By Lisa M. Rosellini
Higher education officials this week issued a report they hope will help institutions stay in touch with and respond to the needs of society.
The report, issued by the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, outlines a framework for change that calls for institutions to be more accountable and responsive to community needs. Penn State President Graham B. Spanier chairs the commission, which consists of 27 current and former university presidents.
"Public and land-grant universities sometimes face a growing public perception, fair or unfair, that we are aloof and out of touch, arrogant and out of date," Spanier said. "This report provides a strategy for how we can do better -- by creating engaged institutions that serve our communities and the nation through true partnerships, sharing and reciprocity."
Titled "Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution," the report outlines a plan for reform in the areas of public service and community involvement. The term "engagement" is meant to define not only service, but an overall mission of the university to create more partnerships with its communities, to develop an atmosphere of mutual respect and to make the community's agenda also the institution's agenda. The report highlights profiles of engagement activities from 11 institutions, including Penn State.
"Engagement calls for a redesign of teaching, research and service," Spanier said. "It means that we must transform our thinking so that engagement becomes a priority on every campus. It asks us to respond to the social and economic concerns of the communities we serve, and it also means we must vigorously promote civic and social responsibility among our students."
Spanier said that Penn State already has an outstanding tradition of outreach through its public service, research, extension and teaching programs. The 1997 reorganization of its campus system that created the Commonwealth College was in direct response to the needs expressed by the various communities Penn State serves. In addition, the creation of the World Campus, Penn State's online university, is also an answer to the calls for more accessible education through distance learning. The University also made changes to its faculty promotion and tenure criteria several years ago that reemphasized a requirement for public service and outreach.
"There is scarcely a sector of society where our influence is not felt," Spanier said. "But we need to reach out more to our communities with the special resources we have to offer."
The Kellogg Commission report notes that almost all problems of contemporary America require interdisciplinary solutions -- solutions that can and should come from public institutions of learning. To guide universities and colleges in becoming more committed, the report outlines seven characteristics that define an engaged institution:
1) Responsiveness: Is the university listening to the community?
2) Respect: Encourage joint academic-community definitions of problems, solutions and successes. Respect the skills and capacities of partners.
3) Academic neutrality: Maintain the university's role of neutral facilitator and a source of information.
4) Accessibility: Ensure that the university is accessible to all constituents.
5) Integration: A commitment to interdisciplinary work.
6) Coordination: Are all parts of the university dealing with one another productively? Is help needed to translate expert knowledge into something the public can use?
7) Resource partnerships: Ensure the resources committed to the task are sufficient. Look for partnerships that enhance the available resources.
The report also indicates that one of the major contributions institutions are making is through the development of their students. In turn, student learning will be enhanced through a more thorough involvement with the community, according to the report.
"We need to breathe new life into our traditional mission," Spanier said. "Engagement should be a central part of that mission."
This is the third of six letters to higher education leaders that are being prepared by the Kellogg Commission between 1996 and 2000. The first two reports, "Returning to Our Roots: Student Access" and "Returning to Our Roots: The Student Experience," addressed broad access to higher education and the need for improving the college experience by increasing student involvement.
The entire text of "Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution" is available online at http://www.nasulgc.org
Penn State's involvement with its communities can be seen in the following statements:
-- Penn State research generates nearly 14,000 Pennsylvania jobs annually.
-- Penn State is ranked first among public universities nationally in industry-sponsored research.
-- Penn State educates one of every eight college students in Pennsylvania.
-- Outreach serves more than 5 million people annually. It is the largest outreach effort in American higher education.
-- Cooperative Extension's 4-H youth development programs annually involve 117,000 Pennsylvania youth.
-- The University is creating a new School of Information Sciences and Technology to address the needs of Pennsylvania business.
-- Penn State's continuing education and distance education programs are helping 200,000 people with their educational and training needs.
-- Penn State has provided free technical assistance to more than 20,000 small companies.
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