Real Impact: The Challenges of Community Engagement in Higher Education

Many communities lack the basic civic muscle necessary to form a strong community. Conflict management and decision-making skills seem far and few, and basic political knowledge about our communities and nation, many argue, seem scarce. There are many ways to talk about this problem: for example, Robert Putnam has talked about a decline in social capital, while John McKnight has problematized what he sees as an overly intense focus on individuals’ and communities’ deficits; a problem that undervalues the assets citizens bring to public life. The Kettering Foundation has talked about these problems more broadly as “problems of democracy” that keep democracy from working as it should. For example, there are concerns over too few opportunities for young people to learn the skills required to help strengthen their communities. On this point, the Kettering Foundation has a large collection of publications (see The Civic Spectrum: How Students Become Engaged Citizens) and a strong group of scholars and practitioners concerned with just this problem (see Doing Democracy). Tim Shaffer has been actively working to address both of these areas in his professional career.

Shaffer recently left a position as director of the Center for Leadership and Engagement at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York, to pursue opportunities that are more explicitly connected to democratic and political engagement. He is currently working as educational consultant with the Andrew Goodman Foundation in support of the Vote Everywhere program. He was previously a research associate at the Kettering Foundation while finishing his doctoral dissertation from Cornell University, where he studied education, with a focus on adult and extension education. Tim holds an MA and MPA from the University of Dayton and a BA in theology from St. Bonaventure University. Previously, Tim worked at the Mount Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Retreat. Former KF research assistant Jack Becker sat down to talk with him.

Note: When Tim Shaffer and Jack Becker sat down to talk, Shaffer was the current director of the Center for Leadership and Engagement.

Jack Becker: One of the perennial questions at Kettering is a simple one: why do people get involved in public life? You’ve been engaged in teaching and learning for democracy for quite some time now. Why do you keep coming back?

Tim Shaffer: At the heart of it is my own question that I keep coming back to: how do we live with each other? Or, how do we live well with one another and do a better job at that?

As I think about these questions, I see that my work has revolved around three major areas of thinking and acting: Cooperative Extension, the classroom, and community. A big piece of public life for me is what also keeps me coming back, and that is looking at how citizens understand and wrestle with an issue. This is especially true as it connects to these three areas of practice. For example, the Cooperative Extension Service in the 1930s and 1940s wasn’t just about solving problems, but also concerned about developing community. It wasn’t simply a technical focus on solutions, as so much problem solving has become in that context and others.

For you it sounds like this question revolves primarily around a very human dimension of why we choose to engage each other and how we go about that process. Is that right?

Yes. Wagner is part of the Kettering Foundation’s new centers project. With that, we’re beginning to wrestle, as an institution, with the question: how should we engage the community with an explicit commitment to deliberation? I’ve gotten some pushback at Wagner from a political scientist who asks me, “Why spend time bringing people together to deliberate when we know what the problem is already?” So for example, we were talking about food insecurity around Staten Island, New York. This professor’s position is that we know what the problem is and we can find the right mix of data to solve it. “They don’t need to talk about why there isn’t food. They just want food. There need to be more groceries,” he said. His view is that we don’t need to talk about things, we just need to give people food and solve the problem. That kind of mindset and focus on solutions can be very dismissive of the orientation to engagement that says we first need to have the community talk about this problem in their own terms. This is a fascinating situation where I am confronted and challenged to think about why I do this work and my particular approach.

Can you talk a little about your role at Wagner: What does community engagement look like for students, professors, and the college as a whole?

At Wagner College, I am situated in the Center for Leadership and Engagement. This is a collegewide center and is guided primarily by the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts. The institution’s curriculum is based on the belief that students ideally learn by doing. Within this curriculum, students engage in experiential learning, with a good portion of that being about civic engagement.  Engagement looks like a variety of things at Wagner. Since it is a small liberal arts institution, Wagner’s main focus is on student learning. So for us, engagement is primarily embodied in curricular settings supporting faculty in the First Year Program and Senior Learning Community, both elements of the Wagner Plan. Additionally, the Center for Leadership and Engagement is home to programs that include Bonner Leaders, IMPACT Scholars Civic Network, and a collaborative effort among the Center for Leadership and Engagement, Athletics, and the Center for Academic and Career Engagement—the MOVE program. Engagement also occurs through Wagner’s Port Richmond Partnership, a commitment to support efforts within a community located on Staten Island in New York City, just a few miles away from the campus of Wagner College. The partnership focuses on areas such as educational attainment, immigrant advocacy, health and wellness, economic development, and increasingly the arts.

So when you ask about what engagement looks like, it’s primarily connected to students and faculty around course-based work. But because of the Port Richmond Partnership, engagement for the college is also supported as an institutional commitment and that can sometimes transcend narrowly focused curricular approaches.

One of the oft-cited critiques of university-based community engagement is that it too frequently compartmentalizes different aspects of engagement. How do you think Wagner is fairing in this regard?

Wagner College is recognized for its civic engagement work through The president’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, and it has received the Community Engagement Classification designation from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. I note all of this because the college does have a commitment to civic engagement, but I refer to it as such because I don’t think it’s fully democratic engagement. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one of them is that it pushes the institution, semantically, into a place it doesn’t want to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Wagner is continually growing in its understanding of engagement with the broader community. But that engagement is first and foremost about student learning. Helping to bring about real and substantive change in the Port Richmond community, for example, is an institutional goal. Nevertheless, I think the institution, alongside most colleges and universities, has sidestepped the political dimension of civic engagement. For that reason, I wouldn’t frame what Wagner—or virtually any college or university—has done or is currently doing as “democratic” engagement. And this points to one of the problems in the broadly defined civic engagement movement: what can be expected beyond increased student opportunities and marginal improvements in communities if an institution doesn’t situate its work within a democratic or political framework?

So as I think about civic infrastructure, I think higher education still has quite a bit of work to do to move beyond an inward orientation that is primarily, and understandably, concerned about student learning, experiences, and opportunities. Even when colleges and universities think of themselves as being civically engaged, they still retain much of the infrastructure that they claim to have left behind. By and large, higher education still operates from an expert-model mentality. We bring together select groups of actors to improve communities. To really contribute to civic infrastructure, colleges and universities will need to ask fundamental questions about how they are structured and how they operate—both internally and externally.

You’ve outlined quite the range of activities centered on student learning at Wagner. In 2007, CIRCLE’s “Millennials Talk Politics: A Study of College Student Political Engagement” found that college students were more engaged than any other generation before, but that this engagement “lacks connections to formal politics.” That’s a thought-provoking finding; does it ring true in your work?

By and large I would say that college students, at least at Wagner and from my time at the University of Dayton and Cornell University, are not engaged in politics. There is a view that formal politics is corrupt and undermined by money. In that sense, formal politics is seen as a different set of issues that people are interested in. College students are more often interested in the action piece of it. For example, Port Richmond is a poorer immigrant community, and students want to take action there to improve people’s lives. They want to have an impact. The “disconnect” is that many of the systemic problems of this community have to do with government policy—with formal politics.

But we as educators, and even college students themselves, don’t really talk about this. We keep our hands off it. Underneath much of our action are big questions that do require us to engage elected officials and aspects of representative democracy. But if you’re only functioning at a local threshold, how will we solve these big problems? We need a more honest acknowledgement of the political dimension of this work across the field. If we want to provide services for the local community, that’s fine, but at the same time, if students are not actually engaging the political questions, then we are really missing out on some big questions.

Do you think students and colleges are approaching community engagement with the mindset that they are being more helpful than they really are—or than the people they purport to help believe they are?

I’m hesitant to say. There are these throwaway phrases of “we’re improving people’s lives.” Or, “the community benefited from that.” A lot of this work, across institutions, is still very much centered on student learning and a benefit that creates experiences for students. That’s not inherently bad for institutions that are built around students. But sometimes we can oversell the impact on communities. The contributors to The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning (2009) talked about the challenges that many community members experience when they are cast as partners. There are real constraints to an institution that says, we will help you, but only during the academic year and on a Tuesday afternoon. There is a real challenge to what work we say we’re doing and the actual impact of that work. I think this is something we have to be more honest about. Students and community members need more than a “great experience.”

Jack Becker is a former Kettering Foundation research assistant. He currently works for Denver Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement. He can be reached at Follow him on twitter: @jackabecker