GLOBAL: Community engagement emerging as a key issue

The Cinderella mission of the modern university - community engagement - is at last emerging as a global issue for higher education. Next week in Madrid, some 200 university leaders from around the world will gather for the second Talloires Network conference to debate developments and issues around university engagement, and to share best practice.

The expansion of the Talloires Network, an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civil roles and social responsibilities of higher education, is itself an indication of the growing importance of university engagement.

Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow, who convened the first Talloires conference in September 2005, told University World News the initiative had evolved "in ways that I could never have imagined. The steady growth of our network and the movement more broadly illustrates that the old model of the university as an ivory tower continues to lose its influence in higher education globally."

"In some regions, universities have a long history of engaging with their communities. In others, this concept is just beginning to gain traction. Many universities are working to overcome political and resource constraints to actively engage with their societies." The network's "vital role", Bacow added, was to reinforce the trend towards engagement.

The Madrid conference, "Building the Engaged University, Moving beyond the ivory tower", is being held from 14-16 June in partnership with the Autonomous University of Madrid, Innovations in Civic Participation, TakingITGlobal and Tufts University. University World News is the official media partner, and in the coming weeks will be extensively covering the conference.

When Bacow convened the first gathering in Talloires, France, in 2005, it was attended by 29 heads of universities from 23 countries, said Elizabeth Babcock, the network's coordinator for Innovations in Civic Participation. She is also the co-author with David Watson, Robert M Hollister and Susan E Stroud of a new book, The Engaged University: International perspectives on civic engagement, which will be launched at the Madrid conference.

"In 2005 we didn't know if connecting globally on university engagement was of interest to universities," Babcock told University World News. "The participants at the first Talloires Network conference indicated that civic engagement and social responsibility were indeed emerging as a global issue for higher education, and that university leaders wanted to network around these issues."

Since then, the Talloires Network has swelled to 215 university presidents, rectors and vice-chancellors from 60 countries. "We have been amazed at how quickly we have grown, and how the network has become fully global."

Research into university engagement and resources committed to it are increasing and, Babcock said, "regional interest groups are forming everywhere on this issue. There is strong demand among people working in this area of higher education for professional development, for learning and sharing best practice so that their work can have greater impact, both on external communities and on the university internally. It is exciting, and promising."

The 2005 meeting formulated the Talloires Declaration on the Civil Roles and Social Responsibilities of Higher Education, which committed member universities to increasing and rewarding good practice in civil engagement and social responsibility, applying high academic standards to community engagement and encouraging education for active citizenship.

The second, 2011 Talloires conference will be an opportunity to engage with existing and new members, to announce several new programmes and to obtain feedback from members, said Babcock.

There will be a Madrid conference resolution, written by diverse university leaders from across the world. It will restate the network's original principles, "but acknowledging how the world and universities have changed, creating even greater need to engage with global and local problems and with external communities," Babcock explained.

The resolution will also outline the network's plans going forward, and issue an open call for universities to make a special commitment, over and above their existing programmes, to increase their civic engagement, community outreach and social responsibility activities.

The conference will be action-oriented. "We are reconfirming our principles and values, but also going beyond by committing to specific actions," said Babcock. "We hope new partnerships will emerge, new funding opportunities and also a commitment from universities to use their own resources to address pressing local and global problems."

The conference themes include technology and social change, government policy to support university engagement, access and widening participation, environmental sustainability and climate change, the role of higher education in political transition - such as the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East - and crisis and disaster response. These are all key issues for universities, which are engaged in an "extraordinary array" of initiatives.

The idea is for participants to explore lessons learned by universities in implementing community engagement programmes, to examine community engagement as a distinct area of work in higher education requiring professional development, policy support and financing, and to network with other higher education leaders from around the world as well as funders, government officials and journalists.

The conference will also discuss high-impact policies and practices for supporting university outreach. One highlight will be a panel of officials from several countries who will discuss public policies that could support community engagement. It will include former education ministers from Chile and Pakistan.

Another highlight will be a round table discussion between university leaders and student participants, selected by member universities to attend the conference, to discuss greater involvement of students in university outreach and in the network. A new dimension of the initiative's work is using technology and social media to support greater student engagement.

There will also be a ceremony for the winners of the MacJannet Prize for Global citizenship, which is awarded to eight outstanding university community engagement projects around the world. This year's first prize was won by Argentina's Universidad de Buenos Aires.

Another major focus, said Babcock, will be on institutional management and policy to support engagement. Unlike the other core functions of the university, teaching and research, most universities do not offer training or career paths for professionals working in outreach.

"Many universities have created positions, such pro vice-chancellor for engagement. And there are people working in universities who have had long interest in community engagement but have not had sufficient support.

"There is rapidly growing demand for professional development, for more research and for new approaches," Babcock told University World News.

"Another important task for us will be to talk about how universities can more effectively become engaged, using not only the institution's resources but also the knowledge and experience that resides within communities to partner more effectively with them."

Tufts University's Lawrence Bacow said the principles and actions of the 2005 Talloires Declaration were as relevant today as they were six years ago. The Madrid conference would be an opportunity for university leaders not only to rededicate themselves to these principles, but also "to move forward with renewed energy.

"Working together and in collaboration with our communities, there is no limit to what we can achieve."

* The Talloires Network conference is sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Pearson Foundation and Santander Bank.