As universities face increasing budget cuts and see their ivory-tower image attacked, many now espouse increased involvement in community and global issues. But although this 'social engagement' drive has numerous supporters, others wonder at the cost and the long-term impact on universities, especially in the area of research.
"What is this animal called 'social engagement'?" asked Merle Jacob, a professor of research policy at Sweden's Lund University. She was a keynote speaker on the topic of 'Social Engagement and Higher Education: New imperatives' at the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education conference held in Paris in September.
She jokingly said she was not going to provide a definition for the term as she wasn't receiving a consultancy fee from the OECD for such work, an allusion to the rules governing relationships between academia and other institutions.
Jacob, the holder of the Unesco Chair in Research Management and Innovation Systems, argued that social engagement policies required funding but it was unclear who would foot the bill, especially in a time of recession.
In addition, professors or students who might be more involved knew that they would not receive tenure or even credit for their social engagement and many were wondering if this would change in the long run.
Whatever the cost or question, some university officials said the social engagement process was essential for producing graduates "who are as much of the world as for it", in the words of Celeste Schenck, President of the American University of Paris (AUP), who also spoke at the OECD conference.
She told University World News that prejudices against social engagement were starting to change in the academy and that protocols for tenure - mainly based on research and publication - were being revised.
As a private urban university in a country that regards private higher education with deep suspicion, she said AUP was an example of social engagement being backed at the highest levels of the institution.
"Social engagement is built into the mission of the university," Schenck stressed. "It plays a crucial role in our four academic divisions as we focus on making global citizens out of our students who will contribute their skills to shaping the world."
Besides producing committed citizens, AUP also has the objective of forging its own identity and ensuring its continued survival in a difficult landscape, especially after a planned merger with New York University fell through in 2008.
Located in the 7th arrondissement, on Paris's famed Left Bank, the AUP campus consists of eight buildings, marked by discreet banners identifying the college. Its 1,000 students represent almost 100 nationalities and include many French undergraduates who feel that they do not fit into the often inflexible national system.
The 48-year-old institution has, however, struggled to shed its image as a university for rich kids who choose it because of its location in the so-called City of Lights, and who can easily afford to pay the EUR23,000 (US$32,000) tuition fee. AUP's social engagement policy thus has the additional effect of erasing 'outdated' stereotypes.
"The idea that we're for 'rich kids' is 20 years old, and it's time for people to get over that misconception," Schenck told University World News in an interview. "We have many students who receive scholarships and who do not come from wealthy backgrounds."
She said 12% of the university's budget goes to financial aid, with almost half of the student body benefiting in some way. The school does not receive government funding, either from the United States or France, but has managed to increase its grants from private individuals and foundations over the past decade, to some EUR4 million.
The grants have enabled AUP to purchase three of the buildings it had been renting, strengthening its long-term position. It had faced relocation when its lease expired in 2008.
Wherever they come from - the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia or the Middle East - students quickly learn that they are expected to get involved outside of the classroom.
The university runs a mentorship programme with a neighbourhood high school and plans to expand this to other secondary schools in the banlieues', or outskirts of Paris. It has created partnerships with an array of international institutions and non-governmental organisations based in France, as well as with some in other countries. These include Unesco, the Red Cross, Writers without Borders and local NGOs in Pondicherry, India.
Within its own walls, the university encourages recycling and other green actions, urging students to separate waste paper, for instance. It also invites the public through its doors with some 60 cultural events each year.
With all these activities, AUP says that it has become the "very definition of a 21st century international university".
Some may question that assertion, but students interviewed said that the focus on social engagement tied in with their own views of what they wanted to accomplish.
Nathalie Margi, an AUP graduate who now works in Haiti, told University World News that the institution had been a "great fit" for her international mindset.
"The diversity of the faculty and the student body enriched my understanding of global affairs," she wrote in response to e-mailed questions. "Through the courses I took and events I participated in, I learned a lot about international politics, development, human rights and gender issues.
"I benefited from outstanding mentoring on the part of professors I studied with, who always underscored the connections between academic theory and practical challenges facing communities around the world."
After graduating from AUP in 2006 with a BA in history and social sciences and gender studies, Margi earned a masters in women's and gender studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, US. Since then, she has worked with international women's rights groups in the New York area, coordinated civil society assessments on reforms of the UN Country Teams in Tanzania and Vietnam, and today works in Haiti with an international NGO called Heartland Alliance.
Current AUP graduate students Sarah Finnigan and Ahmad El-Najjar, both from the United States, also said the AUP approach tied into their desire to be 'socially engaged'. "My own motivation for being in a programme like this is to realise what I can do to effect change," said El-Najjar, who is researching nuclear anti-proliferation policies.
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