The CHEPS Interview

Interviewer: Harmony Xie He
Interviewee: Paul Benneworth

Harmony Xie Harmony Xie He is studying for a Masters of Public Administration at the University of Southern California, USA. One of her courses is Civic Engagement in Governance, and involves discussing  approaches to civic engagement at different levels of government, both in the United States and other countries, like China. As part of that students have to read a relevant book on civic engagement and interview the editor or author to further their understanding of the topic. Harmony read University Engagement with Socially Excluded Communities by Paul Benneworth, Senior Researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, and this is her interview with him on that topic.  

Q (Harmony): You mention that common interest is important in university engagement, but could you give advice on how to identify common interest between university and community?

A: (Paul): The only way to identify a common interest is through dialogue between the groups, and a genuine dialogue in which both sides are listening to one another. Although it is easy to come up with pious platitudes about how universities are community services, they are also private institutions (even if state funded) who are often concerned with issues much broader in scope than the immediate issues of interest to the community.

The easiest way is where there is a common problem that they can work together to address – see Laura’s chapter about anti-mafia actions around her own university in Sicily – a common enemy makes it easy to find a common interest. But it’s much harder where there is a win-lose situation, and in these situations, it’s common that the university wants to win by driving away the community, or replacing it with a more ‘suitable’ form of community – that’s what sparked the original anti-university movements in Woodlawn, Chicago in the 1960s.

It was only through a hotly-contested struggle that they were able to work together effectively to find ways to make the south side of Chicago a pleasant place for students and residents to live alongside one another (see Webber, 2005).

Q: Will the common interest between a public university and community be similar to that interest between community college and community?

A:The main difference between public universities and community colleges is the extent to which public universities are now managed in ways that see themselves divorced from the places in which they are located. The top (state) universities are competing nationally and globally for faculty, for students, for prestige, for rankings, for sports performances, and so local place for them becomes an arena for them to develop the facilities to allow them to compete in the university arms race.

There’s sometimes a complete desensitivity to the places in which they are located, and in particular to communities that have their own legitimate interests in the locality as a place where they create meaning and value in their lives. That’s not to say that community colleges are somehow more benign, but if you are recruiting from a locality, and at the same time you are trying to purge the locality of its residents, then that’s very bad advertising for you, and you have to be more sensitive to local needs, whereas if you want to demolish a neighbourhood to build a new laboratory to recruit a Nobel prize winner, then the locality does not matter one whit to you.

Q: In your paper, you have mentioned six validations for engagement. For research university like University of Twente, or my graduate school, University of Southern California, if these universities would like to play a very positive role in community engagement, do you think they should focus on enhancing the awareness of social responsibility or focusing on the commitment of students in community affairs?

A: I think it’s useful here to consider university institutional attitudes on a kind of spectrum. At the one end, you have the idea that community engagement is a duty for the institution. You are a state university and so there’s an annual appropriation, and the state representatives want to know what they are getting for their money, so you can say we educate students, we create high-technology businesses, and we support excluded communities.

So the focus in that perspective is on having something identifiable that you can use to sell a message to funders that you are doing well; it may be perfectly well-intentioned, I am not saying that is just about the image, but it’s almost as if community engagement is a separate charitable institution alongside the university that takes little pieces of university activity and uses them to do generally socially useful things.

At the other end of the spectrum, community engagement can be built into the way that the university operates. One way to understand universities is that they are communities of people (faculty, students, adjuncts, sponsors, stakeholders) who are involved in knowledge processes, knowledge creation (research), knowledge transmission (teaching), knowledge application (consultancy, public advice).

Those knowledge processes, as with any process, take inputs, and produce the outputs through a process. It is perfectly possible to organisation a university where external partners are integrated into those processes – Industrial Research Centres for example are a way to structurally integrate corporations into knowledge creation processes.

There’s no reason why you could integrate excluded communities into various knowledge processes in which the university is involved, so your local community becomes a classroom, a laboratory, a market for your knowledge, a source of new insights and ideas.

I don’t want to make a normative point here and say that one of these is better than the other (although there are those that would, particularly in Latin American higher education systems where the basis for their funding has been that you get a degree and then give something back to society in return for the privilege).

But what I can say is that if a university wants to play a positive role in community engagement, then the way to do that from the community perspective is to make sure that you are building community engagement into the core knowledge processes that you undertake as a university.

If you have an interdependence on the community for your knowledge processes, then you will take their interests seriously, you will listen to their interests and their concerns, and then the community engagement you will do will be better. Full stop.

Q: I also believe that university-community engagement is a very effective way to serve the market. But do you think by putting students to intern or work in communities can really help shape a positive image of a university?

A: I am assuming here that by serve the market you mean that it is a good way for universities to meet the needs of their students, and to enrich the overall student experience. In general terms, I’d agree with that. Excluded communities have lots of problems, and thinking with those communities to help themselves solve those problems provides – in principle – a whole host of interesting opportunities that can enrich a student’s experience.

One of the greatest challenges facing contemporary societies is a growing social disconnect and cleavage between different groups, and community engagement can be a very effective way to give students an experience of society that they can draw upon in their future careers.

Q: Or they may exert negative effects on the image of university, if these students are not trained professionally over community engagement before?

A: Hmm, now here you do put your finger on a very important point, in that in the context of growing social divides, community engagement runs the risk of placing students into difficult – and even potentially dangerous – situations that they are ill-equipped to deal with. The kind of hard-core community engagement that you are alluding to, where students are leading the whole process, is unlikely to be something that will ever be for a majority of students.

If a university wants to create the kind of engagement experiences that are valued by the community and public at large (and so have positive image effects) there needs to be is a kind of ecology of student engagement opportunities that is built upon a range of existing contacts between university and communities.

You mention the issue of professionalism, and the foundation of an effective engagement ecology are regular professional contacts between the university and the community, not just at the administrative layer (they can turn into struggles over clearances and zoning) but at the level of researchers and teachers.

Shared projects between universities and communities create a network of relationships between the university and the community that become the kind of safe spaces where students can experience community engagement, learn and reflect on it, and if it is really something for them, then take the steps to equip themselves with the skills to really get something out of it.

But there’s no need for students to engage by getting intimately involved in the community – part of the issue of exclusion is a mental one, and even sensitizing these future leaders to the idea that there are real people live in these places (not just denizens who’ll negatively affect housing prices) is a positive outcome.

I am a geographer, and so I like to teach statistics to my students by getting them to go into a regular neighbourhood and in groups to interview passers-by on their fear of crime (so they have a real feel for data, and what means, averages, errors are etc.).

That’s one kind of community engagement that you can do, but if I was going into a deprived community to do a piece of research, then I’d want a small group, and to be working with people I trusted in the community on a question of common interest, that would be jointly owned with them. So that’s a kind of micro-ecology of how you can use engagement positively and make sure that everyone can benefit from it in some way.

Q: In USA, socially excluded communities are mainly those minority groups, like Chinese and Hispanic groups. Could you give some suggestions on how to combine the interest of minority group with university -community engagement?

A:It’s always very difficult to generalise between country experiences, especially in an area as politically laden as minority groups, where the experiences of minority emancipation have been very different. I think there are definitely interesting experiences to be gained in terms of engagement with indigenous communities from Canada and Australia, and again in Chapter 3 of my book there’s an interesting example of engagement with Aboriginal communities in rural New South Wales.

Q: Do you think we can gain some experience from the successful experience from your country?

A: I am afraid that I don’t really know enough about the micro-dynamics of minority community experiences in the USA to be able to say anything with a great deal of confidence about lessons you can learn from England.

Q: Many thanks for your time Paul, and for your interesting answers!
A: Many thanks for the stimulating answers, Harmony, and good luck with the rest of your studies!


About Paul Benneworth

Paul Benneworth is a Senior Research Associate at the CHEPS. Paul’s research interests relate to the relationships between university and society, particularly focusing on regional engagement, social innovation and policy-making. Paul is an occasional contributor to the LSE Impact blog, and tweets as @heravalue.


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