by Mark McGowan
Knowledge is of no value, Anton Chekov said, unless put into practice.
Engaged universities – NIU included – and their community partners validate Chekov’s words through an active sharing of resources, experience and wisdom that benefits both sides.
Yet there is always more to learn as well as room for improvement.
Bradley Bond, acting dean of the Graduate School, and Lemuel Watson, dean of the College of Education, represented NIU last month at the Engagement Academy for University Leaders.
Held in Roanoke, Va., the workshop was presented by Virginia Tech in association with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities and the Association of Public Land-grant Universities.
“I left the Engagement Academy with a greater understanding of the myriad ways the university can marshal its human capital to work in reciprocal fashion with communities to solve seemingly intractable problems,” Bond said.
“Perhaps most importantly,” he added, “the academy helped me see how individual scholars can contribute through one project to the research, service and teaching missions of the university.”
The conference created empowerment, Watson said.
“Engagement is a simple concept, but it has powerful and lasting effects,” he said.
“In a context of partnership and reciprocity, this collaboration is about groups coming to the table to share. It’s not about ‘the university is coming to fix you,’ ” he added. “It really is a collaboration for research opportunities for faculty and communities, and from that research, a transfer of knowledge to go both ways to enhance how we work together. We share with the community our research and theories. The community teaches us to improve what we do.”
June’s sessions touched on themes of defining engagement, building institutional commitment, developing a responsive infrastructure and involving faculty, students and community members. Participants also learned how to build and sustain community partnerships and discussed the funding of engagement activities.
On the academic side, the academy offered ideas on linking engagement to research and instruction as well as matching engagement strategies to university strategic planning. It also provided models for integrating strategies across the institution, leveraging sources of institutional support and assessing the impact of engagement.
Many universities have committed to engagement and to the philosophies contained in a book titled “Smart Communities,” which was required reading for Bond, Watson and their academy colleagues.
“The question society is asking,” Watson said, “is, ‘What value do institutions of higher education give to society, not only individually but also in our communities and our regions and in the day-to-day lives of people?’ My college is very involved and, knowing my peer deans, all our colleges are very much involved.”
Leaders from other colleges and universities enrolled in the June academy were impressed with NIU’s location and its subsequent opportunities, Watson said.
“We’re involved with a major urban international city. We’re positioned on the edge of the suburbs. We can go west and become involved in rural education,” Watson said. “Ours is a setting that gives us all kinds of laboratories to make us effective with multiple kinds of communities. I find that exciting. People find that exciting.”