U-M, MSU and WSU faculty discuss collaboration on community engagement


Each year thousands of students, staff and faculty from Michigan universities conduct research, provide expertise and supply person power to partner with community organizations throughout the state. In doing so they tackle such issues as poverty, unemployment, educational quality, health disparities and sustainability.

The wins from these relationships: Students gain valuable research and educational experience. Faculty conduct interesting research that could lead to important answers for solving societal problems. Organizations are helped to fulfill their core missions of improving community life for residents.

The individual universities, or departments and programs within them, currently lead most engagement activities, and sometimes a faculty or staff member acting alone organizes them. But what if the three universities that already work together on community initiatives — and other colleges and universities that want to join — could organize such opportunities under one umbrella, increasing their collective reach throughout the state?

This was the discussion at a recent Tri-Campus Provosts’ Seminar on forming a Community Engagement Corridor, intended to initiate a multi-university collaboration among the three universities — U-M, Michigan State and Wayne State — focused on civic engagement, engaged learning and community-based research.

“It would give a unifying, cohesive power to all of our work,” said David Schoem, director of the Michigan Community Scholars program at U-M.

Along with Angela Dillard, director of the LSA Residential College and professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, and Crisca Bierwert, associate director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, Schoem organized the Oct. 22 event, with help from a planning team from the three campuses.

Dillard and Schoem were recipients of a Third Century Initiative Discovery Grant grant to explore the tri-university collaborative. As it approaches its bicentennial, U-M has committed $50 million to the initiative that will develop innovative, multidisciplinary teaching and scholarship approaches.

“The three universities are places that think big, and this Community Engagement Corridor is thinking big,” said U-M Provost Martha Pollack in opening remarks at the Michigan Union. “They are an ambitious set of goals, but they are well aligned with the missions of all three universities.”

A precedent for the collaboration has been set by the University Research Corridor, an alliance between the three universities to transform, strengthen and diversify the state’s economy. Like the URC, the Community Engagement Corridor could build statewide and even global reach, but might focus particular attention on Detroit and the local region.

“What is going, I hope, to be an elaborate, longstanding, good collaboration among us offers a chance for our students to broaden their horizons,” Wayne State Provost Margaret Winters said. “It’s a real step in regional relations in what can be a multifaceted corridor.”

Hiram Fitzgerald, associate provost for University Outreach and Engagement at MSU, said the type of discussion that went on at the seminar is taking place across the world, not only in the United States. 

“There is increasing understanding that complex societal problems everywhere require strong higher education — community partnerships that combine academic and local knowledge to seek sustainable solutions and transformative change,” he said.

The event included a presentation by Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president-elect of Rutgers University’s Newark campus, who recently served as chancellor of Syracuse University. Cantor is a former U-M provost.

She told the group of similar work that has taken place in Syracuse, offering candid observations about how to go about building “a resilient connection between campus and community” in the face of possible resistance.

“It is absolutely critical to these efforts that the full weight of diversity, pedigrees and power be at the table,” she said about building trust in the community. “The most fundamental suspicion about what we do is that we’re here today and gone tomorrow.”

Last week’s discussion was preliminary, intended to explore all the pros and cons of such an alignment and determine next steps. Faculty and staff from each university worked in small groups to share current challenges and opportunities, and discuss how collaboration could impact their work.

Many general themes and questions emerged from the daylong session, including:

• What would be the look of such a collaborative, how hierarchical and where would it be housed?

• How would current information — some in centralized databases, and some not — be organized?

• How would a collaborative build trust in communities where that is difficult to establish now at the individual and program level?

Participants said the seminar was helpful in opening a dialogue about the possibilities, and connecting them with others who have similar goals.

“I think it is a good idea,” said Monita Mungo, program manager for community engagement at WSU. “When David Schoem gathered Craig Regester (U-M), Jeanne Gazel (MSU), myself, and our respective student groups together for collaboration on a community project in Brightmoor almost two years ago, it was with the thought of the community engagement corridor in mind. I think the corridor could increase the impact and sustainability of the work accomplished by each university, especially if we focused on particular geographic locations.”

A committee appointed to steer the project met following the seminar and will bring forward recommendations for next steps, Schoem said. 


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