The Engaged University – An Invisible Worldwide Revolution

Following is an essay by Dean Rob Hollister about the global civic engagement movement in higher education.

The Engaged University – An Invisible Worldwide Revolution
In ivory towers around the world, something revolutionary is under way: students and faculty, often side by side, are filling in the moat of academic isolation and streaming out the gates to become active players in the life of their communities. This blossoming enthusiasm for engaged citizenship, already familiar at American colleges and universities, is redefining the global relationship between the academy and the public interest – and anyone who cares about social justice, environmental progress, and the eternal tug of war between developing nations and the industrialized world should be very excited indeed.

Negotiating a new compact between the university and society

The dramatic growth of civic engagement in higher education promises benefits that are vitally important to societies around the world, to universities in those societies, and to their students. By capitalizing on the human power and knowledge of their students and professors, engaged universities can directly tackle community problems. Their public service work is not a separate, marginal activity; it is an important part of how professors teach and do research, an essential way that students learn.

When a university is civically and socially engaged, the effects can be huge. Focusing university expertise on improving living conditions in poor areas can make serious headway against social problems. As civic engagement elevates the quality of university teaching and learning, it produces millions of university graduates with both hands-on competence in their fields and a personal commitment to being agents of social change. And increasing public goodwill for universities can make government and private funders more generous in their financial support. As Monica Jimenez de la Jara, President, Catholic University of Temuco in Chile explains, thanks to the engaged university approach, “our students learn more and better, and society benefits from our research.”

A common vision in diverse settings

What does being an “engaged university” mean? In developing countries, university civic engagement means making conscious, directed efforts to alleviate poverty and improve public health. It means declaring and acting on the idea that institutions of higher education have social responsibilities, too. This is a movement that is still in its early stages, characterized by diverse approaches, but also a great deal of common vision – from Methodist University of Piracicaba, Brazil to the University of Havana, from Al-Quds University in Palestine to the University of Haifa in Israel, from An Giang University in Vietnam to the University of Western Sydney in Australia.

The work of Brazilian universities to combat illiteracy illustrates the broad trend. Several years ago Professor Ruth Cardoso, an anthropologist and former First Lady of the country, initiated the National Literacy Project, a network that now involves over 250 universities collaborating to fight illiteracy in the poor northern and northeastern sections of Brazil. In partnership with local government agencies and private corporations that provided essential funding, thousands of university students and faculty have trained residents of poor communities to become local literacy teachers. For the students and professors, the experience has been personally galvanizing. And it has been stunningly effective: to date they have trained and provided follow-up support to more than 20,000 literacy teachers — and those teachers have taught 4 million young adults to read.

In Pakistan, social responsibility is central to the mission of Aga Khan University. Students and faculty staff community development projects across the country. To receive their Bachelor’s degrees, in Mexico all university students must provide 420 hours of Servicio Sociale. Students from the University of Vera Cruz participate in Social Service Brigades, multidisciplinary teams that deliver public health, nutrition and educational services in remote villages. And while they provide this much-needed assistance, they also learn lessons they never could in the classroom.

My own school, Tufts University, has made civic engagement a defining commitment, establishing the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, a university-wide initiative that is preparing students in all fields for lifetimes of active citizenship. At Tufts, future engineers, pediatricians and businesswomen learn the values and skills of community leadership as they monitor water quality, provide health services in poor neighborhoods, and help immigrants start new businesses.

As these examples show, the person power and expertise of university students and professors can be mobilized to create important societal change – while helping students develop as active citizens, community leaders, and mature, self-aware human beings.

Converging factors drive the movement

Five converging factors are driving the global engaged university movement:

  • First, higher education is expanding dramatically. In 2005, the world had 100 million university students, half in developing countries. By 2030, the number will double to 200 million, with most growth in the developing world. Of this huge reservoir of talent for attacking social problems, only a small fraction has been tapped.
  • Second, in the context of immense unmet societal needs, groups outside academia are demanding that institutions of higher education, especially in developing countries, contribute more directly to social and economic development.
  • Third, universities – especially in the developing world — desperately need more financial support, and are eager for new ways to attract public and private funding. They are discovering that more robust community engagement can build such support.
  • Fourth, several countries are directly promoting increased university civic engagement, with requirements that university students perform specified amounts of public service, and new expectations that universities contribute more directly to local development.
  • Fifth, growing numbers of substantial university civic engagement programs are generating mounting evidence that they work. These proven models both inspire and guide new efforts around the globe.

How to promote and expand the engaged university movement

What will it take for this movement to reach its full potential? Many players will have a role: National governments can provide financial incentives – funding university civic engagement programs and requiring that training and research grants more directly improve community conditions. Higher education associations can foster exchange of best practices and reward excellence in this domain. Development assistance agencies, foundations and private corporations can invest, leveraging the human power and knowledge of university students and professors. Higher education accreditation agencies can develop performance measures and establish standards for civic engagement. University students can demand that their schools support high quality service learning programs, can organize new service initiatives, and can launch international networks of collaboration. And universities themselves can build momentum by documenting and measuring both the community benefits and learning outcomes.

These proposed strategies are not fanciful in the least; they are happening already, growing fast in most parts of the globe. As their ranks expand, engaged universities are working together through regional and international networks and associations, such as the Community Higher Education Service Partnerships in South Africa, the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance, and a new national Academy-Community Partnership for Social Change in Israel. Civic engagement is also a popular topic on the conference agendas of groups like the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education.

Perhaps most exciting, university presidents now are making civic engagement a real priority. In the fall of 2005 Tufts University convened an historic first gathering of the heads of 28 universities from 23 countries on six continents. The group drafted the Talloires Declaration, a consensus vision for expanding the international movement for social responsibility in higher education. It declares, in part that “Our institutions recognize that we do not exist in isolation from society, nor from the community in which we are located. Instead, we carry a unique obligation to listen, understand, and contribute to social transformation and development.” This shared belief also led them to launch the Talloires Network, a vehicle for continuing dialogue and action that has attracted many additional members and is organizing a global project to elevate literacy and access to education (www.tufts.edu/talloiresnetwork ).

A second international network, spearheaded by the Council of Europe, reflects and is contributing to the same international movement. Higher education leaders who met in Strasbourg in June 2006 issued a declaration and call to action on Higher Education and Democratic Culture: Citizenship, Human Rights and Civic Responsibility.

Are there obstacles to the full flowering of this movement? Of course. Barriers include the traditional academic culture that assigns lower status to public service activities and applied work, the financial costs of building and maintaining effective community partnerships, the reluctance of foundations and development assistance banks to see universities in developing countries as a good investment for promoting community and economic development, competing demands for resources within universities, and the pressures associated with the extraordinary expansion of universities in countries like China and India. Yet over and over around the world, each of these obstacles can be — and is being – overcome.

A possible future

Will this movement become a major, enduring dimension of higher education or merely an interesting footnote? What should we expect if it continues to grow?

The future of the engaged university movement can yield a future world of inspiring change:

  • Hundreds of institutions of higher education in all nations are deeply involved in their communities, partnering with government agencies and NGOs to build civil society, and promote social and economic development.
  • Students have become the most powerful organizers and communicators in the engaged university movement – using the full power of the internet to disseminate effective strategies, broadcast successes, and analyze the inevitable disappointments. An international network of graduate students of business is performing R&D for the microfinance movement. University students doing social change work have become a virtual global community of active citizens.
  • In local communities, the visible impacts of engaged universities have dramatically boosted public support for higher education, building a shared sense that universities are a smart investment. Even and perhaps especially in struggling nations, civic engagement has built a new rationale for public, foundation and development agency funding of universities.
  • Brokering community partnerships is a greater part of the portfolio and skill set of university leaders. Many exemplify civic engagement in their personal lives. Universities increasingly are good institutional citizens, modeling active citizenship in their institutional policies and practices. They demonstrate social responsibility in how they compensate and treat their lowest paid employees. They purchase materials and supplies so as to maximize local community development. They practice environmental sustainability in their buildings and energy use.
  • In universities around the world, institutional reward systems support excellence in civic engagement, not as a separate category, but as a route to stronger teaching and research. The standards of excellence applied to civic engagement activities are as rigorous as those applied to any other field.
  • Civic engagement and social responsibility are no longer relegated to separate “centers of public service”; they are woven into the ethos and programs of the university as a whole.

The most exciting fact about this future is that it is realistic and attainable. We know it is a practical vision, because it is already happening. Brick by brick around the world, the engaged university is supplanting the ivory tower. With concerted support, this movement can really soar – enhancing the quality of universities’ education and research, multiplying many times what they contribute to their host communities, and building a new compact between the academy and society.