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[USR Summit 2022 Post-Event Highlights] Genuine community engagement approaches to avoid university social responsibility failure

(Presented by Prof. Andrew Furco, Professor and Associate Department Chair for the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, Director of the International Center for Research on Community Engagement, University of Minnesota/ Chaired by Dr Grace Ngai, Head of the Service-Learning and Leadership Office, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University)

As more higher education institutions across the globe are jumping on the service learning and community engagement bandwagon to become more socially responsible, Professor Andrew Furco from University of Minnesota shared with universities seven ineffective approaches that may lead to failure of university social responsibility efforts.

The International USR Summit 2022, co-organised by the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), was held virtually from 16 to 18 November 2022 with a theme of “Education and Action for a Sustainable Future”.

Professor Andrew Furco, Professor and Associate Department Chair for the Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development of University of Minnesota, delivered an invited talk entitled “Why University Social Responsibility Efforts Fail: Avoid Ineffective Approaches to Institutionalising Social Responsibility and Service-Learning in Higher Education”. He is also the Director of the International Centre for Research on Community Engagement of University of Minnesota. 

He noted an increased number of service learning courses and community engagement centres on university campuses, and expanding partnerships between universities and the community. “It makes the institution look good and promotes the institutional brand. It’s keeping up with the peers and it’s helping the university rankings,” said Professor Furco. In some situations, community engagement has indeed shifted from a focus on serving mutual benefits to more about the institution’s image.

“In some cases, there is great promotion of university community engagement in the institutional mission, the strategic plans, the websites, the promotional materials, the newsletters,” he cautiously continued, “but when we dig deep into the practices of the institution, we find only superficial attention to the community engagement agenda.” He commented that this superficiality can do much harm to community partners and to the institutions’ ultimate reputation with the community. 

He shared seven ineffective practices of community engagement which are mostly intangible and unnoticeable. Universities need to be highly attentive to them in advancing service learning and community engagement to be fully and truly engaged universities. 

The casting of community engagement as a separate item in institutional strategic plans is the first and foremost ineffective practice according to Professor Furco.

“It is understandable that we would want to give attention to community engagement by giving its own place in the strategic plan,” he said. However, he pointed out that in reality this has unintentionally undermined the capacity of community engagement to be institutionalised as it ultimately gets less attention and investments among other strategic priorities like research and teaching.

He recommended that it would be helpful to embed community engagement into the institutional priorities of a university, to see it as a way to increase greater student access, to conduct research that produces new discoveries and to enhance the institution’s reputation. 

Such institutionalisation also involves policy change. According to Professor Furco, the second practice that should be avoided is to only focus on service learning and community engagement programmes but not on transformation and adaptation of policies. Policies include how student learning is assessed, promotion and tenure policies about how faculty members are rewarded, issues of liability in case a student gets hurt in service learning project, and intellectual property issues when there is co-constructed work between faculty members, students and community partners. 

The third ineffective practice is the lack of codified institutional memory coupled with over-emphasis of an individual leadership as champion of community engagement. “When these champions leave the institution, or they move on and leave their positions, the effort often tends to suffer. Community engagement often gets weakened and sometimes goes away altogether,” he continued, “because that was so-and-so’s programme or agenda, because there’s no one who is interested or prepared to pick up.” 

The high turnover of staff can lead to institutional paralysis on community engagement when there are no written and systematic records of the past action plans and timelines of programme development. 

“Having lofty goals and unrealistic expectations is something that really affects our ability to move forward,” described Professor Furco as the fourth practice that needs attention.  “Something like we’re going to reduce poverty, we’re going to reduce homelessness, we’re going to increase literacy, we’re going to do all of these amazing things,” he added. He reminded that it is important to separate aspirational goals with establishing very realistic goals that can be accomplished and measured.

“Number five is focusing too much on projects and not on partnerships. There are too many projects coming and going, while partners get frustrated to have things started and stopped,” he commented that this leads to a loss of trust with community partners who are looking forward to sustainable partnership. 

To have vertical and horizontal alignment across the institution is the sixth reminder from Professor Furco. While vertical alignment refers to the matching of policies with practices, horizontal alignment minimises duplication of efforts across various units in the university. “What is happening across the institution sometimes is that there’s a lack of horizontal alignment. This impacts the community where different aspects and different units at the institution are coming. It seems like we’re very disorganised in our work. That’s another way for the community to step away,” he further explained. 

According to Professor Furco, while community engagement advances in universities, retaining authenticity throughout the process is the last and the most important point that needs to be always attended to. “When we are not authentic in our work, this affects the trust and the ability to sustain our community partnerships in meaningful ways,” he reminded that only with genuine interest in generating community impact, and honouring community knowledge and expertise of co-constructing work can bring to promotional benefits of universities.

International USR Summit 2022 Plenary Session III: Why University Social Responsibility Efforts Fail: Avoid Ineffective Approaches to Institutionalizing Social Responsibility and Service-Learning in Higher Education
by Prof. Andrew Furco, Professor and Associate Department Chair for the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development; Director of the International Center for Research on Community Engagement, University of Minnesota

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