The strategic plan for CSL and CBR

In early 2008, President Stephen Toope began the process of revising UBC’s vision and strategic plan so these institutional touchstones would reflect the priorities of his administration. UBC’s scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) revealed areas where the undergraduate experience needed to be improved. In the United States, Community Service Learning had been shown to be an effective method for addressing the kinds of issues NSSE identified. So the President was eager to make the scaling up of Community Service Learning (CSL) one of the strategic priorities in UBC’s new plan.

Scaling up CSL to meet institutional goals

In February, I met with the President and the three Vice-Presidents who were responsible for the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI). The meeting was intended to discuss the opportunities and challenges associated with the advancement of curricular Community Service Learning (CSL) and to give me direction about the role of the Learning Exchange and the UBC-CLI in this effort.

In the briefing note I sent out prior to the meeting I pointed out that the new model for the UBC-CLI was having mixed success. The good news was that the small number of faculty and staff who were working to incorporate CSL into new courses were highly engaged in the process of determining how best to create high-quality CSL experiences. The not-so-good news was that simply providing funds was not always enough. Faculty and staff did not necessarily have the requisite knowledge and skills to engage successfully in the community. Making decisions about course design in collaboration with someone from the community was not standard procedure. Envisioning how a community project or placement could amplify the curriculum was a stretch for some professors. Even imagining how to incorporate reflective thinking, writing, and talking into a course could seem daunting.

During the meeting, the members of the university executive were supportive of the goal of getting more UBC students doing CSL. They did not downplay the challenges. But they seemed confident these could be overcome. The consensus coming out of the meeting was that I should lead a strategic planning process to determine how best to advance CSL at UBC over the next five to seven years.

During this meeting, the question of my succession was raised by the President. He said, “I can imagine you don’t want to keep doing this forever.” I was a bit taken aback to have my own future become a subject of discussion by the executive. But I understood their concern—if UBC’s CSL programs were dependent on my presence for their success, they were vulnerable. The strategic plan was seen as one way to lay the groundwork for my eventual departure, by establishing a navigational chart that would enable UBC to continue the journey without needing me at the helm.

Developing the plan

Being an inveterate planner, I drafted a plan for how I would develop the strategic plan. In order to be as clear and specific as possible, I defined the plan as being concerned with both Community Service Learning (CSL) and Community-Based Research (CBR). As the UBC-CLI explored different ways of engaging students and faculty in the community, we started facilitating research projects that community partners wanted done. So it was important to include this activity in the plan. But I also felt it was important to distinguish CBR from CSL. Although some authors in the field take the position that CBR and CSL are not significantly different, or that CBR is a form of CSL or vice versa, I disagree. I think the two practices are quite different. So I began referring to both CSL and CBR as the activities UBC wanted to expand.

IMG_0592The expansion that was envisioned could not be done simply by doing more of the same. In the 2007-2008 academic year, approximately 1,000 students did CSL or CBR facilitated by the Learning Exchange or the UBC-CLI. If UBC was going to fulfill the existing goal of engaging 10% of students every year in CSL/CBR, this would mean about 4,000 students would be involved. No one expected the number of staff in my operation to quadruple over the next few years. So the question was how to achieve this level of growth without a commensurate growth in budget requirements. The other key question was how to achieve this level of growth without sacrificing quality. The goal was not just to get more students out in the community; the goal was to get more students having profound learning experiences while producing something of value to the community.

For the next 18 months, I discussed these questions with various people involved in UBC’s CSL and CBR activities. I met with Deans and other administrators in the largest undergraduate faculties. I interviewed instructors, including those who were doing CSL or CBR on their own, without support from the UBC-CLI. I conducted interviews and focus groups with students and with representatives of community organizations. My staff and I held workshops with other units at UBC who had been involved in facilitating CSL in the past. Early drafts of the plan were reviewed by about 200 people.

In the spring of 2010, the President and his executive team gave the green light for the strategic plan to be implemented. It was still referred to as a draft to signify that it was open to refinement. But the key elements of the framework had been accepted.

butterfly medUnderlying the plan was the recognition that, in order to achieve the substantial growth envisioned while at the same time strengthening UBC’s capacity for authentic community engagement, significant changes would need to be made, both in university structures and culture. The plan recommended that these changes be based in the recognition that personal relationships are fundamental to the success of community engagement. Therefore the plan proposed that the advancement of CSL and CBR at UBC be grounded in metaphors arising from the fields of biology, ecology, and living systems. This shift away from relying on mechanistic metaphors as thinking devices was something I had been working on since 2007, when I was first introduced to the idea that lessons from the study of complex living systems could be applied to human organizations and groups. The plan argued that metaphors related to complex adaptive systems are highly applicable to the field of Community-University Engagement where change, complexity, and diversity are the norm and the challenge of adapting to both crises and opportunities in the environment needs to be embraced.

The implications of these changes were illustrated by suggesting that the growth of CSL and CBR would not occur primarily through the implementation of top-down institutional policies, but rather that change would occur through the contagious influence of CSL and CBR champions and the creation of fertile conditions for collaboration. Rather than the focus being on programs per se, the unit of concern would be the network of actors engaged in a particular CSL or CBR project or activity. The role of centralized units like the UBC-CLI would be to support networks of students, instructors, and community organizations that are doing curricular CSL and CBR rather than being directly involved in planning and implementing every activity.

Four major goals

The plan identified four major goals that I hoped would provide a solid framework for the advancement of high-quality Community Service Learning and Community-Based Research.

  1. To Enhance Student Learning: CSL and CBR were seen as helping to create an exceptional learning environment that fosters global citizenship for both undergraduate and graduate students. Students would take part in learning experiences in a variety of off-campus community settings that would enable students to apply their talent, knowledge and skills to real-world issues while learning from the people and issues they encountered. These learning experiences were intended to challenge students to reflect on the complexity of community issues and the range of ways that they, as citizens, might respond..

  1. To Contribute to Society: It was hoped that CSL and CBR would make a demonstrable contribution to the advancement of a civil and sustainable society by applying the resources of the university (including people, knowledge, and methods of inquiry) to important community issues, priorities, or needs. The stated aim was to increase the number of students, faculty, staff, and community organizations involved in CSL and CBR. The specific target, carried over from UBC’s Trek 2010 vision, was to have 10% of UBC students involved in CSL and CBR programs every year. But the new plan set a target date for this level of involvement: the 2013-2014 academic year. It was envisioned that 75% of these students would be involved in curricular CSL or CBR. Reaching this target would require substantial growth. Twenty-five percent of students would do co-curricular CSL through the Trek Program or Reading Week or international CSL; this represented a modest degree of growth.

  1. To Collaborate with Community: This goal focused on the need for the university to engage in mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations characterized by the collaborative development, implementation, and evaluation of students’ learning, service, and research experiences.

  1. To Embed CSL and CBR in the Academic Fabric of the University: The fourth goal aimed to ensure that the advancement of CSL and CBR would be grounded in and driven by the faculties, with the UBC-CLI and Learning Exchange providing centralized, integrative support.

The first two goals implied that the reasons for expanding CSL and CBR related to both student learning and societal change. From my point of view, these goals were equally important. The next two goals laid out how the expansion would be achieved: by faculty and community working collaboratively. As with the first two goals, I saw these two as equally important. The plan included suggestions for specific strategies that could lead to the achievement of each of these goals but left it to faculties and departments to determine how they might pursue each goal. Also included were suggested methods of regularly evaluating progress towards the achievement of the goals outlined in the plan.

By the time the plan was complete, it was clear that the model that had emerged within the UBC-CLI was a good fit for UBC. Having the responsibility for the growth of CSL and CBR shared jointly by individual faculties and the UBC-CLI was congruent with the institution’s expectation that academic activities would be primarily driven by the faculties.

But I knew the plan included elements that did not fit with academic culture. I hoped that by making the achievement of demonstrable impacts in the community and authentic collaboration central goals of the plan, the interests, concerns, and potential contributions of community partners would be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. I hoped that by involving so many people in the development of the plan, others would feel a sense of ownership and commitment to its intentions and ideas.

The plan did not contain anything specific about a plan for my succession. But I felt that if the plan’s four goals were really taken to heart and if the living system metaphor was the lens through which the future was viewed, my actual presence would not be essential to the plan’s fulfillment.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to New space, new funds.