Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 93: Community Engagement in Higher Education — with Barbara Holland

Speakers: Alex Abahmed, Am Johal, Barbara Holland,


Alex Abahmed  0:06  
Hi, I'm Alex Abahmed. With Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Our guest today is community engagement scholar Barbara Holland. She's in conversation with our host Am Johal about organizational change in higher ed, community/university partnerships and community engagement as a vital method of research, teaching and learning. I hope you enjoy the episode.


Am Johal  0:36  
Hi there, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar again, I'm really excited to have Barbara Holland joining us this week. I had a chance to attend a session that Barbara was at, I believe it was in Chicago around 2012 or 13, and I was just really drawn to the way that she explained organizational change in higher education institutions, that she's had a long history of working in community engagement, and policy with universities around the world. So welcome, Barbara. 

Barbara Holland  1:07  
Thanks Am, I really have enjoyed getting to know you and your colleagues, and I admire your work very much. And I love that organizational change and higher education is surely one of the ultimate oxymorons on Earth, we should all have a t-shirt.

[Am laughs]

Am Johal  1:24 
I'm wondering if you can just introduce yourself a little bit and how you got involved in this work originally.

Barbara Holland  1:31  
I'll try to make it as short as possible, but I'm getting up in age. So it's a long, interesting story. I actually thought about this, when I knew we were going to talk, I did have a very fascinating and very clear path on how I fell into this passion for community engagement. And it was largely (as many things are in life) serendipitous, but it was certainly I can make sense out of it, in terms of how it all flowed but I will just start by saying I decided when I was about six or seven years old that I was going to be a journalist. And I lived in a rural Ozark community where my dad was the superintendent of the local school. It was the poorest county in Missouri. And it was just me and my sister who was five years older than me and thought I was the worst snail in the world because I was around and when she was talking about her boyfriends and such things, and I of course, was the youthful pest. And so I started a newspaper and every week I made a newspaper and tacked it on my bedroom door, which was mostly about my sister and her boyfriends.

Barbara Holland  2:50  
And I got my first news story in a country newspaper, Why I Love America, when I was nine. And I really got the bug of journalism. And so I worked my way, my dad actually decided to get a doctorate and moved us to Columbia, to the University of Missouri and I did my high school and bachelor's and master's degrees on the University of Missouri campus because they had a laboratory school at the time. And of course, the university of Missouri had created the first, in 1908, the first journalism school to professionalize journalism, and is still admired around the world largely as the best school of journalism on Earth. And that is, in part because it is the only one on Earth that actually creates a daily city newspaper. It's not a college paper or something like that. So I was always interested in news and trends in the community and what people were doing. And I did the bachelor's and master's and started working as really media relations people for positions for different universities. And if your media relations for university, then you got to be out in the community, right? And you have to be learning and listening and trying to interpret the relationship between the community and the university. And I think I did it pretty well. I moved up pretty fast in terms of the institutions I was working with. And many of them were new institutions in the 70s and 80s. There was a lot of growth in higher ed in the United States. And I largely got attached to young institutions, which meant I was sort of learning how do you build a university in a new community that wants that university to be there and how do you put it together so that it actually meets what the community needs? And I started writing a lot of strategic plans. I helped ghost write the state of Colorado higher education plan, which was fascinating and I did a lot of analysis and the president at the time of the university said to me, of course, we can't put your name on any of these documents because you do not have a PhD. And no one will believe that you wrote these, or that you had the qualities or the expertise to do so. So I said, Fine, I quit. 

[Am laughs]

Barbara Holland  5:24  
So I ended up going to do my PhD at the University of Maryland, in the mid 1980s, when they still had a federally funded National Center for Research on higher ed. It was in Maryland for about 12 years and then it moved for its final phase ending in the Bush administration, which will come up again later. The last university that ran it was Stanford. And so I did my PhD in the National Center of Research on higher ed. What a lucky break that was. And so that led to my continuing interest in studying higher ed and why it works, and what's quirky about it, and what's good about it. And I got a job after I finished my degree at Portland State University, which had a new president who turned out to want to. I did my dissertation on urban universities, are they really different? And that led to the creation of the coalition of urban and metropolitan universities, which I'm still a senior scholar for. And I have been with them for the end. And so I really want all of that as context to say, engagement. A lot of people think faculty drives engagement, I think politics and the economy and the growth of higher ed, especially the growth of higher ed in cities to make it more equitably available to all kinds of people who lived complex lives and couldn't just quit and go to school and live in a dorm. And I think that was really the amazing story about what I got involved in that led to the creation of the coalition of urban metropolitan universities in 1990. And I have been attached to them ever since, except for that first fear. And what was interesting is, I think a lot of people who are entering the field now, especially most of this is about the United States. But in the Clinton administration, they actually created the Corporation for National and Community Service, which began to fund universities to do service learning, and actually sent money out. And a lot of that created the legislation that supported those funds, to help schools, colleges, universities, be engaged in community engagement and service learning, was really driven by Senator Mark Hatfield from Oregon, who loved and cared, for course, his home universities. And he really made all that happen. And I think a lot of people today don't realize how much from the early 1990s til the Bush two administration, service learning and community engagement was highly funded by the federal government and encouraged and supported by the federal government, which meant we also had the assets to do research and develop a body of literature. And I ended up both in the two programs that were really, really changing and really influenced the way we think about community engagement around the world today, was first the COPC Program, the Community Outreach Partnership Centres Program, which gave close to $200,000 to universities (which was a lot of money then) to deepen and focus their relationships with communities and their cities. And I ended up spending some time putting that together and the framing worked for it. While I was at Portland State. And I loved my job so much they kept asking me if I didn't want to be the director in DC. And I said, No, I like my job now. But I did finally do it at the end in 2000-2002. And of course, after that, it was knocked off. And the second one, of course, was Learn and Serve America, which gave lots and lots of funds to schools and colleges and universities to organize and staff their service learning and community engagement issues. And I ran the Center for that, the library, the development of the library and resources to support it through that federal program for five years until I ran away to Australia. 

Am Johal  9:50  
Now, there's obviously been a big advancement since the 80s and kind of historical periods where you know, certain terms like service learning, community engagement, they came up in different times. But in a way community engagement started becoming a kind of catch all phrase after the 2000s. And just the way terms travel and how you see now the kind of evolution of where the kind of community engagement agenda around higher education has the ball. 

Barbara Holland  10:21  
Yeah, I think this history is important, because I think a lot of younger people coming in the field don't realize there was, at least in the US, and to some degree in Canada, there was political support and interest for this. And it made sense, because pretty much most countries still struggled with inequities in communities. And why not make higher ed and the process of student learning and development throughout their educational pathway to weave in the idea that this is also creating a citizen, and a person who cares and wants to be involved and wants to see a healthy community. And I think that a lot of the people in the field today have kind of forgotten that actual sort of public official congressional pressure to actually make it be successful. And it's interesting to me now that we're kind of going into a space now that's somewhat similar to where we were, in the early 2000s, when it started to be defunded. And I think now, I'm hoping that knowing that history will encourage some people to see that this is a very legitimate thing. And it's not really, it's strange to me that there are still a lot of younger people coming into the field and younger leaders taking leadership positions in colleges and universities thinking this is still something on the side. And I'm not sure that the literature of the field was ever really robust enough or more widely read outside of the field, for people to understand the incredible impact engagement and service learning has had on student retention, on the diversification of our student bodies, on the access of people first in the family to go to university, and things of that type. I think there's a lot of people who don't really appreciate that this idea of engagement and service learning has had more effect on the culture of higher ed around the world than I think people realize.

Am Johal  12:35  
You know, you've done a lot of consulting work with higher education institutions and oftentimes, where community engagement was brought in as a kind of new idea. I've seen you explain before at conferences, where there's this kind of support in the upper administration, there's a support kind of at the grassroots level of the institution. And then somewhere in the middle, there are these resistances that function like any other large public institution, and kind of strategies in which there can be wider support for these types of initiatives, from when you started doing the work to now I imagine, you've seen a lot of changes in terms of how this work lands down inside of institutions, and how best to carry it forward. You know, we hear these things about, you know, it's not recognized in the tenure review process. For some people who are doing this work. And when it does get incorporated in, there are these barriers that can still exist, but these are, in fact, conversations that were happening 30 years ago, and some of them are the same conversations, but some have evolved too. 

Barbara Holland  13:39  
Yeah, they have evolved and I'll tell you the big difference. In the 1980s and 90s and up to about 2002 there was funding for it and it was publicly visible that universities and colleges were being encouraged to do this. But within the ranks of the faculty, we had, at best, two generations. Now we have four generations of faculty. And two of them grew up in a time when most of them would have had a service learning or engagement experience in school and/or high school and/or college. And so now you've got at least four generations of faculty who have different views of this and it is becoming, I think uncomfortably for advocates of engagement and service learning, it is becoming normalized and expected and is therefore not quite as visible because it's not a drama as much as it used to be. And part of that is because the two new younger generations see it as a form of scholarship and they are not doing it as the people who led it in earlier days, did it because it was their political belief and their social belief that as an educated person, they should be doing these things with communities. And to be truthful, I think a lot of that ended up sort of having a charity flavor, and a little self congratulations. But the new people who have moved into the faculty and experienced it, as children, and teenagers and college students have a sense of it as an aspect of learning and scholarship. And they see it as a method. And whatever my field, and whatever my research interests, I see an aspect of how this connects to community and to social issues and related things. And that's the real difference. And I think that the idea of is this legitimate? Is pretty much over. And it's more, how do we recognize it and support it, and organize it in a way that it actually would have the ability to see how it affects scholarship, our learning in different intellectual fields, and an accurate understanding of the impact and contribution, and or not to communities. And so the newer faculty are more interested in doing things that are scholarly in their work in communities and being more deeply passionate about assessing it and critiquing it, and improving it.

Barbara Holland  16:39  
Interesting, in the Canadian context. You know, being at Simon Fraser University, where engagement has been a big part of the university's strategic plan, there's been a lot of expansion, oftentimes through areas like external relations, where philanthropy has come in. And when it's really made public invisible in terms of the strategic direction of the university, there is still kind of pushback and a critique that comes from faculty where they really do view their core work in teaching and research and engagement is the thing that's tacked on for them. And I've seen you speak a lot about how this is really intended to be a kind of integrated approach, that these things when they're firmly integrated across the institution, from senior leadership to professors to staff, that's when the benefits arise. And I think some of the things I view, you know, I think that we draw certain faculty to SFU. Because of that approach, we also draw, I think, staff of a certain type that are already community engaged, who want to work here as a result of the direction we certainly see these things kind of steamroll in a good way. But in terms of those who have these critiques of community engagement as this kind of add on, I think, partly institutions, perhaps didn't communicate internally to the extent that they could have but how have you approached those questions when they've come up and other institutions that you've been in conversation with?

Barbara Holland  18:07  
Well, it's, you know, there is much less critique of it today, because of the new generations coming into leadership, and into academic positions at all levels, Chairs, and Dean's and those sorts of folks are new generation people who have an appreciation of this as a form of scholarship. And it also, especially for public universities, is a way of, it contributes to the sense of the contribution that the state or province is getting from the government support of public education. So there's a lot less questioning about the value of it. I think more what everybody is struggling with now is how do we organize it and make sure that it is somewhat strategic, focused and aimed at least enough that we can start to really focus on what is the impact and opportunity for change and progress in the community. And I think that's where we're really headed. And where a lot of the current scholars and new scholars coming into the field are thinking about is, you know, you can say to faculty, do it if you want, don't if you don't, here's how to do it well, and let us know how it goes. I think there's much more interest right now especially in urban metropolitan areas. And I just want to say that is one of the biggest changes of all. There's not a city based college or university who would think that they don't need to have a very focused agenda of engagement and community connections that are scholarly in nature and good for students.

Barbara Holland  20:00  
And good for the communities. So, that's a big change as well. engagement has really become an urbanized agenda. Because around the world, we are now an urbanized world. And it's important in rural and more remote spaces, but not in the main. And so I think it's aligning with the fact that in these tough times, and the stresses we're dealing with right now, in this moment, engagement is holding up well, especially for institutions that have a planned and describable and discrete agenda of what they want to be doing in and with communities and the communities have impart demanded that and informed it. So I think we're in a really better place now. And out of all the strange time we're experiencing now, I think it's actually going to really bring engagement and service learning forward in a more thoughtful and intentional way. 

Am Johal  21:04  
I know when I first started my position I'd come in doing community work inside of with nonprofit organizations and other places, then, when I first went to some meetings down in New Orleans I met with Xavier University, Loyola to lane and just saw how other institutions were approaching things in highly gentrifying spaces in the urban context. And you see where a number of these conversations are held in the American context of places like CUMU, the Coalition of Urban Metropolitan Universities or International Association for Research in Service Learning and Community Engagement. We also had a period where the Carnegie Foundation classification was very much in circulation. And some of those conversations are up here as well. I'm wondering, in terms of conversations related to the direction of broadly in community engagement in higher education institutions, where are some of the interesting conversations going on? I know you're connected with CUMU, and a few other places, but what do you see as some of the trends or some interesting things that scholars and people are doing out, particularly in this pandemic context where I guess, questions around public institutions, and what they're going to be doing in this environment and also, in a post pandemic context. What is it that higher education can be doing that builds on the strengths of its past work in community engagement? 

Barbara Holland  22:30  
Well, to be honest, at the moment, I don't have a way to have the big picture. My connection with the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities is really the main lens I have at this point, with the footnote that I have connections with a lot of people around the country and other countries who are doing things very differently. For example, I'm still on an advisory committee I got connected with in Griffith University in Australia, and their service learning person organized a very diverse advisory group, and I was one of the people to be on it. And even though I keep trying to say you need someone newer, they keep making me hang on and stay with them. And I'm glad I have, because in the pandemic in Australia, they have really doubled down on the impact of service learning on their students. And I think that's a really interesting lens to do, because the students were very passionate at Griffith University about wanting their engagement agenda was largely around a very complex and nuanced agenda of helping Indigenous people in rural and remote spaces, find a way for their young people to make it into university, and to education and ways that allow them to go back and be successful and helpful to their home communities. And they've really doubled down on that. And I'm so impressed with how if we take a focus of engagement and service learning, and tighten it to a very clear objective, it's amazing how much we can do, and what kind of impact we can have. And they have engaged something like 500-600 different students, many with learning disabilities, or physical disabilities, who are doing virtual interactions with schools and Outback spaces and it's amazing. You know, if you're creative and passionate, there's a lot of things you can do with engagement. And I think that there's a lot of that happening in other countries. Certainly Canada has, I think, also been very thoughtful about making sure that engagement and service learning is always deeply reciprocal with communities. I think we are learning to do that better in the United States. But I think there's still a lot of faculty fervor around just doing good stuff, which is fine, but often random, and not sustainable. I feel that especially urban and metropolitan universities, where cities are really struggling with the instant change of the culture of employment. And many people are being told that their kids have to learn from home, but they have no internet, they have no way to get a computer. I think many universities that I know of, have doubled down on having to take responsibility for finding partnerships with businesses or industry or local government and say, "We have to make this equitable, we have to make sure every child has a way to to continue their learning, wherever they are, and whatever their condition". And I think this is going to make it more integrated, which is what it's always needed to be. The biggest problem for engagement and service learning is so many people think of it as one more thing we have to do. And it's not, it's a method, it's a way of teaching, it's a way of learning, it's a way of engaging, it's a way of connecting to society, and it's a way to create equity in progress.

Am Johal  26:27  
Barbara, do you think there's an opportunity in the American context for the federal government to re-engage in higher education in terms of the advancement of community engagement? Or has that ship sailed long ago? 

Barbara Holland  26:41  
No, I mean, bits of it are still there. But I can't say that the current administration has really made this anything that they're interested in.

Barbara Holland  26:56  
I think, to some extent, in the current political fray with only days and/or hours toward an outcome, hopefully. There's still vestiges of it in different parts of different cabinets. And there's still certainly a basis of interest in the role that higher ed can play. But it's not at the level it was up until 2004. 

Am Johal  27:23  
When you look across the country and say, even internationally, and you look at institutions that you're really excited by in the way that they're implementing a vision for community engagement in higher education. What are some of the places that come up for you that you think are doing really interesting? 

Barbara Holland  27:42  
Oh, holy cow, if I start naming universities, I'll lose all my friends.

[Am laughs]

Barbara Holland  27:48  
I mean, it's just honest data, okay. I mean, I'm 70 years old, I'm quarantined in my house. I've stayed mostly in touch with the urban universities, I really don't have a way to gauge the national spirit of engagement at this moment. But it is clear to me that it is thriving and becoming an important issue because of the need to have everybody working from home, which changes the way we have to think about how we cooperate with each other. But it also puts us in a space where we have the opportunity and capacity, and really the obligation, to certainly be helping and getting very deeply involved in schools and their issues of sustaining a good education for children coming up through the pipeline, and also the opportunity to contribute and be involved in sustaining major businesses and small businesses and their communities. And so there's, in a way, it's starting to make engagement, normal and invisible, but still powerful. And I think that's great. Because I've said all along. This isn't a special thing. It's a form of scholarship. It's a form of teaching, learning and discovery. And everybody kept saying no, it's a distinct thing. It's not, it's just another way to learn, discover, verify, create.

Am Johal  29:27  
Barbara, thank you so much for joining us this week on Below the Radar. 

Barbara Holland  29:31  
I think I am below the radar. 

[Both laugh]


Alex Abahmed  29:37  
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast produced by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thank you for joining us to hear from our guest Barbara Holland. Read more about her work at the links in the show notes. Thanks again for tuning in. And we'll see you next time on Below the Radar.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 26, 2020

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