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On May 8th and 9th 2014, the Talloires Network at Tufts University invited Lorraine McIlrath to speak on the Community Knowledge Initiative at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI). McIlrath is the founder and director of Campus Engage, a national network to support civic engagement in higher education in Ireland and a regional partner of the Talloires Network. MacIlrath, with more than 15 years experience in service learning and university social responsibility and a graduate degree in conflict resolution, has previously worked with the Citizenship Foundation, UNESCO Center, the British Council and the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA). As principle investigator, she is currently a partner university in the EU Tempus Funded Project called Tawasol to support universities in Jordan and Lebanon.

Lorraine McIlrath at Tufts UniversityBased in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at NUI Galway, the Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) aims to “promote civic engagement through core academic activities, namely teaching, research and service” at all levels of the university culture. The initiative was launched in 2001 and supported by a private grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. CKI Programs include Engaging People in Communities (EPIC), Student Volunteering Initiative (ALIVE), Interdisciplinary Service Learning, and the Youth Academy. At the moment, six full-time staff, five interns, and five faculty representatives from each of NUI’s five colleges support the work of CKI.

McIlrath’s presentation entitled “Community Engagement: Benchmarking and Performance measures: An International Perspective,” covered the history of civic engagement in post-conflict Ireland and new developments in the government for a National Strategy of Higher Education 2030 called the Hunt Report. The purpose of her presentation was to help answer the question, “how do we ethically measure our work?” As a first of its kind, in 2010 McIlrath with CKI colleague Ann Lyons surveyed 24 higher education institutions (HEIs) capturing a baseline to measure changes in university social responsibility. They focused on institutional culture and identity, civic engagement activities, and community-campus partnerships.

Findings from the online survey showed an overall significant support of civic engagement in higher education in Ireland: 75% of respondents indicated moderate to substantial acknowledgement from senior management for the support of civic engagement. However, almost 60% of faculty and staff promotion policies did not take civic engagement into account. Across 9 HEIs, over 160 modules were offered at the undergraduate level, and 32 at graduate level spanning all disciplines. Fifty percent of respondents indicated their institution included community based research and had a diverse range of partners from NGOs and Chambers of Commerce. [1]

Challenges to understanding civic engagement mainly revolve around defining the diversity of activities and identifying stakeholders both within and beyond the university. Though well known, many activities and practices ‘fly under the radar’ and are never accounted for or officially acknowledged as part of the university mission. Others are less supported by administrations due to lack of cost-benefit analysis for civic engagement units and centers. Moreover, such activities are not inclusive within the criteria of hiring and promoting faculty and staff. In fact, a recent survey at a highly recognized engaged university in the US showed that 70% of service-learning courses were taught by part-time, non-tenured faculty.

Recommendations from the survey also draw from the successes of the CKI and the Campus Engage models. Ongoing seed funding being among the most important with designated staff and institutional provisions to build centers for civic engagement. As the need grows to connect the dots, not only between disciplines, but also between institutions locally and globally, universities will continue to create meaningful connections between students and community through their centers for civic engagement, and not as liabilities but as strong assets to the future of the engaged university. [2]

Describing her work as cartographer and puppeteer, McIlrath advocates for ethical assessing and quality review processes of community engagement in order to create appropriate infrastructures. Finding the most useful tools and understanding the social impact beyond simply counting numbers of students is an important aspect of McIlrath’s work. Her idea that universities should have the freedom to articulate their strategic priorities and impact with communities is of equal importance.

A photo album with pictures of Lorraine McIlrath’s two presentations can be viewed here. Learn more about CKI here and watch a 2012 video here, filmed during the 2012 Engagement Australia Next Steps conference, in which McIlrath was the keynote speaker.

[1] Source: Survey of Civic Engagement Activities
[2] Source: Strategies for Advancing Global Trends in University Civic Engagement: the Talloires Network, a Global Coalition of Engaged Universities