The theme was lofty: True Stories of Engagement: Higher Education for Democracy. But bringing those words to life has not been easy, as became clear when more than 500 university staff and faculty gathered at Campus Compact’s biennial conference in Indianapolis last month to discuss the state of the field of community engagement in higher education.
Two years before, Campus Compact had outlined a set of extraordinarily ambitious goals to transform university culture. Two years later, it has been increasingly clear that the transformation, if it is to occur, will take longer than anticipated.
For the uninitiated, Campus Compact is a national organization dedicated to promoting community engagement by universities. The organization enjoys the support of over 1,000 university presidents. Founded in the mid-1980s, Campus Compact has helped foster a wave of campus activity that increasingly links universities with nonprofits and community groups. When Campus Compact conducted its first member survey in 1986, the organization found that “the overall number of students involved in public service activities…is low.” Thirty years later, in 2016, 99 percent of participating campuses had partnerships with nonprofits and student participation was high. In 31 percent of responding schools, at least a quarter of students had taken at least one community-based course before graduating.
Historically, Campus Compact has heavily promoted service-learning, a form of pedagogy that fuses community work with student learning. In service-learning, faculty organize classes that enable students to work on community-service projects and then write about the work they have done. This work is typically done in partnership with a local sponsoring nonprofit, which hosts the participating student. The partnerships have often been effective both for student learning and community partners.
For example, for over a decade at Syracuse University, Marilyn Higgins directed the Near West Side Initiative. Higgins notes that some of the partnership activities that Syracuse engaged in were truly transformative. Higgins mentions the work of Syracuse professor Sarah McCoubrey, an internationally known watercolorist: “When she gets 30 second graders painting the neighborhood with their art class, they forever think of the neighborhood differently…They see the beauty of it and others care about the beauty. Those kinds of inspired faculty make lasting impacts on people, neighborhood and life.” Another project Higgins mentioned involved a Syracuse professor of writing and rhetoric, Steve Park, and his graduate student, Ben Kuebrich, who worked with residents to create Gifford Street Community Press. The press published an edited volume of stories–written by residents, community workers, and police officers—that provide a powerful vehicle for residents to “communicate with police officers in a new way.”
One could, of course, tell similar stories about many other campuses. There are, literally, thousands of such stories. The problem, however, is that while programmatically Campus Compact and its members have developed thousands of partnerships nationwide, universities have largely fallen short when it comes to the overall mission of promoting democratic practice.
As Campus Compact President Andrew Seligsohn and Vice President for Operations and Strategy Maggie Grove of Campus Compact write, “While the movement for the public purposes of higher education has achieved a great deal over the 30 years since the founding of Campus Compact…it is also the case that the challenge of sustaining the health and strength of democracy has grown more difficult. The dramatic increases in the degree both of political polarization and of economic inequality—factors that separate citizens from each other—mean that colleges and universities must do more to effect positive change in supporting the capacity for citizens to work together to solve public problems and seize public opportunities.”
The organization’s response, formally unveiled at Campus Compact’s 30th anniversary conference two years ago, was to issue a formal call for university campus members to develop Civic Action plans that would shift community engagement from being a program or center to becoming the central purpose of the university. This marked a profound shift in strategic direction, but the statement, developed in concert with its members, has enjoyed broad support. To date, 464 university presidents—nearly half of the organization’s members—have signed on and made five commitments. These commitments were pretty far-reaching. And it is probably fair to surmise that many NPQ readers may be unaware that universities were even attempting such changes. The five central commitments made by signatories were as follows:
We empower our students, faculty, staff, and community partners to co-create mutually respectful partnerships in pursuit of a just, equitable, and sustainable future for communities beyond the campus—nearby and around the world.
We prepare our students for lives of engaged citizenship, with the motivation and capacity to deliberate, act, and lead in pursuit of the public good.
We embrace our responsibilities as place-based institutions, contributing to the health and strength of our communities—economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, and politically.
We harness the capacity of our institutions—through research, teaching, partnerships, and institutional practice—to challenge the prevailing social and economic inequalities that threaten our democratic future.
We foster an environment that consistently affirms the centrality of the public purposes of higher education by setting high expectations for members of the campus community to contribute to their achievement.
But taking on the larger mission implied by such statements as challenging “the prevailing social and economic inequalities that threaten our democratic future” and “contributing to the health and strength of our communities—economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, and politically” is a much taller order than running programs. It means engaging new players and thinking differently about community engagement. Madeline Janis, who directs Jobs to Move America and has worked with institutions like local governments, as well as nonprofit hospitals and universities, to shift purchasing to support local business, notes that for this to work, “There has to be a DNA of responsibility that institutions have to build the economy in a healthier way.”
In the university world, the idea that universities are anchor institutions and should align engagement work with the corporate side of the institutions (e.g., hiring, purchasing, investment, real estate management) has gained a growing number of adherents. Earlier this month, 31 schools announced their intention to form a Higher Education Anchor Mission Initiative.
As the Anchor Institutions Task Force explains, the anchor mission idea is that because institutions such as nonprofit and public universities cannot move, they have a long-term incentive to invest in local communities and to “harness their resources in order to address critical issues such as education, economic opportunity, and health.”
But in Indianapolis, two years after Campus Compact’s Action Statement was released, it was readily apparent that many more universities talk the anchor talk than walk the anchor walk. Clearly, Campus Compact member universities are at many different levels of commitment along the path of transformation that the Action Statement had outlined.
One challenge is simply the need to take on the work. Campuses that signed pledged to complete implementation plans within a year. Had that occurred, at least 400 universities would have plans in place. So far, however, only about 100 have done so. That said, one positive step is that all of the completed plans are publicly available, which means that they can be used as reference points for the remaining campuses who have yet to follow through and complete their plans.
A second challenge is figuring out who should be in on the planning. Campus Compact staff, when advising member campuses, encouraged broad outreach, including having both internal and external contributors incorporated into the core campus planning group. But at the conference, Bob Bringle, a professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), a campus that is widely seen as a leader in the community engagement field, noted that it has become readily apparent that while the idea was to “involve the entire campus who aren’t part of the choir,” in actual practice, the plans were mainly created by community engagement offices, backed by supportive faculty—i.e., the usual suspects.
Bringle based his comment on a survey that he and his colleagues Julie Hatcher and Thomas Hahn had conducted of 61 campuses that had signed the Action Statement, which found most committees were composed of community engagement staff and faculty. Departments such as purchasing and human resources, who might suggest ways to, say, buy more goods from local business or improve hiring and promotion to better achieve diversity, equity and inclusion goals, were largely absent. External representation was also lacking. Only one-in-five committees had a community representative and only one-in-20 had a government representative. Hahn concurred that there was “not the breadth we’d like to see” in the planning committees.
In terms of outcomes, overall, Bringle and his colleagues concluded that the first round of campus action plans had been more of a deepening tool (i.e., deepening the commitment of existing community engagement leaders) than a broadening tool that reach new audiences. That said, at the conference, some schools did report a shift to a more university-wide approach. At Fitchburg State in Massachusetts, attended by roughly 7,000 students, Professor David Weiss said their campus action plan had led to three important results: 1) an engagement in asset mapping, 2) a focus on community and economic development downtown through the development of an entrepreneurship center and a theater, and 3) the creation of an externally facing calendar to make university events more accessible to community members. At Western Michigan, Professor Bryan Gogan noted that his school was one of the few where government officials were actively involved in the drafting of the campus’ civic action plan.
For some campuses, even if the action plan hadn’t been completed, organizational culture had shifted. For example, host campus IUPUI, long a civic engagement leader, is now part of a consortium of nonprofit and public institutions that is partnering with the local chamber of commerce to increase local spending as a way of driving more economic activity into the local community. In Ogden, Utah, Weber State has partnered with nonprofit and public institutions, as well as residents, in work groups focused on health, education and housing—with efforts concentrated on specific low-income census tracts.
At the conference, Julie Hatcher, a professor at IUPUI, placed the results in developmental terms. The process maps the change in higher education from “just service learning” to broader anchor-institution work, she said. “We collectively need to do more.” It was also mentioned, based on past experience with the rise of community engagement programs, that perhaps future rounds of the campus action plan process might lead to greater cultural change over time.
In a sense, then, perhaps the halting university movement to embrace a community-serving mission across the institution is similar to the slow shift in philanthropy to align investments of the corpus of the foundation with grantmaking. After all, the FB Heron Foundation wrote about using mission-related investing (now often called impact investing) to align grantmaking and investments in 2004, but it was only in recent years that we have seen foundations begin to seriously consider the adoption of impact investing as policy.
Last fall, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the University of Rutgers-Newark, noted in an address in South Africa the work ahead. The task, Cantor said, involves moving “from an exclusion mindset about what universities are, a selective mindset, to an inclusive mindset.”