How do we work together and repair an ailing society?–James Madison University: Citizens Forum

How do we work together and repair an ailing society?

James Madison University: Citizens Forum

March 11, 2013

 This week James Madison University is celebrating the inauguration of our sixth president, Mr. Jonathan Alger.  As with any inauguration, there have been multiple activities celebrating JMU and Mr. Alger. To kick off the week, we had a community forum called the “Citizenship Forum,” where three speakers addressed the question: “How do we work together and repair an ailing society?” Each speaker took a different perspective on the question: community engagement, civic engagement, and promoting ethical decision making.

I was asked to address this question from the perspective community engagement, specifically what is the role of a community engaged institution to enhance how we can work together in addressing the issues facing society. I touched on five items: the recent history of engagement (celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act); the definition of community engagement; the question of why do we engage; the question of what community engagement looks like at JMU; and finally how does community engagement assist in helping us work together and take on the challenges facing society?

There are a couple of very cool things about this topic and the other activities going on at this week. The first is that the week and the activities have been built around the importance President Alger has placed on our institution being engaged. And second, these activities are in line with what President Alger sees as our mission of becoming the model of an engaged university.

Recent History:

It seems more than fitting that we should be addressing the question of community engagement so close to the 150th celebration of the Morrill Act.  In terms of recent history of promoting community engagement in higher education, the Morrill Act, which was put forward by Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont and signed by President Lincoln, is a significant milestone.  What Morrill envisioned was to have a “college in every state upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil.” (Morrill Act, 1862) Two very important pieces of this statement are that these institutions were intended to be accessible to the community, therefore engaging the community.  And second, it charges these institutions to reach out to the community and to especially reach out to those who may not be served, in this case the “sons/daughters of toil.”

Directly related to community engagement, Morrill and Lincoln felt that the Morrill Act established what they called Democracy’s Colleges.  As Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, indicated, for the “post-civil war America’s prosperity, these institutions would barn-raise with their communities to create innovation and spread educational opportunity.”


The metaphor of “barn-raising” is a very powerful metaphor when we think about institutions of higher education being community engaged.  What is a barn-raising? It is the collective action of a community, in which a barn for one is assembled collectively by members of the community. Our institutions by being community engaged, by being a Democracy College, works with the community for the common good of all.

Definition of Community Engagement:

Now what does this all this talk about barn-raising have to do with being community engaged institution?  In 2010, James Madison University joined a limited number of higher education institutions as being classified as a Carnegie Community Engaged Institution.  Carnegie defines community engagement as the collaboration between higher education institutions and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.  There are three very important concepts in this definition that differentiate simply doing something “to” or “for” a community to moving to engaging “with” a community.  The first concept is that we must have a mutually beneficial exchange of resources where as partners we not only recognize but honor the expertise and knowledge each partner brings to the table.  Secondly, it must be a partnership, that is the exchange must be of joint interest for all partners.  Finally, we have the concept of reciprocity, the activity must be reciprocal and to the equal and mutual benefit of all parties.

Why do we engage?

A major reason we provide opportunities for community engagement is to enhance the learning of our students.  The Kellogg Foundation recognized the importance of providing community engagement opportunities for our students in their report Returning to Our Roots, suggesting that one of the best ways to prepare students for the challenges life will place before them lies in integrating the community with their academic experiences.

Another reason we engage is because our joint success is interweaved.   E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University said it well: we engage our community because we understand that the health and wellbeing of one affects the other, our success and survival depends on creating new collaborations with our cities, our neighborhoods, our businesses, and our universities. (E. Gordon Gee, remarks at the National Outreach Scholarship Conference, Monday, Sep. 28, 2009, Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 2010, (14) 3, p. 5-12.)

Finally, as a public institution we engage our community, I believe because we have a moral obligation to share our knowledge and expertise for the good of all.

What does engagement look like at JMU?

Community engagement takes place in many ways on our campus. We have community engagement that takes place as part of academic courses; we have community engagement that is outside of coursework; and we have community engagement activities done by the numerous student, staff, and faculty organizations. All are designed to improve the quality of life of our off-campus community residents.  In addition, we engaged our community in providing to the access to the promise of education with multiple off-campus credit and noncredit programs.

To give you some feel for the amount of community engagement at JMU, in the application to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, our Office of Community Service-Learning reported that along with academic departments they worked with 80 community agency partners and placed 1,500 students as part of 50 service-learning courses.  In addition, they offered 45 Alternative Break service trips.

How does community engagement assist in helping us work together on the challenges facing society?  In thinking about this question, it is similar to what Nancy Cantor suggests, that higher education may be at an existential crisis. Do we work around the edges of solving some of the problems of the run-away train of higher education? Or do we transform our universities into democracy universities.

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3 Responses to How do we work together and repair an ailing society?–James Madison University: Citizens Forum

  1. grahammb says:

    Nice post, Jim! And thanks for participating in the Citizens Forum. I do hope it becomes a regular event! I especially like your reference to the Morrill Act, which established my Alma Mater, Virginia Tech. I’m linking this to the Be the Change blog!

  2. Pingback: The great and important overlap | James Madison University's Be the Change

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