Why should institutions of higher learning immerse themselves in the broader community? The question has been asked since universities were defined as cloisters and ivory towers, anxious to keep pure their quest for knowledge by distancing themselves from the trials and tribulations of the outside world.
Times have changed, even if old habits die hard. There is a growing realisation that community engagement can be helpful and, in certain aspects, essential – not only to a productive and creative academy, but to a resilient and governable world.
For universities, the benefits of engagement are numerous. Work-integrated learning and other community-based programmes enable students to attain practical skills, civic understanding and the sense of achievement that comes from applying academic knowledge in a community context. Students also acquire a better understanding of their employment options and work aptitudes, enabling them to chart educational pathways that are more likely to result in successful and fulfilling careers.
Engagement can be similarly rewarding for faculty researchers, who gain new insight, deeper understanding and the rewards of co-creating knowledge with communities and contributing directly to their betterment. There is no doubting the value of fundamental research, but the best answers usually come in response to the most profound questions – and many of those arise in a real-world setting. And close community connections increase the likelihood of all research outputs finding meaningful application.
Universities also have much to give communities. The world faces a daunting array of social, environmental and political challenges. Income inequality, health crises, climate change: there is no shortage of destabilising influences that require creative, evidence-based decision-making and leadership.
Yet there is a shortage of reliable institutions to which communities can turn for help. Governments are under attack and, in many places, in retreat. At the same time, globalisation and rapid technological change are disrupting and diminishing social infrastructure. Businesses that once sustained communities have become increasingly disconnected – outsourcing and mechanising work, and migrating operations overseas.
The mainstream media, traditionally a dependable platform for public discourse, is also under siege and struggling to survive an internet age that offers a surfeit of information but a relative scarcity of investigative reporting, reliable fact-checking and informed analysis.
Society’s best hope lies with so-called “anchor institutions” that combine long-standing societal connections with enduring capacities to support community development. No institutions are better prepared or more appropriately resourced to play this role than universities.
Universities are already appreciated for the part that we play in building and sustaining communities – from educating workers, entrepreneurs and leaders to producing answers and innovations that increase prosperity, extend sustainability and improve quality of life.
We also have capacities to provide productive spaces for public discourse. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows trust in government officials, business leaders and the media at all-time lows. Academics, however, retain public confidence. Universities are therefore uniquely well positioned to facilitate and inform public dialogue and to help communities develop policies and initiatives that respond to citizens’ needs.
And there is still more that universities can do. A recent paper commissioned by Simon Fraser University and the McConnell Foundation documented a host of underutilised instruments that universities can deploy to build social capital. These include financial instruments such as procurement and investment; physical instruments such as the use of facilities and land; and relational instruments such as harnessing the capacities of employees, data and alumni networks.
Never have universities been more needed, and never have we had more to gain. In addition to the benefits that I have already mentioned, strong community connections help to counter perceptions of universities as elitist bastions. The best way to earn public support – from taxpayers and philanthropists – is to demonstrate our societal value in every way possible.
For all of these reasons, universities such as Simon Fraser have committed ourselves to embracing the trials and addressing the tribulations of the communities we serve. In making an all-out commitment to community engagement, we see the opportunity to create a virtuous circle in which the larger contributions we make are returned many times over in the greater benefits we reap.
Andrew Petter is president and vice-chancellor of Simon Fraser University, Canada. He is speaking this week at the Global University Engagement Summit at the University of Melbourne.