President's Office

2014 Faculty Retreat Address

2014 Faculty Retreat

Why Engage with the Community? What’s Wrong with an Ivory Tower?

Dianne F. Harrison, Ph.D.
President, California State University, Northridge
Monday, January 13, 2014

(prepared text for remarks)


Introduction by Faculty President Steven Stepanek

Thank you, Steven.

I am happy to be here today. Provost Harry Hellenbrand wanted me to talk about “closing the loop,” or using assessment results to make continuous improvements. We have to do it – for even professional accreditors and WASC (and, yes, they are coming back in the form of an interim report). So CTL – “Close the Loop.”

So this is my second CSUN Faculty Retreat. Last year I challenged you to a tablet initiative. This year I want to challenge you to a community engagement based research initiative.

I was pleased to see the theme of this year’s Faculty Retreat – “Community Engagement” – because this is such a very important topic for CSUN – pertinent for both faculty and students and for the communities we currently and potentially serve.

It is a significant topic for higher education in general.

Involving students in community service is a high impact practice that increases engagement, increases learning, increases retention rates, and increases the likelihood of graduation.

Doing all we can in this area is an appropriate component of our unrelenting focus on student success, which is my first and highest priority as CSUN’s president. Doing all we can in this area is an essential component in the successful fulfillment of the university’s mission.

At national meetings that I attend, community engagement for universities, students, and faculty is a topic that is frequently on the agenda and frequently discussed. It has been an important topic for some time, and it is becoming even more prominent.

The title of my talk this morning, therefore, is “Why Engage with the Community? What’s Wrong with an Ivory Tower?” I hope to thoroughly convince you that engaging with the community – and offering meaningful opportunities for our students to engage with the community – brings enormous benefit. Assuming, of course, that you all are not already convinced of the value. If you are, great – this is easy.

Community engagement or service learning was introduced into schools and universities on the premise that volunteer efforts would “do good” for communities and society. But just as important, community engagement activities were introduced into schools and universities on the premise that students would experience academic gains from their volunteering efforts.

Current research indicates that much can be derived from using volunteer work for educational purposes.

In some of the seminal and most cited work on the topic, researcher Diane Hedin concluded in 1989, 25 years ago, that perhaps the biggest problem for students is lack of motivation – or boredom. She asserted that boredom is probably a function of what seems for many students to be “an unfathomable gap” between the curriculum and their everyday lives.

She concluded that community service learning provides the critical missing link for many students.

It is an opportunity to apply academic learning to real human needs and problems, and to make the knowledge that students gain in the classroom, “usable in one’s thinking beyond the situation in which the learning occurred.”

Most important, by making learning come alive, service learning or community engagement provides students with the motivation to put effort into their learning – something we all love to see students do.

It gives students the opportunity to integrate and elaborate on their knowledge. It increases the likelihood that students will transfer theoretical knowledge into actual and meaningful practice.

At CSUN, we already do a lot. This is an area in which CSUN already shines. We are regularly recognized by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and named to the annual President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

For 2013, we were named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll with Distinction!

For those of you who are not familiar, this Honor Roll is the highest Federal recognition a university can receive for volunteering and civic engagement.

Universities are chosen based on the scope and innovation of service projects, the percentage of student participation in service activities, and the extent to which the university offers academic service-learning courses.

One reason CSUN was recognized with this honor is our more than 140 courses that incorporate service learning.

To all of you who include service learning and community-based projects in your classes – bravo, and thank you! Your work and the work of your students have a huge positive effect on this region.

Your work makes CSUN shine.

And it’s not just work we do through the classroom. An example cited by the Honor Roll for CSUN is our Valley Trauma Center, which does significant and important work on behalf of victims of violence in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita Valleys.

The Honor Roll also noted student volunteerism – regular blood drives and bone marrow drives for the American Red Cross, and the annual food and clothing drive held by the CSUN student-volunteer group United We Service. Most recently, our A.S. spearheaded an effort to raise funds for the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines.

Civic and community engagement is a shared charge and a shared responsibility for both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. It happens both in the classroom and in co-curricular activities.

Our NSSE results – that, is National Survey of Student Engagement – tell a similar story. This year’s report, which we received in November, show CSUN seniors indicating far above average compared with comparison CSU campuses that they had participated in high impact educational experiences, including service learning and research with faculty, as well as learning communities, internships, study abroad, and culminating experiences. These are called “high impact” practices by NSSE because they are known to have positive associations with student learning and retention.

First-year students are much less likely to indicate they have yet had these experiences, but CSUN’s first-year students showed a higher participation than first-year students in the CSU as a whole, and they were far above the average in indicating that they had “connected their learning to societal problems or issues” and “used numerical information to examine a real-world problem or issue.” I would have to venture that the work of Cheryl Spector and our Freshman Common Reading selection, Garbology by Edward Humes, will contribute to these results in the future. If you didn’t attend the Freshman Showcase, you should.

I was pleased to see that, among other gains and benefits of their education, CSUN seniors reported high perceived gains in their ability to think critically and analytically, acquisition of job- and work-related knowledge and skills, development of a personal code of values and ethics, ability to solve complex real-world problems, and being an informed and active citizen.

CSUN is also cited by Washington Monthly’s “2013 College Rankings” as one of the leading master’s universities in the nation in the area of service learning.

For purposes of comparison, CSUN was ranked as #24 nationally in “community service participation and hours served.”

You might be interested to know how the other CSUs ranked –among those that are similarly sized, Cal State Fullerton was #45 and CSU Long Beach was #140.

A few others, some of which are quite a lot smaller in terms of enrollment – CSU Dominguez Hills was #137, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was #143, Cal State LA was #155, Stanislaus was #183, Humboldt State was #209, San Bernardino was #260, and Sacramento State was #272.

So, at #24, we do quite well! But we aren’t at the top - Fresno State was #15.

Don’t misunderstand – I am very proud of all the great work we do and how we engage our students in the community. And I am most pleased with how our students benefit.

I’m sure that many others at this retreat will point out various ways in which students benefit from service learning and community engagement. I want to briefly review with you the perspectives of some of the national higher education organizations.

For example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (or AAC&U), which has taken an active role in investigating what characteristics employers look for in college graduates. What AAC&U has learned reflects the value of community engagement and service learning.

It turns out there is remarkable agreement among employers about the learning outcomes that college graduates need. These include, of course, skills and competencies in critical thinking, problem solving, ethical decision making, and intercultural communication. In fact, more than 90 percent of employers said that these skills and competencies are more important than an undergraduate’s major.

It also turns out, these skills and competencies align perfectly with outcomes associated with service learning and community engagement.

A recent report titled, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future – written at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Education by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement – finds that all types of civic learning, including service learning, are complementary, not competitive, with learning in traditional academic disciplines.

Most important, they find that students who participate in service learning are more likely to:

  • Persist in college and complete their degrees;
  • Obtain skills valued by employers; and
  • Develop habits of social responsibility and civic participation.

In other words, students who participate in service learning are more likely to complete their formal education and, when they do, they benefit more from it. They are more likely to become members of the educated and highly employable workforce. They are the engaged citizens and civic leaders of tomorrow. They are the people who upon graduation will make a positive difference in their communities, professions, and society.
Service learning is not something to do because maybe it would be nice, or if there is time, or only if a student has an interest. There is unquestionable value for every student.

So, as I said, I am very proud of the good work we do here at CSUN. I appreciate how brightly CSUN shines, and the recognition we have received for your work.

But as with anything that is worthwhile – and especially as with anything that has so much positive benefit for students, for their motivation and learning, and for their future success as professionals and citizens – I would like to suggest that we kick it up a notch.

And more than wanting us to do more, I believe that we can.

Referring again to A Crucible Moment – the study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education – the study’s authors call on the higher education community to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority for all of higher education. The authors make the case that the beneficiaries of such learning are not only students and higher education, although the benefits there are great.

Rather, the authors argue, the more civic-oriented that colleges and universities become, the greater their overall capacity to spur local and global economic vitality; to foster and further social and political well-being; and to prompt collective action to address public problems. Community engagement by universities is one of the many ways – and an important way – that higher education benefits society as a whole and makes the world a better place.

Today, however, as the report cites, on a national basis, a robust approach to service learning is provided to only a minority of students. As such, higher education’s potential civic impact is limited. We have the potential for greater contributions. During the last academic year, 1,894 CSUN students participated in courses identified by Institutional Research as “service learning,” for a total of approximately 5,863 student credit hours. This is not to be confused with community service. Our community service hours are commendable and a much higher number as those hours also include volunteering, internships and field placements. It is reported by some that our students engage in approximately 1.5 million hours of community service. Our “service learning” hours, however, represent only 5 percent of our students in any academic year. Thank you, Joyce Burstein and other faculty who have been involved.

Again, I am pleased that we do more than many schools and that a large number of our students have this experience. But I do think we can do better.

To do more requires deep commitment, across the university. To do more requires commitment among the faculty who are on the front lines. It is you, the faculty, who have a direct influence, who have the capability to provide students with service learning and community engagement opportunities.

What a timely event that the faculty here at CSUN has chosen “Community Engagement” as the retreat theme!

So now I would like to offer a suggestion.

One way, and I think a very good way, for CSUN to increase our community engagement and service learning activity and enhance our “public good” value, is to think of it as a way to also advance other priorities – specifically our focus on student success, which is the university’s mission and the university’s promise; and our priority of increasing research, scholarship, and creative activity, and in particular undergraduate student participation in this work.

In the university’s summary planning document, “CSUN Shines for the Next Decade: Planning and Priorities as an Engaged Institution,” the narrative describing our number one university priority – an unrelenting focus on student success.

We state in the document that we will engage students through quality academic programs and engagement in learning, including offering opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students to engage in research (as well as internships and other hands-on learning).

In my view – as I hope many of you already know and as I hope all of you will agree – our most important efforts are those that improve the quality educational experience for students. Community engagement is a very effective way to do that. Community service allows students to apply what they have learned in the classroom into real-world experiences.

In developing the curricula needed to prepare 21st century graduates and citizens, we know about the importance of hands-on learning. Community-based learning is a vehicle for such learning, especially when there are research and problem-solving components. We can benefit both students and communities through service learning that provides opportunities for students to learn by doing, and to test ideas and help solve or quantify community problems.

Also in the university’s summary planning document, in discussing our university priority of increasing research activity, we state that basic and applied research is an essential part of the university’s mission. This includes community-based research.

(For some of you, particularly those of our faculty in the arts and humanities, when I say “research,” please know that the term is meant to include the creative activity of your field.)

As CSUN’s president, I want to ensure that research and creative activity is an integral part of the CSUN identity. Research engages the expertise of faculty to address compelling challenges. Research engages the expertise of faculty in their disciplines to address problems facing our region, state, and world, and keeps us current. When involving students, research and creative activity provide for the highest form of educational experience and mentoring. Students receive training as the researchers, innovators, and problem solvers of tomorrow, and we know that students who are involved and work side-by-side with faculty do better academically.

Tying community engagement to research, including community-based research, is beneficial to the university as a whole, beneficial to students, and beneficial to the community partners we seek to serve.

It also offers potential benefit to each faculty member’s own scholarship interests and career. That is, it can be beneficial to you in this room, and I challenge you to think about how your scholarly interests might be incorporated for community-based research involving your students. I challenge you, too, to think about how you might involve undergraduate students as well as graduate students.

I challenge departments and colleges – faculty, department chairs, and deans – to include in your RTP criteria, research and creative activity (both funded and unfunded, including community-engaged research), and involve undergraduate students in these efforts. These are activities we value and want to support. They enhance teaching, student experiences and learning, and the public good we bring to our communities.

I was recently inspired when I learned that Cleveland State University has elevated both service learning and undergraduate student research experiences. Cleveland State requires that every service learning project must have a research component. For CSUN, as for Cleveland State, doing so merges two needs – greater community engagement and greater student participation in research – both of which have positive impact on student learning, which is of course our number one priority and the mission of our university.

At the most recent national meeting of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), other universities spoke about doing the same – if not requiring that all service learning have a research component, at least encouraging more of this type of synergistic learning.

And in A Crucible Moment, there is a call for reciprocal community engagement, where colleges and universities and their faculty and students work together with communities to identify assets and solve public problems. In other words, community-based research.

Such learning opportunities – which would include volunteerism, service learning, community-based research, and other forms of learning through community engagement – would be infused across students’ educational experiences over time in a developmental arc.

And such learning opportunities are applicable in all fields. Civic-minded faculty members in any and all disciplines can raise questions and identify problems that impact communities in relation to their fields.

Faculty members can assume an important leadership role in channeling the volunteer energy of students into opportunities to explore real-world issues and identify potential solutions through research.
Using their disciplinary and interdisciplinary lenses, faculty committed to civic-minded scholarship can provide the means to deepen students’ knowledge, spark their curiosity, and increase students’ abilities to investigate lines of inquiry, problem-solve, and prepare reports and provide feedback to community stakeholders. Students can expand their e-portfolios, and faculty can expand their own and their students’ research activity.

According to A Crucible Moment, all such activity is part of an important trend toward civic-minded or community-minded scholarship. This type of scholarship and research often also integrates diversity and global perspectives.

Using active learning pedagogies such as community-based research, civic-oriented faculty members are often practitioners of what AAC&U calls the “Principles of Excellence.”

  • Such faculty members teach the arts of inquiry and innovation – that is, research;
  • They engage in the “big questions”;
  • They help students to connect knowledge with choices and action;
  • They foster civic, intercultural, and ethical learning; and
  • They assess students’ ability to apply learning to complex problems.

Academic disciplines and majors can play a key role. Every disciplinary area can examine civic questions, dilemmas, and public purposes relevant to that field. And faculty who offer service learning opportunities can tie those opportunities to research. Hopefully our colleges will tie these experiences and activities back to their RTP criteria so they are officially valued and rewarded.

In the book, Citizenship across the Curriculum, authors Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings note that while some may see community engagement as pertinent primarily to certain disciplines, “to those who see preparation for citizenship as a goal of undergraduate education, the possibilities…expand.”

Their book explores fields ranging from communications to math to literature, and more, showing how different disciplines can explore civic issues. All of these issues call for research – which can be student research, led and mentored by faculty – to help answer questions, seek effective solutions, and create informed decisions.

I also want to mention that there are national civic networks focused on such research and scholarship, and these can be tapped.

  • The Research University Civic Engagement Network (TRUCEN) is a faculty-oriented civic network. It is comprised of scholars and directors of civic centers at research universities.
  • Project Pericles (which typically involves smaller institutions) sustains a network of colleges and universities, “committed to including social responsibility and participatory citizenship as essential elements of their educational programs.”
  • Another is Imagining America, which defines its mission as “animating and strengthening the public and civic purposes of humanities, arts, and design through mutually beneficial campus-community partnerships that advance demographic scholarship and practice.”

I want to close by saying that I am excited about this program that the Faculty Senate Retreat Committee has put together for your next two days, and by the session proposals that many in this room have submitted and will soon be presenting. I encourage you to take advantage of this time with colleagues across disciplines to connect, listen, learn, and contribute.

I hope you will leave the Retreat inspired to engage your students with service and the community, including community-based research. I hope too that the idea of connecting service learning with a research component will inspire your professional creativity – I hope it will help you to see opportunities to train your students as the next generation of researchers and problem solvers in our society; and I hope it will help to illuminate opportunities to further your own research and scholarship by engaging yourself and your agendas into community issues and concerns.

I hope you will consider making community engagement via student research a part of every major. Incorporate it into existing classes, perhaps. We can do this – we owe it to our communities and we owe it to our students.

(Open floor to questions)