Need is the Mother of Invention

Teaching community engagement in higher education

Kristin Medlin, MPA, Director of Research, Collaboratory
Emily Janke, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Community and Economic Engagement, and Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The phone rang – it was 3:30pm on a Friday afternoon. It was the call that every postsecondary administrator dreads… someone important asking for information NOW.  This time, it was a representative of our local congressional office requesting data on North Carolina – by county: where had UNCG contributed to healthcare initiatives? We were faced with a frustrating decision – drop everything and try to respond, or apologize and move on?

We knew we had to respond, quickly and comprehensively. While UNCG could articulate at a high level the kinds of work that students, faculty, and staff were engaged in relation to health, more specific information was not routinely collected nor centrally housed. A lot of personal follow up via phone and emails was required to track down the desired information. Other requests required us to call in personal favors, quickly depleting cherished social and political capital.

Shortly after data was collected and reported for this request, a new one came – this time asking for a list of those who were working on the issue of homelessness. Requests were frequent, and varied, as legislators, members of the board of trustees, the media, funders, and even some community leaders have asked for different “slices” of data related to UNCG’s interactions with the community – which also were frequent, varied, and many! We said we did this stuff, but now we had to say what exactly we did. We want to tell our story, but it’s hard to tell it comprehensively and precisely.

You may have noticed it as well at your institution: The number and frequency of requests — both internal and external — for data related to community-institutional activities has grown over the last decade.  Accreditation reports, elective recognitions, systemwide and legislative reports… the need to provide data accurately – and oftentimes quickly — is causing institutions to question how best to collect comprehensive data about contributions to the public and participation in society.  If you say that you are interested in engaging with the community, you are held accountable for data that provides evidence you are accomplishing your goal.

At UNCG we became very aware of the need to track this data when in 2013 a number of requests for data arose:

  • Carnegie Foundations Elective Community Engagement Classification

  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation report (specifically, comprehensive standard, which focuses on community/public service)

  • The President’s National Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll

  • The Washington Center’s Higher Education Civic Engagement Award

  • Campus Compact’s nationwide Annual Survey

  • The Community-University Engagement Awards established by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC), with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

  • And, for us, a major request: The University of North Carolina System established annual reporting requirements across its sixteen campuses to “track progress in community engagement and economic development.”  

In addition to these external requests, our own institutional leaders wanted to better tell the story of how faculty, staff, and students are collaborating with and serving the public. Institutional engagement has become a key interest within offices of university relations, development and advancement, and government relations as they seek to achieve fundraising, public recognition, and fiscal sustainability goals.

We decided there had to be a better way to track this kind of information – to understand at a more comprehensive level who was doing what, where, with whom, and to what end. Our small, two-person office, the Institute for Community and Economic Engagement, within the Office of Research and Economic Development, had strong support from our Vice Chancellor. Having served on the committee for UNCG’s 2009-2014 Strategic Plan, which called for a more intentional institutional focus on community-engaged scholarship, she wisely suggested that if we were to create more strategic partnerships with our community, we first had to know where faculty, staff, and students were already working.

So we began our search for a tool that would help us collect this information. Alas, there was nothing available commercially.  

We also interviewed across campus to understand what kind of data would be beneficial to collect.  We combed various accreditation reports and award announcements to see what was requested.  All along we were daily involved in UNCG’s community engagement and public service, recognizing its expanse, diversity, and outcomes.

All this work pointed us in only one direction! We would have the incredibly challenging – yet exciting – opportunity to create our own tool.  Little did we know that would lead to the creation of Collaboratory …

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