"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead

Does the idea of civic engagement blue the lines between education and improving the well-being of our communities and society?

It’s not the university’s responsibility to devise, implement, and maintain social, cultural, or economic programs.  That’s the responsibility of other community institutions.  Members of the university—faculty and students in particular—can bring to the table the information they possess, the knowledge they’ve gained, the skills and tools they’ve developed, the reputation they’ve earned, the perspectives they’ve formed, and the ideas they’ve generated.  But other institutions should set priorities, make decisions, and take action.  The university can provide support for these functions.  But it lacks the authority to perform them itself.  As James Bonnen points out, as a practical matter attempting to perform such functions would place an impossible burden on the university;  it would eventually become little different from government.

To keep its activities within clear and appropriate boundaries, the university should insist that, while the focus of engagement is on addressing public needs and problems, the rationale for this focus is improving learning—by students, by faculty, and by the public.  If learning is the touchstone (as opposed to the focus) of engagement, then the world outside the university’s walls can be seen as a learning environment, just as the classroom or laboratory is.  The special advantage of this environment is that it offers opportunities for the kinds of activity that have the greatest positive impact on learning:  faculty-student interaction, small group discussion, mentoring and advising, peer-group work, team activity, peer tutoring and coaching,[1] and experiential learning outside the institution.[2]

Involving itself in the needs and problems of communities inevitably brings the university into the realm of values, and hence into the world of politics.  As a consequence, the university incurs a risk of alienating people who perceive its activities to be ideologically driven or partisan in nature.[3]  For this reason, the civically engaged university should confine its engagement to activities that rest on a “demonstrable claim to possess knowledge that society is bound, if it is to act prudently and wisely, to take into account.”  (Bonnen, 1998)  Wherever possible, the university’s work with communities should take the form of serving as a catalyst and facilitator—as an independent, unaligned convener of groups. 

[1]  Alan Guskin, “Reducing Student Costs and Enhancing Student Learning:  The University Challenge of the 1990s,

Part I—Restructuring the Administration,” in University-Community Collaborations for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard M. Lerner and Lou Anna K. Simon (New York:  Garland, 1998). 

[2]  James T. Bonnen, “The Land-Grant Idea and the Evolving Outreach University,”  in University-Community Collaborations for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard M. Lerner and Lou Anna K. Simon (New York:  Garland, 1998). 

[3]  Bonnen (“The Land-Grant Idea and the Evolving Outreach University,” 59) says that the risk of university involvement in society’s affairs can be placed on a 7-point continuum ranging from no risk to high risk:

  1. Delivery of research and teaching services (knowledge and know-how) in response to demand.
  2. Objective, neutral identification and evaluation of alternative solutions upon request.
  3. In addition to number 2, organized interaction with decision makers or opinion leaders.
  4. Communication and work with parties to policy issues and political disagreements, but with an attempt to remain objective and neutral.
  5. Private, informal advocacy with decision makers or opinion leaders.
  6. Building new organizations and institutions that make decisions, craft policy, and take action.
  7. Public advocacy of policy and political positions in the public decision making process.

As a rule, Bonnen says, public advocacy (#7) should not be undertaken at all, and private, informal advocacy (#5) should be undertaken only in very special circumstances.  Ibid., 62.

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