Community engagement — so what else is new? Internships, art exhibits, concerts, sports events, student teaching, volunteer work and class projects. All colleges do these things. Is “community engagement” for public higher education a lot of hype that won’t lead to anything new?

Could be, but part of my new job is to get beyond the hype.

Remember the three goals that community engagement in public higher education might help to achieve: maintaining fiscal sustainability, assuring career opportunities for graduates, and strengthening the social fabric.

And remember the resources that public higher education already has: lots of energetic students, knowledgeable faculty and staff, and locations in communities that have many potential and actual willing partners.

The question, therefore, becomes how to put these goals together with these resources for mutual benefit.

I would start with the community partners. All are intent on maintaining, repairing or constructing some part of the social fabric: Maine’s businesses, entrepreneurs, emerging industries, social service agencies, K-12 schools, performing and cultural arts organizations, governments at all levels, community service providers.

Every single one of these groups has more ideas, projects and needs than they can deal with, given the reality of limited time and resources. If they could have a little more help, what more could they do?

Public higher education has those great resources of students, faculty and staff mentors, and location — but how should they be most effectively deployed in our communities?

Rather than one group or the other answering these questions “for” the other, a better way to proceed might be to invite folks from the community and public higher education to talk, share ideas, teach each other about needs and resources, and start some fresh pilot projects. Nothing like starting, getting some data, and refining a plan based on actual experience. (The “ready-fire-aim” principle from those management books.)

But wait — I can just imagine my colleagues in education or nursing or engineering or the arts (either in community organizations or in colleges) speaking in a way that’s unprintable in a family newspaper: “What? We already do this! We have those student teachers! We take those interns! We provide volunteer health services! Bah, humbug. We already know how to do this, and we don’t have to waste any more time talking.”

It’s true. Community partners and public higher education already collaborate widely. But both parties do it without necessarily putting their partnerships at the center of what they do and how they organize themselves to do it.

Speaking only for the public side of things, we can’t afford any longer to treat community engagement as just an add-on to our traditional organization and duties. Because, guess what? We can’t afford the traditional organization and duties any more. We have to make some difficult choices while preserving our values and the unique benefits that higher education provides for our students..

How to choose? We can’t cut our way to excellence assuming that the old model is still OK. (No more “Harvard but cheap.”) We might experiment with putting community engagement at the center of a new model, always keeping in mind the broader goals of higher education. We might find that we operate more efficiently, address the students’ need for jobs, help sustain the social fabric, and through our wider-reaching community partnerships gain more effective public support for public higher education. Or maybe not. Who knows until we try?

Remember, I am not talking about “adding on” to do more community engagement. I am talking about starting to think in a fresh way about how we teach our students, combining the theoretical and the practical in ways that are appropriate for each discipline, and that deeply involve community partners.

Fundamental to this way of thinking is the organizational work that the University of Maine System and each campus are doing to consolidate and deploy resources effectively. But reorganization for efficiency at doing the “same old, same old” may not be enough. Community engagement provides a new organizational possibility.

For example, a particular degree could be offered by one system school, with teachers, mentors and practitioners across the state teaching students and providing internships and other placements. The university campuses in Augusta and Fort Kent are working together on this type of model with nursing. Other examples are possible.

Community practitioners could be more active and acknowledged teaching partners with faculty and staff. Organizations and businesses could get more immediate benefits from “student power.” Resources could be used more effectively. Public support might grow. What’s not to like?

Theodora J. Kalikow is vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Maine System and president emerita of University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]

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