Framing Questions: Engagement in Higher Education

At the recent annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, there was a lively discussion about creating engaged students and campuses better connected to local communities. Yet engagement was predominantly defined as an expanded service role, to the point where one faculty member claimed that the “servicification of higher education” has the danger of belittling the “production of knowledge.” Service work, it was noted, is not acknowledged in institutional reward policies and is thus devalued.

 

This kind of discussion about engagement in higher education is indicative of a looming crisis in the engagement movement as it appears to have either been successfully resisted by the dominant cultures of the academy, successfully accommodated by the dominant cultures of the academy so that it is acknowledged without transforming the institution, or it has – through a long difficult process – been institutionalized in a way that has initiated transformational change of the institution. It has echoes of the a 2004 Wingspread conference on the future of engagement in higher education which reached the conclusion that while the engagement movement has created some change, it has also plateaued and requires a more comprehensive effort to ensure lasting commitment and institutional capacity.

 

If engagement in higher education is to emerge more broadly as a core value of the University of the 21st century – as centrally important to the civic mission of higher education and to producing and transmitting new knowledge – what strategic directions are needed? How can scholarly practice help realize the democratic purpose of higher education? What are the institutional commitments that are needed to fostering a citizen politics among students and among academics?

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