University-community partnerships wave of future: Expert predicts

Stephen Huddart, president and chief executive officer of The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, was the keynote speaker at the first Carleton Community Celebration held in March. The J.W. McConnell Foundation is a private foundation based in Montreal. (James Park Photo)

Universities that partner with community organizations and offer students hands-on learning and research opportunities will be on the cutting edge of education, predicts the president of one of Canada’s oldest private foundations.

In an exclusive interview with Carleton Now, Stephen Huddart of the Montreal-based J.W. McConnell Family Foundation identified such partnerships as the growing trend at post-secondary institutions.

“It is still in its infancy. But after having funded grants to 10 universities to develop their community service learning programs, we are encouraged to see another 30 have increased their offerings in this regard,” says Huddart, who was the keynote speaker at Carleton’s Community Celebration on March 20. “It is still early days … but there’s enough going on that people can look at outstanding examples, learn from one another and adapt their programs; it’s no longer the isolated few doing this.”

He points to some Carleton’s own initiatives – like 3ci (Carleton Centre for Community Innovation), Lead to Win, CEDTAP (Community Economic Development Technical Assistance Program that ran from 1998 to 2008) and the Batawa Initiative, as prime examples of the leadership Carleton and its faculty have taken to address a specific need or challenge in the community.

Given the economic challenges facing most sectors, everyone is looking at new ways to conduct business, he says.

“The question begins on the community-side of the partnership. What we see is communities facing some difficult challenges these days around issues relating to the environment, or to poverty – so these complex challenges are not being addressed at the rate we would like or as successfully as we would like,” says Huddart.

“Universities have tremendous potential to contribute to advancing those issues – partly because of their research capacity, partly because they can contribute student time to working on some of these issues and partly because there is a lot of knowledge captured and held within the university and within the community.”

While universities benefit from community partnerships, so do students. Universities that can offer these sorts of learning and research opportunities to current and potential students will become “increasingly relevant,” Huddart says.

Calling Carleton an “early leader” in this field, Huddart says there is always more the university can consider doing in order to stay ahead of the curve. There are some unexplored policy steps such as procurement and directing a percentage of resources to local social enterprises, and “mission-based investing” for endowments.

When it comes to choosing a partnership, he admits that sometimes private-sector projects, in particular, can be tricky to navigate.

“The framework within which universities should be looking at these is one of constructive engagement, recognizing that in the world of economics, and politic, things are sometimes messy and conflicted and challenging,” says Huddart.

“The university has to be selective. It can’t simply offer to work with anybody but it should be able to work with leaders in a particular field who are expressing an interest and a willingness to adapt their practices. Private sector leaders these days are increasingly recognizing that in order to renew their social licence to operate, they have to develop stronger value propositions that address social and environmental concerns, as well as their financial bottom line.”

He is also aware that from a faculty point-of-view, sometimes the choice to incorporate community-based learning and/or research into a course is a difficult one to make due to the increased workload involved and, sometimes, the perceived lack of professional payoff.

The tenure question often emerges at universities during the conversation about developing course-work that incorporates community-based learning, but Huddart is seeing a shift, albeit a slow one.

“We see a number of faculty – including a number at Carleton – who have provided tremendous leadership and wonderful examples to follow,” he says.

“This suggests that this continues to be a priority for Carleton. Certainly at the event that I was fortunate enough to attend at Carleton (March 20), the stories we heard from students … people really value Carleton’s community relationships. It was pointed out to me that Carleton’s origins in the YMCA are part of that – it’s in your DNA.”

His advice for Carleton is to continue on this path of building and sustaining its community partnerships, but to also look to the future for new ways of expanding what it is already doing.

“I think setting a big vision and incorporating a culture of this work into the institution would be tremendous steps. It’s part of the wave of the future. This is an investment in the kind of future that we want and it’s partly about the university reinventing itself as an engine of change in communities.

“It’s about placing an emphasis on the experiential component of post-secondary education at a time when it appears that communities are really asking for it, when students are seeking it and are going to those places that offer it. … What a university grounded in innovative community practice can offer is outstanding experiences by learning and by doing. I think that is where we are going to see some of the leading schools moving towards.”





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