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Universities throughout the world are re-examining their mandates and their ways of achieving them. For some, this means renewing or reinvigorating their covenant to serve the public good by engaging in new ways with their students and communities. The 15th Annual Conference of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium will bring together academics and community members to explore, discuss, debate, and demonstrate why and how both universities and communities are changing. These conversations will be provocative and intense, calling on us to engage our whole selves in an examination of our motives, our rhetoric, and the impacts we are actually having. We will ask ourselves hard questions about what works and what doesn't and what changes we are prepared to make to be more effective. We will think deeply about the theories of change that underlie our efforts and how we are engaging with the change we are experiencing ourselves.
There are many reasons that universities and communities engage with each other: to improve their neighbourhoods, to broaden access to the university, to manage growth and development, to provide meaningful learning opportunities for students, to increase community capacity, to address specific local needs, to enhance quality of life, and to tackle some of the big issues facing us as a society. What changes are we trying to effect? The conference will provide the opportunity to look at those and other reasons that universities and communities choose to work together and the changes both the university and the community are called upon to manage if they are to work together effectively. Through these discussions we will expand our understanding of the scope and potential of university-community engagement.
How we engage?
Community-based research and community service learning are two of the main ways in which universities engage with communities. But universities have a talent pool, intellectual and physical resources, and social capital that can be mobilized to greater advantage. And communities provide more than just the site for carrying out teaching and research. Universities and communities sing, dance, and act together; garden together; address problems together; organize for action together; build communities together; and celebrate together. What changes do we all need to make to realize the full benefit of our capabilities? The conference will provide the opportunity to explore the broad array of means by which universities and communities work together and the changes they have had to make to do so effectively. These discussions will expand our understanding of the richness and diversity of the community-university engagement experience.
What impacts are we having?
University-community engagement is having an impact at many levels but identifying them all is challenging, documenting and tracking them is daunting, and measuring them calls for new metrics. But if these forms of engagement are as promising as many of us believe, we will need to do better at making our case. The conference will provide the opportunity to ask some of the hard questions about the value of university-community engagement, its benefits, its costs, and its intended and unintended consequences; and how to attribute any of those to the engagement activity, itself, and to the concept of university-community more generally. What changes do we need to make to better understand and enhance the impact of our activities? These discussions will expand our understanding of the complexity of invoking university-community engagement as a strategy for both institutions and communities.