Last week, in a much-discussed Duke Chronicle opinion column, “DukeEngage has a branding problem,” sophomore Katie Becker, a DukeEngage alumna, lamented that the university’s largest civic engagement program has become simply a one-off summer activity and a positive branding opportunity for Duke rather than a meaningful, ethical experience whose impacts extend into the school year. Several people quickly defended DukeEngage in the comments section, and when asked about the column in front of a group at an event last week, DukeEngage Executive Director Eric Mlyn said the program encourages such dialogue. That this debate is happening shows Duke students’ dedication and desire for intentional, ethical and effective civic engagement experiences and not just resume-building opportunities.
As a participant in many conversations about civic engagement at Duke, I realize that ethical engagement is a popular topic. Civic engagement ethics and community impacts are a constant topic of discussion and reflection among program administrators and participants. Programs are frequently tweaked, student training improved and new methods considered in order to move closer to the elusive goal of fully ethical and reciprocal student experiences.
Last year, following a retreat co-hosted by Duke’s Academic Advising Center and Duke Service-Learning, I joined a working group focused on examining the ways Duke trains students to engage with cultural sensitivity, particularly as they strike out on their own for independent research or social entrepreneurship projects. We’ve examined best practices from other universities, sorted through what various programs at Duke are doing and are beginning the work of considering next steps. It’s become clear that this topic is one that’s been debated by many programs, at many levels, throughout the university – and undoubtedly at universities around the world.
A problem is that it is hard to report these meetings and conversations, the incremental work of exploring new options and the implementation of small improvements that can make a big difference. Observers who want to learn more about our programs are not necessarily interested in those details. As I reflect on how the DOCE publicized the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), I acknowledge that it’s a difficult hurdle to overcome. As a member of the CGI U Network, Duke must commit $10,000 annually to support student projects. Duke is, to our knowledge, the only school that awards funding to students based not just on the quality of the project but also on how well the project is integrated with their academic experiences. This approach to funding, which CGI U asked DOCE Director Megan Granda to discuss with the full group of network universities at their meeting last summer, allows for a fuller integration between social innovation and academics, ensuring a richer and more rewarding experience for student participants. This method, we believe, has also been beneficial for the communities served, which see better-researched projects with leaders who have consulted with faculty experts and gained peer buy-in.
Yet when we talk about CGI U, we often focus on the numbers – this year the program had more applicants than ever before and Duke is consistently among the top schools in the number of students invited to the meeting – or on the successes of individual projects. The numbers and the individual stories seem more palatable. They reflect well on this office, and on the university. Talking publicly about the nuts and bolts is more challenging. The DOCE was created, in part, for this reason – to convene conversations among various university constituents about the way we approach civic engagement.
I recently read an article on the disconnect between scientific research findings and how those are analyzed and disseminated to the public. Rigorous scientific research generally focuses on narrow questions, in a way that can be frustrating to non-scientists. Not every study has larger implications, and research findings must often be verified through a series of scientific studies. Still, those facts often get lost in translation when the results of the studies are broadcast to the public. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with the rigor of the science, or with an unscrupulous press, but with a discrepancy between what the researchers and university reporters make public and how the public (and other news organizations) understand and analyze the information.
Does university civic engagement have a similar problem with how its work is represented and interpreted publicly? A photo of a Duke student with an impoverished child is not always inappropriate, and such representations are often context-sensitive and respectful (as is illustrated by a conversation in the DukeEngage article’s comments). But when spread outside of their original context, it’s easy for the outside observers to draw their own conclusions, and when those observers only see that aspect of a program, then there can be misunderstandings.
Civic engagement is a major reason students choose Duke, and that’s due in no small part to the huge number of opportunities and the individual stories of students’ extraordinary experiences doing work around the world. However, it’s very difficult to communicate the small ways we work to make our work more ethical for communities and more beneficial for students. By hosting public forums and internal meetings, keeping an ear to the ground for national conversations and sharing national articles as well as reflective pieces like this, the DOCE hopes to continue the push to make Duke a leader not just in how much we engage, but also in how we engage.
Many people aren’t aware that there is a legitimate field of study surrounding civic engagement in higher education, usually housed in university’s education or urban planning departments. Several academic journals publish research solely on this topic, and a host of conferences every year allow practitioners to share methods and experiences. Too often, students, university leadership and other interested stakeholders are not included in these conversations. Perhaps by bringing in as many non-practitioners as possible we can continue to expand the conversation and ensure that we are including all relevant voices and asking the right questions about how equitably, ethically and effectively we are engaging. And in order to expand the conversation, we will need to ensure that we are sharing with a broader audience the ways we are working on these issues every day.
Image by Nana B. Agyei via Flickr Creative Commons