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February 11, 2011

keep on TRUCEN

Flying from Boston to Washington: I was in DC briefly today for a meeting of The Research University Civic Engagement Network (TRUCEN): representatives of research-oriented, selective, four-year universities that are trying to work with communities to address public problems and strengthen democracy.

Overall, higher education is a powerful sector. In the United States, it spends $136 billion annually, holds $100 billion in real estate, employs many thousands of individuals, and operates in most communities. "Civic engagement," however you choose to define it, has not been a strong focus for these public or quasi-public institutions. But today the leading engaged universities are contributing at substantial scale.

One category consists of state universities, often Land-Grants, which (by both charter and tradition) operate major public programs other than scholarship and education on their own campuses. Those programs include hospitals and clinics, agricultural extension offices (operating in almost every county of the United States), consulting and training opportunities for adult citizens and organizations, museums, and enrichment programs for k-12 education. One example gives an indication of the scale of this work: the Industrial Extension Service at North Carolina State reports that it "hit its target of $1.0 billion" in impact on local businesses in 2010. Today, many state universities coordinate such programs under the heading of "civic engagement," combining their public service functions with education, research, and partnerships with communities. Many now have either centers or senior administrators, or both, to coordinate civic engagement across their campuses.

Another category (more common at well-endowed private universities) consists of multi-purpose centers that provide specialized courses with community-service components, that sponsor research in and with their local communities, that develop partnerships with local NGOs, and that invite speakers and organize faculty fellowships and seminars. Some of these centers are large: for example, the Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame, which conducts research, education, and outreach related to civic engagement, has about 32 full-time employees.

A third category involves intensive and widespread civic opportunities for students. For example, Duke Engage has funded more than 1,000 Duke undergraduates who conduct individual or small-group projects in Durham, NC, the rest of the state, and 44 other countries. Increasingly, "study abroad" programs are being tied to service objectives. For instance, UConn "emphasizes community engagement through is 200+ Study Abroad programs around the world." At the same time, many TRUCEN campuses have chosen particular local neighborhoods or towns in which to invest heavily.

One factor that works against civic engagement in the TRUCEN campuses is a set of expectations for tenure and promotion that favor abstract, generalizable, methodologically complex research over applied or collaborative research. But many TRUCEN institutions are reforming their expectations. For example, the University of Minnesota now says that "'Scholarly research' must include significant publications and, as appropriate, the development and dissemination by other means of new knowledge, technology, or scientific procedures resulting in innovative products, practices, and ideas of significance and value to society." That definition permits a broader range of research to be rewarded, as long as the research is done well.

February 11, 2011 8:36 PM | category: academia | Comments



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