Future of the Talloires Network – Towards grassroots

The Talloires Network of engaged universities continues to grow. It now has 332 members in 72 countries. But dealing with a mandate as broad and diverse as community engagement requires some clear focal points.

University World News asked Tony Monaco, president of Tufts University in the US – where the network’s secretariat is based – and incoming chair of its steering committee, what we can expect from Talloires in the years ahead.

“With the steering committee, we went through a traditional SWAT analysis, identifying our strengths and weaknesses. The international nature and exchange of best practice is our strongest card and incredibly important, but given our size and continued growth, our visibility is not as high as it should be,” he said.

“We have a network of this size and scope and yet we still have people not knowing what the Talloires Network is. It must be one of the most prolific international networks in higher education and we need to make it more visible with a variety of methods.”

The focal point for the network has traditionally been university leaders. In the years ahead, however, Talloires intends to increasingly address practitioners working with community engagement in the field.

“What we are seeing now is an increased need to support the lead practitioners, faculty and the students. Those are going to be the key people in the network. Providing more opportunities for them to communicate, develop further and receive training should be an area of focus for the future.”

Engagement research

Another area where Talloires wants to step up activity is research.

“We have not been very active in research and want to change this. We do not necessarily want to take on a lot of research ourselves, but there are areas of great relevance to us that are well established by other networks and academic associations.

“There are strong service learning networks, and groups working on community-based participatory research, much of it in healthcare which attracts considerable public funding. We should partner with them because they represent areas of civic engagement,” said Monaco.

“We particularly need to think collectively about the assessments and tools we need to show that we are making a difference.

“Which takes us to funding. You want to know what works best and what doesn’t, but if you really want to convince funders that you are worth investing in, having data that supports the benefit to the communities that you work with is important.

“The funding right now is strong from foundations interested in particular projects. These projects are good and we’re really pleased to be able to carry them out but we need to think about other sustainable sources of funding so we can put our agenda forward more strategically. Given the strength of the network, now is the time to work on this.”

Youth leadership

Youth leadership was an important theme at the 2014 conference in South Africa and it will remain high on the agenda in the years ahead.

“We engage faculty, and faculty are important to us, but students are the real focal point of our operation.”

Students were indeed a very visible presence in Stellenbosch, with 40 representatives invited who bonded strongly during the week and often very eloquently and critically engaged the present university leaders.

Tony Monaco believes that the time may be right to elevate their participation in the Talloires Network to a new level.

“I certainly would advocate for students to have a more formal role in the steering of the network too and I will bring that up with the committee. We have also talked about a possible annual publication they could edit, with articles about projects. I think that would be an exciting way to celebrate what they do.”

The student issue came up several times during the meetings in Stellenbosch this year.

Reporting to the plenary, students themselves asked for a permanent position on the steering committee. Their request was met with applause and even found its way into the draft action plan, presented during the final session, which stated as one of six points of action:

“Develop mechanisms for student leaders to influence and be fully integrated into the Talloires Network.”