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Kecskes2Kevin Kecskes is Associate Vice Provost for Engagement and the Director for Community-University Partnerships at Portland State University.  On May 18-19, PSU will host the International Partnership Institute, organized around the theme of "Reciprocal Partnerships: Transforming Higher Education and Community for the Future."

We spoke with him recently about the background and goals of the Institute, the importance of partnerships, and what institutions around the world can do to strengthen their partnerships.  

TN: Could you provide some background on the International Partnership Institute? What prompted PSU to establish it?  

Being in the civic engagement world is wonderful, but it’s also a challenge.  It’s really incumbent on us to think about what we are doing well at the institution level, but also in the field as a whole.  Our intuition suggests that while this work is certainly growing and deepening, we don’t have it perfect just yet.

Our intuition, our experience, and now recent data based on institutional responses to the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification suggests that higher education does not yet fully understand how to be a great partner community. Partnerships are the foundation of this work, and they’re often taken for granted as we rush forward into the advanced stages: the work itself, evaluation, promotion, dissemination.  What we’re realizing is that if you don’t get the partnership piece right, then the work always remains on shaky foundation.

So we decided that we needed to examine partnerships in a very scholarly way.  We provided a proposal to our Provost… and we were given institutional dollars to start the Partnership Initiative.  There were several pieces to it:

We didn’t want to presume that we knew everything about partnerships, so we held the National Partnership Forum in March 2008.  There were 30 or so select invitees, and we intentionally brought community practitioners and higher education representatives together.  There had been several events that had brought together either one of those two groups, but that was the first time that we really brought the two major constituent groups together to talk about partnerships.  We had excellent representation…. What came out of this was the Guide [to Reciprocal Community-Campus Partnerships, available here]… and that’s where we coined the term “the scholarship of partnerships.” We wanted to take a scholarly approach to find out really what works, from the mechanics to the theory, of higher education partnerships.

Another piece… is an exhaustive literature review on partnerships, and it’s up on our website [available here]….  Scholars from around the world have been attracted to this and have sent their articles to us.  It’s a phenomenal resource for anyone who wants to do any kind of scholarly work around partnerships.

Another piece of PSU’s Partnership Initiative involved inviting Amy Driscoll, Associate Senior Scholar at Carnegie, to conduct an institutional scan of partnerships at PSU. The CAE helped develop a robust list of 30 individuals on campus who really understand partnerships.  It’s a two part study: the first used qualitative methods to conduct interviews and analyze them.  Findings from this initial phase of the study will be presented for the first time at the Institute.  And the second part of the work will be a much broader quantitative survey for PSU faculty.

The interest was so consistently high from the Partnership Initiative activities that we decided to host an institute.  First, we looked for partners at the national and international level who we thought would be interested or were already interested in this work.  We’ve been trying to learn from and learn with our partners about this idea.  We’re finding that many in the Academy don’t understand the mechanics, and we could use some help to really understand partnerships at the institutional level.  

We have over 130 people registered to come [to the Institute], including a team coming from South Africa, Australia and several academic and community partners from Canada.  People are into this, and people get it.  And that’s the most encouraging thing for those of us who have been involved in this work for a long time.

TN: Why did you decide to give the Institute an international focus?

I lived for a dozen years outside the US, mostly in the developing world.  So that’s part of who I am.  And so I understand, from an experiential and scholarly point of view, both the pitfalls and potentials of our globe as we become more globalized.  Many scholars are now arguing that we need to aggressively reform our curriculum and our research practices to take into account that we now live in a very global century.  The emergence of your Network is just one of so many examples of that.

We work with an institute in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.  We also work in China and Japan and Mexico, and the list goes on.  Many of us at PSU have been called to travel to institutions around the world and we have been asked to host people from around the world, because this work is spreading very quickly on a global scale.  Not unlike many institutions in the US, institutions abroad are trying to figure out how best to incorporate community engagement into the curriculum.  It’s hard work.  And so it made sense to offer this institute and to market it at the international level.

It’s time for American higher education, and it’s been time and we acknowledge it now, to really embrace internationalization on many levels, including and especially this work….  There’s certainly a spreading of awareness, so that’s why we took an international approach.

TN: Who is the institute designed for?  Was there a particular constituency in mind?

It was successful for us to bring community partners, higher level administrators—both faculty and staff—and students together for the Forum and that was a unique experience that provided unique insights.  Unlike some events in the past, we didn’t want to segregate those groups.

We have woven our Student Leaders for Service participants into the event.  They’re fantastic student leaders.  Our primary constituents, though, are faculty, higher-level administrators, and community partners, and it should be interesting to policy makers as well.  We have a very interesting panel with four university presidents who are well-known in this field, and each of them is bringing a community partner.  We have a very interactive session planned for that.

TN: What are the primary goals of the Institute?

The Institute has four main goals:
1.    Strengthen collaborations between higher education and community.
2.    Expand the knowledge base of understandings, models, and research of partnerships between higher education and community.
3.    Expand and improve practices of partnerships between higher education and community.
4.    Promote and honor the scholarship of partnerships.

This is from our literature: “Join community partners, faculty, administrators, and students interested in deepening their understandings and related to community-higher education partnerships.  Through a blend of presentations from the field, plenary sessions, and working sessions we will explore strategies to address persistent challenges, analyze promising practices, and examine ways to enhance the study of partnerships.”

We’ve aimed to plan our event to focus on this subject matter in a very substantive way.  We really do have a blend of working sessions… and we really didn’t want to throw a conference.  Instead, we planned a much more active and interactive institute.  Very little of this will be talking heads.  It will be more exploratory and inquiry-based.  We have a couple of keynote addresses planned and a consulting time with local experts with a mix of known leaders in the field and community partners for people who have questions and want to go deeper into the adaptation of practices on their own campuses.  We have two-hour featured sessions with people who have specific insights on emerging themes in the field.  We’ve intentionally included some networking time too.  We didn’t want to reproduce what has already been done, so we wanted to go about it in a way that would really be helpful and additive.

TN: For those people who will not be able to attend, can they expect to have access to any documents after the Institute?

Yes, we will invite all presenters to submit to us all of their formal materials, and we’ll make those available on the website.  So that will be very helpful for people who missed the Institute or who are doing research and want to go deeper into those topics.  We are also exploring the possibility of a book on this topic.

TN: Is there anything else you’d like to share with Talloires Network members about the Institute?

I would hope that what the Institute will spawn is a recognition of, first and foremost, the foundational importance of community- higher education partnerships in every aspect of the university.  In everything from whom we buy our food, what kinds of transportation we support to get our students to and from campus, and certainly the teaching and learning paradigm, whether that’s service-learning, community-based learning, different types of community engagement pedagogies, and research practices….  Recognition of that work is so important, and it has begun to transform higher education and it will continue and must continue to transform higher education.  And a real focus on partnerships will help us realize, at a fundamental level, what things need to change.  This is ultimately about the continued transformation of higher education in a new global century.

TN: What advice do you have for other Talloires Network members that wish to establish or strengthen their partnerships?

This is the advice that I would give to institutional leaders anywhere:
Recognize areas of excellence that already exist on your campus, which is one of those easy starting places that are often missed.

Work with the willing and, at least initially, don’t worry too much about the detractors.  That may be very intuitive, but it’s pretty profound.  A lot of us get stuck on, “What are our detractors going to say about this?  They’re not going to like it.”  Don’t worry about it.  

Spotlight, intentionally and regularly, areas of excellence around community-based work.  That’s what the Talloires Network has done with the MacJannet Prize, for example.  

Probably the most fundamental thing for campuses to remember is to work with the faculty.  There’s a theoretical reason behind that… faculty tend to come and stay at institutions.  Presidents change, students come and go, but faculty tend to stay.  If you are really interested in institutional change, you need to work deeply and regularly and intentionally and respectfully with faculty.  If you spotlight highly engaged faculty, you disseminate information about their work and others will think, “I’m doing similar work, so I should let them know about it.”  Then all of the sudden you find you have an increasing number of community-based projects on campus.  At first, it’s very strategic to find out who’s doing what and to celebrate and expand and deepen that work.  Focusing on students’ great work is also important, but a focus on faculty work is the most important and strategic place to spend much of your time. University leadership is also important—you need to let them know what we’re doing and regularly solicit their input and interaction.

After that, the question is, ‘How do I do that on my campus?’  Institutional and community climate and context really matter.  That makes this work much more creative, innovative, and interactive, as opposed to duplicative.  In other words, you can’t do in place x what we do in Portland the way we do it in Portland.  You need to figure out what you’re going to do in place x that adapts the best practices that we found in Portland.  There are lots of different kinds of institutions, and there are enormous differences between community contexts as well.  The way I’d do things in Detroit, my home town, and the way I do them in Portland are very different.  And when you move into the international theater, the differences are enormous.  That makes this more art than science.  When people recognize that, it can be easier to innovate.  There is no one right way.

Read more about Kevin Kecskes’ background and research on his Civic Engagement Expert profile here:

You can learn more about the International Partnership Institute at Portland State University at this link.  Registration is still open.