project that seeks to have broad economic, social, and cultural impact and serve the needs of communities and society.
Although general principles and considerations were covered during the presentation, Furco indicated that each institution should engage in long-term processes (approximately 15 years!) to develop its own custom engagement strategy. The complex nature of these processes, and the commitment from all corners the campus to make them work, became very clear throughout the presentation. One important suggestion involved the generation of a critical mass of scholars who share intersecting interests in community-based research, service learning, and community engagement.
Another point I took away from Furco’s talk was that we are just getting the discussion going. It will be important for public and community-oriented scholars not to let economic imperatives (or public relations’ spokespeople) hijack the ethical purpose and mission underlying community engagement. Although some academic disciplines may not have been previously involved in training students and new scholars in community-based practices, all disciplines have something to contribute to an ongoing conversation about what community and public engagement mean for universities, communities, and society at large. For example, what does it mean to say that a particular aspect of research or teaching is “relevant” beyond its contribution to an academic discipline? How will “relevance” (or, specifically, relevance to the community) be defined and assessed, and whose voices are going to be involved in shaping these definitions and criteria?
In part, this conversation will involve shifting the culture of the university, perhaps even creating a new culture. It will require building relationships across the campus as well as inviting current and potential community partners to share their expertise with the “experts.” Within the university, it will mean not only linking centres and programs with common interests and a sense of public purpose, but also providing opportunities for trust and collegiality to develop among faculty members and between students and instructors. This is a monumental task, but one that universities everywhere must be prepared to address.
You may disagree with me, but I feel that being disengaged as a student or faculty member is a distinct privilege of yesterday’s generation, and one that is simply not going to be available to the generations of today or tomorrow. For better or for worse (personally, I think for better), all stakeholders within and outside the university are being called upon to move out of the comfortable corners in which they are ensconced and engage in the risky, uncertain endeavor of working together to reimagine the university for the twenty-first century. If we do not answer the call and let our engagement be guided by a sincere desire to find collective meaning and purpose in the institutions to which we have devoted ourselves, then we may be looking at a future without a place called the university at all. -gp