SFU and the city: exploring meaning in community engagement

Author/s: Mathew Cocuzzi

Creation date: 2017

Senior supervisor: Meg Holden

Keywords: Community engagement; community-university partnership; town-gown; multi-level governance; citizen participation

Geographic focus: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; British Columbia; Canada

Research question/s: What are the purposes behind SFU’s engagement with local communities, and what implications exist for the role of universities in community partnership?

Significance

Universities have traditionally operated in a state of privileged seclusion. However, some universities have recently adopted a more community-based approach to their offerings and are focusing increased time and resources on engagement. Although community engagement is often approached with good intentions, it is important to consider that the results are not always beneficial. As an institution that accepts public funding, it is important that the university questions the responsibility and accountability it has to the city in which it sits. This research offers insight into the purposes of community engagement, as well as the perspectives of community engagement professionals working in community-university partnerships. The research also sheds light on the possibilities that exist for directing community engagement initiatives to specifically provide benefits to the communities they serve.

Findings

After collecting and analyzing data from SFU’s website and interviewing ten community engagement professionals, Cocuzzi concluded that there are multidimensional purposes for SFU’s engagement activities with local communities, including internal, external, and personal purposes. Internal purposes included reputational benefits, brand development and a strengthened institution. External purposes included improving governance systems through affecting policy and cultural identity. At the personal level, purposes included increasing social networks and professional advancement. Cocuzzi recommends that universities claiming to be “engaged” ensure their community partnerships follow good process that is mutually beneficial to communities, with assurances of community progress. This requires that universities ensure positive outcomes, follow up when negative outcomes arise, identify barriers to community access and ensure engagement initiatives are ongoing and sustainable. Cocuzzi also recommends that “engaged universities” maintain an awareness of community expectations, so that their initiatives meet those expectations and actively avoid community frustrations, which can arise around limitations to scope and funding.