THE BLOG
10/30/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Engaged Campuses

It was encouraging to read the story about Cornell University's decision to greatly expand its community engagement and to incorporate real world experiences into its curriculum. It was equally refreshing to learn that the Einhorn Charitable Trust is supporting this effort with a $50 million gift.

In making this decision, Cornell joins a number of other institutions that have incorporated community engagement into their very mission. The New American Colleges and Universities, for example, is a consortium of 20 smaller and mid-sized colleges from across the United States, literally from New York to California. Founded in 1995, we are dedicated to the "purposeful integration of liberal education, professional studies, and civic engagement."

Ernest Boyer, who was the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for nearly 20 years and one of the distinguished educators of the past decades, challenged all of us involved in education to recognize the importance of community engagement. As Boyer wrote, "what is needed (for higher education) is not just more programs, but a larger purpose, a larger sense of mission, a larger clarity of direction in the nation's life."

Over the years, the Carnegie Foundation has emphasized the direct connection between that kind of engagement and a sound college education. Two writers for the Foundation observed: "In order to prepare for decision and action in the world, students need to develop not only facility with concepts and critical analysis but also judgment about real situations in all their particularity, ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity.

A model that incorporates community engagement into the very mission of a college serves at least four purposes. First, of course, it provides much needed assistance to the local community. I should note that a word of caution is in order with respect to that assistance. The nature of the service must be determined by the group assisted, not by the students or college. In some instances, community service programs -in a laudable effort to do good--are driven by what the program developers think is needed rather than what the affected community thinks is needed. Such well-meaning paternalism, however, needs to be avoided.

A second goal of the community engagement model is to integrate theory and practice, to connect the academic with the real world. Community engagement emphasizes active learning experiences in which students are involved in internships, service learning, and other forms of experiential education where they have the opportunity to discover how the material they are reading about in the books is applied in the world around them. This kind of active and involved learning allows students to develop a deeper understanding of the classroom material and a greater appreciation for its practical application.

A third purpose or goal of civic engagement is to enable students to reflect on the structural causes of the problems they see in society and to begin thinking about ways to remedy those structural matters. Quite often the service aspect exposes students to issues of poverty, class and race -- issues they may not observe firsthand in their lives before college or even in their lives on college campuses.

One of Nazareth College's teaching goals is to enable students to discover multiple perspectives on problems. In some respects, this is what we mean by developing "critical thinking" skills. A former colleague once observed that good thinking skills give students the ability to get from point A to point B. Critical thinking skills give them the ability to assess whether the journey is worth making. To make that assessment, students need to develop an ability to analyze matters from a range of perspectives. Experience in and with their local and global communities adds to those perspectives, often giving college students opportunities to discover and understand matters relating to poverty and issues affecting people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

A community engagement model serves a fourth purpose as well. Through integration of service and learning, students are instilled with a sense of civic responsibility that allows them to become engaged citizens in their years after college.

We at Nazareth College are a good example of the various efforts around the country to embed community engagement in the very fabric of the institution. Located only 80 miles from Cornell, we are an independent private school with nearly 2,000 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students. Our mission statement clearly states that one of our goals is to "inspire dedication to the ideal of service to their communities. Nazareth seeks students who want to make a difference in their own world and the world around them, and encourages them to develop the understanding, commitment, and confidence to lead fully informed and actively engaged lives." Our core curriculum for all undergraduate students includes a required experiential learning opportunity. Last year, we were one of five institutions in the United States selected as a Presidential Award winner for the 2013 President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. In that year, our students performed 550,000 hours of community service in local, regional and even international communities.

Smaller institutions understand that we may not get the attention that is directed at the major universities, and that is one reason we applaud Cornell's decision. At the end of the day, the important issue is not recognition but rather the emphasis on embedding community engagement at the heart of the academic experience. By joining the schools that have adopted this focus, Cornell will bring attention to the topic and hopefully encourage others to follow. So too, it may encourage foundations to recognize the broad spectrum of schools that are committed to the purposeful integration of community service. Now that a renowned university has decided to emphasize engaged learning, perhaps the Obama administration will reconsider its proposed metrics for evaluating the success of colleges. A metric that focuses on the amount that graduates earn in their first jobs is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Such a metric rewards schools that produce doctors, engineers, lawyers and businessmen. Those of us who educate students for such jobs should not be punished for also educating the next generation of teachers, social workers, nurses and allied health workers. These graduates may not make as much money but they are making a profound difference in the lives of the individuals and communities they serve.

Hopefully, Cornell's decision and the generosity of the Einhorn Charitable Trust will inspire renewed conversations on the value of a model of higher education that focuses on engaged campuses.