Community-University Engagement and its tensions

The University of British Columbia (UBC) Learning Exchange was created because of the university’s commitment to engage in new ways with communities beyond the campus. A (rhetorical at least) commitment to community engagement has become common in universities around the world. Some universities, including UBC, have gone as far as re-framing the traditional “third mission” of universities as not simply being of service to society but as engaging with society—working in partnership with various sectors, including the non-profit sector, government, and the private sector.

The emergence in Canada of the rhetoric of community-university engagement and a range of associated activities such as Community Service Learning (CSL), Community-Based Research (CBR), and the convening of dialogues on issues of concern to the public is the result of several factors. Tight economic times have prompted provincial governments to expect that universities’ activities will benefit society. Similarly, the federal government has re-oriented some of its research funding programs to be more relevant to societal issues.

Canadian universities are hoping increased engagement in the community will also address the problem of student discontent with traditional approaches to teaching. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) had demonstrated by the early 2000s that students in many Canadian universities, especially large, research-oriented institutions, were not getting enough learning opportunities of the kind that have been proven to be effective (e.g., opportunities for hands-on learning or learning in small groups).  In the competitive post-secondary marketplace, many Canadian universities are focusing on improving the student experience by offering more opportunities for community-based experiential learning.

The Scholarship of Engagement

The Canadian post-secondary landscape is also being influenced by academic trends in other jurisdictions. What some refer to as the community-university engagement or engaged scholarship “movement” has become a considerable force, particularly in the United States. This movement draws its inspiration from a reframing of the purposes of higher education proposed by Ernest Boyer in 1990 (Boyer 1990). In addition to the traditional focus on discovering new knowledge through the conduct of original, ground-breaking research, Boyer advocated that the professoriate also focus on the scholarship of integration (the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines or topics), the scholarship of teaching and learning (the study of how learning happens), and the scholarship of application (the application of scientific knowledge to real-world issues). Later, Boyer extended his analysis by advocating that the civic or public purposes of higher education needed to be renewed by a focus on the scholarship of engagement. Here is how Boyer described his vision:

“The scholarship of engagement means connecting the rich resources of the university to our most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems, to our children, to our schools, to our teachers, and to our cities . . . . Campuses would be viewed by both students and professors not only as isolated islands but as staging grounds for action.” (Boyer 1996; 21)

Boyer’s ideas have stimulated a great deal of activity. Campus Compact, a U.S. coalition dedicated to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education through such activities as service learning, boasted a membership of 1200 post-secondary institution Presidents in the 2010s. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has created a classification system that assesses and validates post-secondary institutions’ efforts in relation to community engagement. There are substantial academic literatures related to community engagement and its various manifestations (especially service learning) and a significant number of U.S. conferences and journals focus on this field. International networks promoting community-university engagement have also appeared, some of which argue that these partnerships have the potential to solve such critical problems as environmental sustainability and global economic inequality.

Although “community engagement” has become a common buzzword in the higher education world, it is still a somewhat marginal endeavour in the academy. As such, the predominant discourse in the field has focused on what the activity can accomplish, why it should be considered legitimate academic activity, and how it can be institutionalized in academic structures. Perhaps in an effort to reassure both skeptics and allies, the path to community engagement has mostly been presented as a straightforward, safe, well-traveled road.

But proponents of community engagement in the U.S. have acknowledged that the work is more challenging and complex than the rhetoric might suggest (Furco 2011). By the early part of the 21st Century, leaders in the field had begun ruminating about why the community engagement movement in U.S. higher education seemed to have stalled and what to do about it (Saltmarsh, Hartley, and Clayton 2009) One issue that was identified  was the relative absence of the voices of community partners in the discourse (Cruz and Giles 2000). Similarly, while students’ voices were acknowledged to be important, there was uncertainty about what the inclusion of students’ voices actually meant (Furco 2011). While some efforts were made to include the perspectives of community organizations (e.g., Stoecker, Tryon and Hilgendorf 2009) or students  (e.g., Perkey 2011) in published works or to encourage their participation in events such as conferences, the voices of community partners and students are still not central to the discourse.

The tensions in community-university engagement

In developing the UBC Learning Exchange, I often felt like I was walking a tightrope that was stretched across the chasm between UBC and the Downtown Eastside. External tensions, like the apparent power differentials between these two environments, made me feel like I was just one step away from falling into the abyss.

But there were other, less obvious tensions that became apparent as UBC’s engagement with the community deepened. Some of these tensions are internal; they occur within the people doing the work. This website contains examples of the way these tensions play out. The key tensions are as follows:

  1. Having and not having
  2. Knowing and not knowing
  3. Caring and not caring
  4. Doing and not doing
  5. Exercising power and generating power
  6. Being inside and being outside
  7. Planning and going with the flow
  8. Innovating and institutionalizing.

When you are walking a tightrope and the winds are strong, it is sometimes hard to ride all the forces at work. Sometimes your body/mind responds to changing conditions in ways that cause you to lose your balance. But, as difficult and painful as this can be, it is how we learn.

And, as unwelcome as this observation might be, I think it is actually the exploration of what is at the bottom of the abyss that develops the muscle and the nerve to climb back up on the tightrope. And, if we think of the rope as being our intention to achieve change through skillful collaborations across social distance, it is the tensions I have described that keep the rope taut enough to allow practitioners of community-university engagement to climb onto the rope and make the crossing.

It is the explicit engagement with these tensions, the development of the ability to read their ebb and flow, to learn through experience what happens when you try different moves, that, in my view, is the heart of community-university engagement.

I hope the story and reflections on this website demonstrate that the work of community-university engagement is more problematic (and interesting) than its champions have been admitting. Because this work is dependent on personal relationships that need to bridge social distance, it is suffused with complex and often unhealthy power dynamics. But if the relationships can become characterized by a radical focus on learning rather than knowing, on experiential practice rather than theory, then the work has enormous potential. The development of the capacity for authentic community-university engagement holds the potential to unlock societal resources that are currently under-used and to define a new balance of power between the academy and the community. But practice is the key—rhetoric, research and theory are not enough.

(To read more on the importance of community-university engagement and my views on some specific issues related to community-university engagement, go to The cauldron is community and the archived posts from the blog I wrote for University Affairs in 2012-2013.)


Boyer, E.B. (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Special Report

Boyer, E.B. (1996) The Scholarship of Engagement Journal of Public Service and Outreach Vol 1 No 1

Cruz, N. and Giles, D. (Fall 2000) Where’s the Community in Service-Learning Research? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Special Issue, pp. 28-34.

Furco, A. (2011) Foreword In Problematizing Service Learning: Critical Reflections for Development and Action Stewart, T. and Webster, N. (Eds) Charlotte NC: Information Age Publishing.

Saltmarsh, J., Hartley, M. and Clayton, P. (2009) Democratic Engagement White Paper. New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

Stoecker, R., Tryon, E. A., with Hilgendorf, A. (2009) The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. Temple University Press or Sandy, M. and Holland, B. (2006) Different Worlds and Common Ground: Community Partner Perspectives on Campus-Community Partnerships Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Fall 2006 pp. 30-43.

Perkey, A. (2011) Service Learning: A Student’s Perspective and Review in Problematizing Service Learning: Critical Reflections for Development and Action. Stewart, T. and Webster, N. (Eds) Charlotte NC: Information Age Publishing