Community-University Partnerships: Opportunities & Challenges

The renewed focus on the roles universities can and ought to play in fostering civic engagement among students and in the communities where they are located dates to the mid-1990s.  One outgrowth of this renewed focus has been the increasing attention paid to Community-University Partnerships (CUPs). CUPs include community-service learning programs, community-based research projects, and a range of other initiatives that aim to put the resources of universities, including the skills of faculty and students, to work in and with community members.   A growing body of literature documents successful CUPs practices and projects, including the challenges they have faced (see the open access journal Gateways:  International Journal of Community Research and Engagement).  While a consensus seems to be emerging around a few points that lead to successful partnership development (e.g., the importance of trust-based relationships, ensuring that the university partner does not position itself as “the expert”) and the opportunities those partnerships can create for all partners, many questions are unresolved.  There is still a great deal of room for shared learning, both for those with a great deal of experience in working with CUPs and those new to the idea.  It is in this spirit of shared learning that we are creating this blog space and invite broad participation.

Each day this week, we will post a new question, starting with broad questions about how universities and communities can effectively engage communities and grassroots groups, going on to explore differences for rural and urban communities and private and public institutions, and closing with a question on how best to capture and share the knowledge we generate in developing these partnerships.  We post a new question each day in the hopes that the posts will be easier to follow, but encourage your comments on all questions over the course of this week and beyond.

Question 1:  How can universities effectively engage in and sustain partnerships with grassroots and other community groups?

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4 thoughts on “Community-University Partnerships: Opportunities & Challenges

  1. It is true that CUPs are gaining traction as a framework to improve the relationship between communities and universities. However, several “network failures” need to be addressed. First, universities are poorly equiped with the appropriate institutional infrastructure to provide support to high impact projects over more than one year. It is easy to carry the day with short term projects but more complex projects require specialized expertise ranging from a simple digital cadastre of community-based projects to compliance with IRB regulations, to intellectual property rights management. Some universites, perhaps the bigger ones, have some of such capabilities, but for the most part colleges and smaller universitieis working in small, mid-size cities or rural areas have no such capacity. They need support doing this–which in the past existed (as in the HUD University Partnerships)– yet such programs have been slowly phased out. Secondly, the technological platforms to support integrated data managment and exchanges to undergear the CUPs are but just starting to grow. Lots of websites are available, but these are mostly demonstrative and descritptive. They do not integrate multiple research, data churning, and spatial characterization tools. Finally, we are lacking a good set of business models for these CUPs, that move beyond the “Ed’s and Med’s”, or that derivate into the debate of financial viability that just talks about “payments-in-lieu-of taxes”. We can do better.

  2. Thank you for this conversation. In my opinion, a critical dialogue on the efficacy (and accessibility) of CUPs is long overdue. I want to push back a bit on the tone of the conversation in its current “university centered” narrative. With respect to concerns such as IRB regulations and intellectual property rights, I am aware that all these constructs are housed tightly (and non-transparently) within the academic institution. My question has less to do with strategies – “how” can ‘we’ (and who is the ‘we’ here? Academics? Professors? Students? What of the ‘community partners’?) navigate these research and fund-based “business” models, but rather who are “we” to set this tone in the first place? My delicate offering is that CUPs are not CUPs without the Community, and too often research partnerships are designed, implemented, tested and measured within the lofty halls of inaccessible academic institutions. If we are to really find a new paradigm, I agree with Ramon Borges-Mendez’s assessment that “we can do better” – but offer, respectfully, that only when the “we” is equally shared ownership of the CUPs paradigm between all partners. As long as funding is drawn up, curricular models are unilaterally designed and administration of partnerships all occur on University Property, we will struggle to break the shackles of the old colonial paradigm. The new era has emerged – the great radical shift for CUPs in the 21st century is a truly Participatory Action Research model, or at least an Engaged Research paradigm where community partners sit in the conference rooms of the academic units designing the partnerships from the get-go. Keeping partners engaged, as co-designers, co-owners and co-evaluators of these CUPs ensures their sustainability. Community partners, we are reminded, are far more enduring than their very temporary student partners; best we place the partners at the center of this conversation from the start. Afterwards, they can join in any dialogues about business models, IRB regulations, etc.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond!

    1. Thank you for the replies, and for the thoughtful critique. I agree with many of the points both Ramon and Brent made. At the same time, it’s important that we (“we” being everyone involved in community partnerships) understand that there are real institutional constraints to making partnerships effective. Most universities try to “protect” junior faculty from doing community-engaged work, because that work is often not valued in the tenure process. Participatory Action Research is highly valued in some fields, but shunned in others.

      To push Brent’s point even further, why do community partners need to sit in conference rooms at universities to discuss engaged research? Why can’t- or don’t – researchers go to them?

  3. Two things have been important for allowing partnerships between community groups and my university.

    The first is that we university people view our community partners as intellectual and social peers. That does not mean we hang out together socially, but our community partners are fully involved in project definition, data collection and analysis, and report writing. Generally we only get involved in a project when community partners take the lead in defining what the project is. I talked about this in an NVSQ publication as “transparent research”.

    There are two payoffs on the university end. The first is that we want to produce quality internships and research experiences for students and we are pretty insistent that our community partners provide these. Second, we do not worry a whole lot about publications but these tend to come along at their own pace. Maybe this is possible because I’m senior faculty. More important, I think, my central intellectual focus is on the organization of communities so things constantly are coming along that I can write about.

    The second important aspect of partnering is that the faculty who are involved have to commit to being around for a substantial period of time. One aspect has to do with staying put in your university and being out and around in your community over a span of years. The other thing we emphasize to community partners is that we will be around—we often commit to a five-year presence. We want community partners to believe that we have the technical skills they might expect to find in high quality consultants but unlike consultants we will be present and be accountable for our work and we will be there for the highs and the lows of an organization’s experiences.
    One thing these two qualities provide is a history in the community. Not infrequently, we know as much or more about a local community or an organization as those who are presently active. When community leaders realize this, it buys us a lot of credibility and tends to reduce the community inclination to reject us as snobby academics with casual involvements in community projects.

    A second benefit of long-term involvement is that we have “multiplex” community relationships. That is, we tend to have many strong ties with people in a variety of different organizations and at different levels of power. A result is that if a community actor challenges us or wants to reject us, we are likely to have an ally that this community person knows, respects, and perhaps has to be accountable to. That person can speak on our behalf and passive or active resistance quickly turns to cooperation.

    Carl Milofsky
    Department of Sociology and Anthropology
    Bucknell University
    Lewisburg, PA 17837

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