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Integrating Research University-Local Community Relationships Through Engagement

By Azra Thakur

Since the Center for Integrative Leadership is squarely situated within a land grant institution, it seems reasonable to ask how the University of Minnesota and other public institutions of higher education themselves demonstrate models of integrative leadership that enhance collective action to advance the common good. This is an area that warrants careful investigation and one that David Weerts, assistant professor of the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development, currently researches.

In a 2008 article from The Review of Higher Education, "Building a Two-Way Street: Challenges and Opportunities for Community Engagement at Research Universities*," authors David J. Weerts and Lorilee R. Sandmann explore the relationship-building process between public research universities and their surrounding communities. Weerts and Sandmann contend that a traditional understanding of university-community partnerships values a "one-way" transfer of knowledge from university to community. In contrast to the "one-way" understanding of university-community partnerships, the last decade has seen a shift in the framing of university-community relationships to a "two-way interactive model" of engagement where knowledge between the two groups flows in both directions:

The new philosophy emphasizes a shift away from an expert model of delivering university knowledge to the public and toward a more collaborative model in which community partners play a significant role in creating and sharing knowledge to the mutual benefit of institutions and society. (74)

Weerts and Sandmann present a literature review which elaborates on the historical "shift from the expert model of outreach to today's two-way focus on engagement" (75) alongside a multi-case study design aimed at exploring how engagement occurs between public research universities and communities within the article. In their overview of the theoretical framework, Weerts and Sandmann describe how the understanding of knowledge itself has changed over time from an "objectivist" worldview "emphasizing logical thinking rather than understandings" (77) towards a "constructivist" worldview where the "knowledge process is local, complex, and dynamic" (78). Alongside the change in the understanding of knowledge, universities started to move from the "one-way" transfer of knowledge from university to community to a "two-way" mode of knowledge exchange.

Within the literature review portion of the article, Weerts and Sandmann also identify "barriers and enablers" universities are faced with as they shift to a "two-way" engagement approach. Weerts and Sandmann identify the following enabling or inhibiting factors that affect university-community engagement which they further explore in their case study analysis of public research institutions: "institutional mission, culture, organizational structure, leadership, faculty involvement, governance, and power" (83).

For their qualitative case-study analysis, Weerts and Sandmann chose three land-grant and three urban public research universities where all six universities exhibited "both traditional outreach and emerging forms of engagement" (84). Through reviews of university documents and interviews with university staff responsible for the oversight of engagement programs, "leaders of campus engagement initiatives," and community partners Weerts and Sandmann identify themes that elucidate the conceptualization of engagement by universities including: the use of language to describe university-community engagement and the role of leadership that encourages a systemic move towards engagement.

Weerts and Sandmann find that "land-grant universities struggle more than their urban counterparts to institutionalize engagement language and practices across their campuses" (86). Mission statements from these universities employed language that suggests a "one-way" transfer of knowledge from university to communities of the state. In contrast to land-grant universities, urban research universities "more easily adopted the language and understanding of a two-way approach to engagement" (88).

Weerts and Sandman find that leadership is an important underlying theme in the shift towards two-way engagement. Within leadership, the authors identify the following four components that assist engagement initiatives: the development of "organizational structures" for easier navigation between universities and communities; "faculty roles and rewards" for participating in engagement; university staff who serve as conduits between institutions and communities; the "presence of engagement motivators" that allows for universities to gain recognition for "improved community conditions surrounding the campus" (95).

While Weerts and Sandmann look at how universities are transitioning from a one-way model of engagement to a two-way model of community-university partnerships, the authors conclude that additional research is necessary to evaluate how effectively engagement affects both communities and universities. The emerging model of community-university engagement provides an example where integrative leadership is essential in order for a two-way relationship between communities and their public research institutions to flourish and for knowledge to circulate both ways.

*Weerts, David J., and Lorilee R. Sandmann. "Building a Two-Way Street: Challenges and Opportunities for Community Engagement at Research Universities." Review of Higher Education. 32.1 (2008): 73-106.



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