Partnerships or Collisions? (Part 1)

This post and the one to follow are linked. This post describes a fictitious scenario involving an encounter between a professor and an executive director of a non-profit agency who want to work together. The next post will offer suggestions for avoiding some of the pitfalls of such encounters so that the vital work of community-university engagement can succeed.

Let’s say I’m a sociology professor at a large, urban university.

“It’s Wednesday and I’ve had a hell of a day. At the end of my early morning class, a student came up to me and burst into tears because she had not received an A on her latest paper. She seemed desperate about what her parents would do in response to this perceived failure. I suggested she come to my office on Friday so we could review her paper in detail. I tried to tell her that a B was a totally acceptable grade, but she seemed inconsolable. Then at the lunchtime departmental meeting, the head asked me to chair the curriculum committee. This is something I’m interested in because I’d like to see our students doing more experiential learning, but I’ve got a journal article and a conference presentation to submit by the end of term, so I was already feeling stretched. I said yes but I don’t know how I’m going to fit this in. After the meeting when I was working on some data analysis, my computer crashed. It’s just too old to handle the software I’m using. I’m going to have to wait a couple of weeks before I can get a new one. Then one of my grad students came by my office and said he was thinking of quitting. I’m not sure he’s capable of delivering a credible dissertation but I haven’t seen enough of his work to pull the plug yet so I did my best to give him a pep talk. If he quits, I’m not sure how I’ll get all the data collected for my big research grant before the renewal deadline.“

Now let’s pretend I’m an executive director (ED) of a medium-sized non-profit agency in a low-income urban neighbourhood.

“It’s Wednesday and I’ve had a hell of a day. At the early morning staff meeting, the simmering conflict between two of my program coordinators boiled over and I had to set aside the agenda to work through the conflict. Halfway through the meeting, the whole team was polarized. I wanted to use the situation as a learning opportunity, to demonstrate how respectful listening can lead to the discovery of common ground and the dissipation of conflict, so I didn’t want to just exercise my authority and shut people down. The team got to a good place eventually, but everyone was pretty drained by the end of the meeting. The big problem is that we didn’t have time to discuss the budget. I have to take the budget to the board on Friday and I was counting on this meeting to get people’s input about some key decisions. As always, we are over-extended and we have to make some contingency plans in case our government grant gets cut or our fundraising goals aren’t met. I don’t like making arbitrary decisions without staff input; it affects the team’s morale, but I don’t have much choice now. When I got back to my office, I found a message from the elementary school principal. The youngest daughter of one of our client families has again told her teacher that her step-father is touching her and scaring her. The ministry investigated a similar claim a year ago and decided it was unfounded. But the girl’s teacher feels she is now showing clear behavioural signs of abuse. The mother doesn’t want her daughter taken into care and she’s standing by her husband, but both the principal and I have a gut feeling the daughter is telling the truth. We talked for an hour trying to decide how to proceed. Then I had to go downtown for a lunch meeting with a potential donor. This man has a lot of money but he seems to think that a gift should buy him the right to tell us how to run our programs. I tried to present a convincing case for the value of our existing approach, but I found myself getting annoyed. I was saved, if you can call it that, by a call from my facilities manager who had discovered a major leak in our hot water heating system. He shut the boiler down but now we’ve got no heat in the building. The team is trying to figure out how to adapt our afternoon programs because we can’t just turn people away. But the building is so badly insulated, it’s already cooling off. I cut the lunch short to go back to the centre to rally the troops before going to my meeting at the university.”

And now let’s imagine I’m a staff member from the university hosting a first meeting of the professor and the executive director to talk about students from the professor’s third year course on social inequality doing a research project to help the ED get a better handle on the needs of the immigrant population in her agency’s catchment area. I’ve met with each of them separately to talk about the possible fit between their interests. The ED arrives a few minutes late, looking harried. She apologizes for being late but says she couldn’t find a place to park and then couldn’t find the building, which didn’t seem to have a sign or address anywhere. We chat for a few minutes and then the professor arrives. I introduce them and ask them each to speak briefly about their interest in immigration and social marginalization. The ED takes five minutes to give an overview of her agency’s services and to outline why she needs better information about newcomers in the neighbourhood. The professor then takes 20 minutes to describe his past and current research on immigrants and their integration into Canadian society. I can see by the ED’s body language that she is getting impatient. She looks at me with eyebrows raised. I interrupt the professor, which seems to annoy him. I ignore his look and suggest that we talk about how the students might be able to collect the data the ED needs. The professor launches into a description of the various research methods available to social scientists. He is using jargon I don’t understand. The ED’s eyes glaze over. We have ten minutes left in our meeting time. I don’t know what to do.

Caricature? Unfortunately, no. The discourse on community-university engagement acknowledges that the university and “the community” are different cultural contexts. The above scenario illustrates some of the ways these cultural differences can play out. In this scenario, there are obvious differences in the intensity of people’s interpersonal relationships, the immediacy of their problems, and the magnitude of their financial pressures. Even their expectations around what a meeting should accomplish and what “brief” means are different. What is amazing is that despite these kinds of cultural differences many campus-community relationships do become productive, harmonious partnerships.  How does the cultural divide get bridged effectively?

Partnerships or Collisions? (Part 2) explores strategies for working with cultural differences between communities and the academy.

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