Community engagement: why bother?

It can be challenging for people from academic institutions to engage with people from external communities. There are cultural distances to cross. For example, there are differences in: propensities for collaboration vs. competition; expectations around the pace of work and time frames for achievement of results; and tolerance for risk, uncertainty or error. In addition, activities such as collaborating with external partners and facilitating students’ work in community settings take time and require skills that are different from those needed for traditional academic roles. The payoffs of community engagement are uncertain and may take a long time to become obvious. So why bother?

I can think of four primary reasons why universities should make the effort to engage with communities. Three of them relate to problems or weaknesses in academic institutions. The fourth relates to problems in society. I know there are people who believe it is impolitic to talk about weaknesses, problems, or challenges. One is supposed to focus on strengths, opportunities, and assets. Generally I agree with this orientation, but I think community engagement is enough of a stretch for academic institutions that only focusing on its positive potential will not motivate its adoption as a strategic priority. Authentic community engagement requires a change in the status quo. For individuals and organizations to be willing to undertake activities that will fundamentally change at least some aspects of their lives, it helps to be motivated by the recognition that first, there is a problem and second, the problem has a solution.

My four reasons for universities and colleges to engage with external communities are:

1. Students need more opportunities for hands-on experiential learning in real-world contexts.

Many Canadian post-secondary institutions are already responding to this problem after studying their NSSE results, attending to research on how learning happens, hearing from employers about graduates’ lack of “soft” skills such as interpersonal, communication, and teamwork skills, and hearing from students themselves about what they want from their post-secondary experience. The growth of community service learning, co-op, and international exchange programs are a result of efforts to enrich classroom learning.

2.  Academic research needs to be more encompassing of the knowledge, experience, and priorities of people in the community.

I am not talking here about the kind of Community-Based Research projects that are done to provide community organizations with information that will help them plan or evaluate programs or make policy decisions. I am talking about the problem with some kinds of academic research being so far removed from the ways in which the issue being investigated plays out in the “real world” that the research is limited in its value. This is a problem especially for some kinds of research in the social and health sciences. Research that aspires to influence public policy, in particular, should be undertaken in collaboration with professionals and citizens who are actively working to address the health or social issue under investigation. Community people have knowledge and experience that can help prevent researchers from going down blind alleys, “discovering” what practitioners already know, or suggesting policy solutions that are not feasible and may even be destructive.

This idea is heresy in some quarters. It is seen as a threat to academic freedom. But I see it as a way to balance academic freedom with academic responsibility, the third reason for community engagement.

3.  Academic institutions need to be more accountable to the public.

Current economic conditions are prompting governments to examine their return on investments. Publicly- funded post-secondary institutions are being challenged to produce evidence of their economic and social value. Responding to calls for increased accountability will require faculty to lift the focus of their gaze and look outward, to recognize the role of academic institutions in society, and to acknowledge that their pay cheques come from somewhere and entail an obligation. The public needs to be acknowledged as a key player in the academic undertaking. Faculty need to be more concerned with whether and how their research findings can be applied to societal problems, whether and how their students are being prepared for lives as responsible citizens, and whether and how their work as academics is contributing to the welfare of others.

4. Academic institutions need to get more involved in the search for solutions to complex societal problems.

This is where the power of authentic community-university engagement really lies. What is needed is effective, coordinated, multi-stakeholder action guided by broad and deep analyses of the causes and conditions that create and sustain particular problems. Too often, important knowledge remains hidden in academia. Too often, governments develop policies without a full understanding of the big picture and without tracking the consequences of their policies. Too often, civil society organizations implement programs without adequate analysis of the underlying problem and careful consideration of how the program will play out. Solving the complex social, environmental, and economic problems we face will require collaborative efforts that are radically inclusive of diverse perspectives and skills. Such collaborations become possible when faculty, staff, and students come to realize that people in community settings have knowledge, experience, and talents that complement their own. They become possible when people in community settings start to trust people from the university. They grow and mature when people from diverse worlds share a passion for a particular vision for change and come to believe that they stand a better chance of achieving that change together than alone.

If academic institutions succeed in responding authentically to these four problems or opportunities, the associated changes will not represent a movement of community engagement from the margins to the centre of academic institutions. They will represent a shifting of the centre of gravity of academic institutions and their faculty members. Making this shift requires more commitment to learning with and from others and less investment in being an expert. It requires greater skill in participatory decision-making and shared governance, going far beyond inviting a few community members to sit on advisory committees. It means balancing the concern for theories, concepts, and data with a focus on creating and sustaining productive relationships.

Can such a significant shift happen? Is it already happening? Or is it too much to ask? Should universities and colleges bother to learn how to effectively engage with communities?

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.