Finding the Purpose of Civic Engagement

Our regional partners from Spain, Chile and Pakistan came to Boston for the Campus Compact 30th anniversary conference at around the same time that we finished preliminary rankings for the 2016 MacJannet Prize for Global Citizenship. At this very interesting cross-section of events, there was one question that both the conference and the various prize nominations threw up: is civic engagement for the sake of recognition good enough? Or should there be a higher purpose to such engagement?

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, in Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: the Battle for World Class Excellence (2011), mentions that due to internalization and normalization of standards used by rankings, universities have begun to conform to standards that will gain them a high ranking, and consequently a larger share of prospective students and institutional funding.

During the Campus Compact Conference, the Talloires Network panel of Lorlene Hoyt, Pilar Aramburuzabala, Gul-e-Zehra Shah and Hector Opazo spoke about the necessity of having civic engagement as one of the criteria in university rankings. At the same time, we read a number of nominations where the general opportunity to work with an NGO over the summer was showcased as “civic engagement.” My question to each of the panelists, was: “If civic engagement is made a part of ranking criteria, is there a danger that some universities may conduct engagement programs only to participate in the rankings, and not out of a genuine feeling of engagement?”

The response varied from cautious to optimistic, but the consensus was that some civic engagement is better than no civic engagement. As Gul Shah put it, universities do almost everything for rankings. Research centers are established, courses are designed, all with the expectations of achieving a high rank. Even if that is the goal, there is a benefit accruing to the community. The real success of a civic engagement program would be if a student who took the service learning course out of syllabus compulsions got interested in the topic and initiated in the process.

Ms. Pilar Aramburuzabala reflected the same optimism, but agreed that there was more to be done than just having a service learning course. She agreed with Gul that a service learning course could be the introductory portal to community engagement for many students. It would give those who had never considered civic service seriously a chance to participate and try it once, and perhaps they would like it, and stay on. While a compulsory course may not be the best available solution, we can only use available tools in the best way. the challenge lays in making the process voluntary and still have many sign on. She cautioned that the compulsory courses must also ensure that they create sensitive and consciousness on the topic of community engagement.

Dr. Hoyt pointed out that there is an enormous advantage of civic engagement happening at the margins. If the process is mainstreamed, and rankings are bound to make them so, civic engagement may cease to flourish in the creative ways it presently exists.

Hector Opazo cautioned against the manner in which civic engagement was measured. One must be cautious about the quality of the indicator, and try not to create a hierarchical list, since differentiation shows inequalities. The aim of including civic engagement in rankings should not be to reinforce existing inequities, but rather to show the position of different universities to create new knowledge.

In the end, it comes down to the responsibility of universities to design and create opportunities for students to give back to society. If service learning courses yield real world benefits to the community, it may in fact be a good option to make the entire student body participate in such projects. If the aim is to only have students do an internship that looks good on their CV, but does not translate into output for the community, the efficacy of the program is severely limited. On the other hand, universities should also create the space for students who want to come up with creative methods of civic engagement. Universities that give student clubs autonomy to decide on their course of action and sanction budgets on the basis of past success are one example of successful facilitators.

While rankings may create aspirational goals for universities, both at the institutional and the individual level, universities should try to inculcate in young adults the value of returning part of their privilege to the society that contributed to their success.