Communities almost always appreciate having a local branch campus of a university or community college. Just the existence of a branch campus has some economic development impact--companies considering locating in a community value having a local institution of higher education--and branches tend to offer more affordable access to courses and programs. However, some branches are perceived as being truly engaged in the life of their community, whereas others seem aloof and relatively unresponsive to needs that are specific to the local environment.
My own thinking about community engagement has evolved over the years. As a faculty member, my views weren't very different from those of my main campus colleagues: I enjoyed teaching and research; I preferred teaching brighter or more advanced students; I had my complaints and areas of satisfaction, but the theme was always about my own career.
As an associate dean, I became much more aware of the obstacles and occasional mistreatment that students experienced, and so I actually became much more student oriented. I also became increasingly involved in the community, and I discovered how enriching that involvement could be. I met exceptionally talented, committed individuals who valued team work and collaboration and who appreciated the need to leverage our time and talent, if we were going to improve the quality of life in our region. I also first began to realize that legitimate educational needs in our communities deserve to be addressed. If my university is unable or unwilling to address a need, then the community has a right to be disappointed and to seek a "better" partner.
These feelings of community responsibility only became stronger, when I served as a campus dean. In my particular town, which had experienced an economic turnaround in the years before I arrived, leaders credited the local branch as having taken a powerful leadership role in the turnaround. The campus was seen as not only responding to requests, but as having brought people together for dialog, listened to new ideas, and designed effective programs that made a difference, especially in the area of workforce development. That, I thought, was impressive and reflected meaningful engagement.
Engagement implies more than simply being responsive to requests for programs or services. It implies coming to the table to listen and understand, then work with partners to co-create programs or other initiatives. A responsive, but perhaps not fully engaged institution might listen and offer solutions to problems that are within its existing programs or competencies, but I believe that deeper engagement with our communities should be the goal.
That said, I have often been frustrated by the number of times there was a perceived need, on my campus or in the community, to which we were not even able to respond. Typically, it was an issue of an academic department--sometimes a single faculty member--declining to make courses or programs available. There also were times that university processes simply didn't allow for a timely response, and there certainly were times when a needed academic option didn't exist at our university.
I've been equally frustrated, when community or business leaders came to me with what amounted to a demand that we provide whatever course or program they happened to want, without regard to whether their objectives and the programs they requested were aligned, not to mention our legitimate concerns for quality or even for adequate sustainable enrollment.
I believe our campuses should be open to new kinds of partnerships, perhaps involving more than one higher education institution. Why shouldn't a local branch offer necessary general education courses, let's say, and another offer the major courses in a program that is helpful to a particular community? Or, why shouldn't a branch provide student support services and, perhaps, selected courses, while facilitating access to online courses from another institution?
More importantly, branch campuses should be encouraged to engage with their communities to increase knowledge about trends, opportunities and threats, and to share their expertise in ways that support community development, enlist community leaders in support of learning experiences, and bring back information on community needs that can guide future program development. With real engagement, maybe even my own frustrations would be misplaced. It wouldn't be about matching our programs with some perceived community need. It would be about creative, innovative partnering to make our communities better places to live and work.
With increasing use of technology and greater expectations of policy makers that institutions of higher education will recognize their responsibility to serve, creative partnerships will distinguish the most highly valued institutions from the tired, aloof places that assumed communities should be grateful just to know that all those smart people are doing whatever it is that they do at colleges and universities. Engagement, going well beyond responsiveness, will strengthen bonds between campuses and community, build strong support for the things that are important to our institutions, and energize faculty and staff who are part of the new initiatives.