Today Provost Joyce Jacobsen sent a message to the community about Wesleyan’s plans for engagement with the public sphere. She notes: “The purpose of this framework, which will operate within a culture of assessment and continuous improvement, is to guide us in becoming an increasingly “Engaged University” where we build student, faculty, and staff capacity for civic participation, where we prepare our students to engage in civic participation throughout their lives, and where civic responsibility is a visible institutional commitment.”
I have pasted in the “Civic Action Plan” below, and you may send comments about it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Civic Action Plan
Wesleyan University’s mission statement promises “an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.” In keeping with that promise, this Plan makes clear that developing civic readiness in our students is not ancillary to our mission but central to it. This plan, which will operate within a culture of assessment and continuous improvement, will guide us in becoming an increasingly “Engaged University” where we prepare our students to engage in civic participation throughout their lives and where civic responsibility is a visible institutional commitment.
Wesleyan has a long history of providing opportunities for working in the public sphere in ways that contribute to the civic education of its students. In recent years, the Allbritton Center has been the primary hub for these activities. Under the Allbritton umbrella, students can engage with the surrounding community through some twenty student-led volunteer and work study programs coordinated by the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships (JCCP); can work alongside community members to run WESU 88.1FM; can support the education of incarcerated people through the Center for Prison Education; can explore, analyze and strategize on how to tackle social issues through the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship; and can take service-learning courses and other classes exploring issues of public life with faculty associated with the Center for the Study of Public Life. Allbritton ensures that information about these various programs is readily available to students, faculty, staff and community members. The University plans to actively support these endeavors and to strengthen them whenever possible.
Of course not all civic engagement at Wesleyan takes place through Allbritton. During the 2016-2017 academic year, the Civic Action Plan Steering Committee gathered input on a wide variety of forms of engagement: Romance Language professors creating a partnership with the local library to have multilingual story time for young children run by undergraduates; faculty and staff serving on boards of local non-profits; athletic teams volunteering and raising funds for charitable organizations; students responding to acute societal needs by creating the Wesleyan Refugee Project. Much of this activity is driven by individual interest and motivation; and there may be occasions when links between siloed initiatives could be beneficial. Our task now is to hone in on programmatic factors that might support, connect and amplify such initiatives. The University will increase its efforts to raise awareness about these activities so as to promote more collaboration.
Programmatic factors (as reported to the Steering Committee) that serve to encourage engagement include transportation support from the JCCP, clear communication of opportunities where they exist, and departmental environments supportive of volunteer work. Factors inhibiting engagement are lack of time, lack of knowledge regarding opportunities (including uncertainty regarding whether on-campus opportunities are solely for students), lack of support from supervisors, and transportation problems. Meanwhile, surveyed members of the off-campus community expressed appreciation to the Steering Committee regarding how the University reaches out into the community and proactively develops collaborative programs. Some were interested in the role the University could play as an economic driver in the community; others emphasized the positive impact of student involvement in a number of local programs. We will amplify those factors that encourage participation and engagement, and lessen the inhibiting factors, thus continuing to expand and support the current positive level of community involvement.
This is a propitious time to develop a plan that cultivates a culture of assessment and continuous improvement with respect to becoming an Engaged University. Some key ingredients of the University – free speech, intellectual diversity, equity and inclusion, academic freedom – are essential for our civic work. Our activities going forward will be organized around three strategies: building student capacity for civic participation; building faculty and staff capacity for civic participation; enhancing the institution’s role in public life. Of these, the first, in keeping with our mission statement, is our highest priority.
- Building student capacity for civic participation
Ideally, all Wesleyan students will find opportunities to develop their preparedness to engage in public life. Some of these opportunities they will develop themselves, and it will be important to support them in that effort. In addition, currently Allbritton is a locus of activities for deepening the preparedness of Wesleyan students to engage in public life. Through its community partnerships and other programs, approximately 400 students annually work with individuals and institutions beyond the borders of the campus to solve problems and create opportunities. A new fund for innovation in the JCCP will support creative proposals by our students for additional community-involvement initiatives.
Beyond Allbritton, many academic departments, sports teams and student clubs are promoting volunteerism in ways that provide students with the opportunity to increase their ability to engage in civic affairs. Examples of this include aiding neighborhood schools and working with religious or political organizations. Building on the efforts of the Steering Committee, Wesleyan will create a regular inventory of these volunteer efforts for the purpose of having an overall picture of our civic engagement. How many students are engaged in such activities? Is there anything the university can do to make those efforts more effective? How do these activities develop the capacity for a lifetime of civic participation? Setting quantitative and qualitative metrics in these respects will be important in tracking these activities over time. A dashboard of key indicators will allow Allbritton, in conjunction with Academic Affairs, to adapt engagement strategies within a framework of continuous improvement. Wesleyan pledges to find ways to build on our current practices so as to increase our students’ civic literacy and build their preparedness to engage in political life.
- Building faculty and staff capacity for civic participation.
Currently many faculty and staff utilize the dedicated channels of civic participation provided by Allbritton and the University’s annual United Way fundraising drive; some teach science classes for children as part of a research grant, or run for local office, or work with arts organizations that have a civic dimension or with health care providers aiding our region’s most vulnerable groups. Such work on the part of faculty does not go without formal reward; the faculty have developed a protocol so that nontraditional academic work will receive formal consideration as part of tenure and promotion cases, and their civic efforts can also enter into consideration as part of the yearly review process as colleagueship and service.
One direct way in which the university supports the civic engagement of faculty and students is through its support of service learning and community partnership classes. A recent survey showed that alumni who have taken a service-learning course are extremely likely to list that course as one of the most influential courses that they took at Wesleyan. We will continue to support these courses and attempt to improve transportation access to off-campus worksites; and we will continue to provide technical and financial support for faculty to develop service-learning classes. We will also increase the level and professionalism of training for our student volunteers so that they can work more effectively as tutors, researchers, and other participants in nonprofit activities. Towards this end, we are in the process of hiring a Professor of the Practice in Education Studies, one of whose tasks will be to work with our student volunteers in training them to be more effective tutors.
Staff, too, are engaged in a wide variety of civic projects. The JCCP will create an inventory of these activities, as well, working more closely with other institutional entities such as Human Resources, Usdan, and Athletics. Once the University has an even better sense of the range and depth of staff commitments, it can make informed decisions about where institutional support would be welcomed. Support will include increased communication resources, co-sponsorships, and making some university facilities increasingly available in support of civic projects. The University will regularly evaluate whether such support is helping faculty and staff to become more fully engaged in civic life.
- Enhancing our institutional role in public life
By developing an understanding of current levels of engagement of students, faculty and staff, by targeting support for improving the quantity and quality of that participation, and by measuring the impact of that support, Wesleyan will enhance its institutional role in public life. What else can be done at the institutional level? It is clearly important to maintain relationships with civic groups in the region, from the Chamber of Commerce to City Hall, from the School Board to the local United Way chapter. We will evaluate what other broad, institutional activities are currently underway and how effective they are. A new coordinator position in the JCCP will support our recently-hired new JCCP director, specifically by coordinating current and creating additional programs that bring community members to campus. The coordinator will work with many units on campus, such as the library, the university collections, and the Center for the Arts to develop a range of age-appropriate activities for local K through 12 students to engage more fully with the wide range of resources that Wesleyan has available to support their education and to increase their awareness of how a university operates internally and involves itself with the community.
Enhancing recognition of Wesleyan’s role in public life is also helpful in creating an atmosphere pervaded by civic energy. Communications will continue to showcase the civic work of students, faculty and staff, as well as our institutional efforts in this area. These efforts include partnerships with other organizations, as well as public stands taken by the university (often through its president) on national issues bearing on its educational mission. Recent examples include becoming a sanctuary campus and advocating against changes in the tax code harmful to students. Communications will evaluate the contribution of such activities to the profile of Wesleyan as a private university with public concerns. The president will continue to promote pragmatic liberal education around the world, and, as part of this, continue to underscore how developing a capacity for civic agency dovetails with this mode of education.
It is a core part of our educational mission to develop bold and rigorous practical idealists, thoughtful and brave participants in the public sphere. Long ago, our founding president, Willbur Fisk, set us on a course of promoting the good of the individual and the good of the world. Our Civic Action Plan will guide us further in that direction.