From Community Engagement to Public Impact

If writing op-ed pieces for newspapers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe is  considered public engagement, why isn’t that considered community engagement as well? Shouldn’t community engagement be part of public engagement?

From an institutional perspective, does community engagement require that campuses be active in their local “host” communities, or would communities in cities across the state, country, and around the world count? What are the goals of this engagement? What if your students are from the targeted community? Is the goal to benefit your students, faculty members, community, or a combination of the three?

For many institutions, the goal is engagement rather than impact.

When I Googled “Office of Community Engagement,” my first hits were higher-ed institutions. For example:

  • Community Engagement fosters, encourages, and promotes student, faculty, and staff involvement within local and global communities.
  • The mission of the Office of Community Engagement is to facilitate the use of university resources to support existing partnerships and engage new partners to contribute to the educational, social, and economic progress of the community, region, and state.”
  • The Office of Community Engagement is focused on identifying strategic priorities, facilitating collaboration between college and community, challenging academic departments, and encouraging faculty to use their teaching and research in focused ways to serve a larger community.”

It is is pretty obvious that we use the term loosely.

A quick search of “Office of Public Engagement” brought me to the White House. The first higher-ed institution I encountered yielded the following:

  • What is Public Engagement? At the University of X, it’s the partnership of university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility;address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good.

In these statements, “engaging with the community” implies a social-justice mission that focuses on serving those who are in need and makes the assumption that our students and faculty members are not from or part of that community. “Engaging with the public,” on the other hand, seems like we mean business and that we are aware that this will affect our students and faculty in profound ways.

If we want to take community engagement seriously, we need to think about impact. It can’t just be a list of programs illustrating that we “engaged” with and “served” the community. If community engagement does not contribute to the public good, then why are we doing it? And why doesn’t every institution have an office of public engagement? Does the Office of Community Engagement exist merely to appease the host community and to smooth town-gown relationships? Perhaps it is there to  make up for the fact that your students riot and destroy the city during Red Sox season.

What if we brought community and public engagement together and rewarded faculty for doing both? Not just as a token appreciation but where it counts, as points towards tenure.

What if we got serious about engagement and required impact—from our entire community, not just from our students?

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