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The Purpose of Higher Education

Lucy Kerman

Lucy Kerman

Senior Vice Provost, University and Community Partnerships

An engaged anchor institution recaptures the essence of the American academy’s purpose

Civic engagement supercharges education

We often talk about the importance of extension with respect to the relationship of knowledge transfer from a university to its surrounding community, whether that surrounding community is rural farmland, or an urban center. There is, however, an equally important role that extension occupies within the campus itself, in that it engages students, faculty and staff in the core mission of a university. Here at Drexel, over the last several years we’ve seen that our faculty, department heads, and deans are re-examining their core curriculum in a way that creates a space for civic engagement: whether it is the way the College of Medicine trains physicians, or the College of Engineering making sure its students can engage with real-world clients, there a recognition of outward-looking civic engagement experience as applied learning that enhances and deepens education.  

Our freshmen requirement for civic engagement includes a service experience that is designed to be intentional and thoughtful, as well as an introduction to the historical and sociological contexts of institutional outreach, all bounded by personal reflection. Increasingly our academic departments are picking up the mantle from there to think further about the role a civic engagement experience can play in their particular discipline.  

At Drexel we frame education as a solution-centered, problem-solving experience, across disciplines. It is becoming clear that civic engagement offers a path through this framework that is intentional, participatory, and democratic, and speaks to who we are as an institution that prioritizes the creation, transfer, and application of knowledge. It enriches the education experience when students can connect directly with neighbors and stakeholders, and understand the importance of what they are doing and learning.  

Likewise we hear from faculty that they are incredibly energized by the work they and their students do with community partners. Our faculty who have been intensively engaged at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships report that the affirmation and challenge they experience through civic engagement has enabled them to become better versions of themselves as teachers and citizens. Civic engagement also shapes research, with many faculty members taking on new ideas and projects as a result of situating their teaching in our neighboring community.

Civic engagement inspires and animates the work of professional staff

On the administrative and operations side of the university, as we work towards implementing each facet of our mission as an engaged anchor institution – aligning our business operations and volunteer power as well as our academics – an increasing number of professional staff are embracing the notion that they are part of an institution that has broad civic goals. Many report finding this sense of mission energizing. We instituted an employee volunteer program this year, granting sixteen paid hours to each member of the full-time professional staff to use in service, and the number of employees taking advantage of it has been striking.

At our end-of-year employee awards ceremony, recognition for innovations in civic engagement has become a coveted prize, and there has been an amazing array of staff projects we have celebrated. In each of these cases, our core staff embrace the civically engaged university as a value they inhabit in their careers, in the same way they may for example strive to be responsible stewards of the university’s resources, or to provide quality support services to their internal and external constituents.  

In short, our professional staff are investing in the anchor mission, and transforming their own practice to advance this important work. This as much as anything else is what it means for an anchor institution to engage with its community.

Civic engagement is embedded in our core structures and identity

At Drexel we argue that the best way to create a durable culture of civic engagement at a university is to embed it in the self-perpetuating bodies of the institution: the faculty and the trustees, which are the parts of the university that select themselves. While members of the administrative side of the university are chosen by others, the faculty and trustees choose their own next generation, and when there are widely-held values, those values are perpetuated in this way.  

This is a dynamic that we can now clearly see in faculty appointments as well as in new trustee recruitment. One of the first things that John Fry did when he became Drexel’s president in 2010 was to create a community partnerships committee in our board of trustees. This standing committee meets quarterly, and new trustees are joining this committee who are attracted to working with Drexel specifically because of its commitment to civic engagement. That mission is part of what makes these new trustees proud of being part of the university, and through this committee it is incorporated into the university’s governance structure as a lasting commitment.

When we consider the lasting impacts of civic engagement, we think of what our alumni keep with them of the experience after they graduate. Our Lindy Center for Civic Engagement – which facilitates both academic and extracurricular civic engagement experiences for students and faculty – created an alumni board and we have found that alumni from the past ten years who participate in the board point to civic engagement as having been critical to their time at Drexel, and an experience that continues to shape their identities as Drexel graduates and as citizens.

The process behind developing an engaged anchor mission is critical

The work of civic engagement is never “done” – it is a process with intrinsic value of its own, distinct from the value of achieving particular milestones in academics, in hiring and procurement, and in amassing volunteer service hours. There is never an ultimate event or program; there is only the next, and the next after that.

What our alumni take away from their civic engagement experience has been in great part the support that they received and the relationships they forged with faculty, fellow students, and community partners as they shaped their identities as citizens and leaders.Their process of becoming engaged with the university’s partner communities is, increasingly, a defining experience, and an experience that continues to define these students’ relationships to the university as alumni.  

For professional staff, the process of transforming how the university does business has substantially humanized the people involved, who relate being humbled and moved by the connections we make with our neighbors and partners. As we participate as members of the university community in something that has larger meaning outside ourselves, together, it tells us something about ourselves and it speaks to the fact that difference need not get in the way of meaningful connection.

At Drexel we try to avoid an ethic of “giving back,” which implies a kind of superiority. Our students often report on civic engagement experiences saying “I didn’t realize how little I understood,” a position that can inform a pathway not to charity but to constructive and creative partnership. There is human warmth in the work of the engaged anchor institution, even when we are talking about something as simple as how we purchase paper and office supplies, as the impacts of those purchases ripple out into a community that is looking for ways to generate family-sustaining jobs.

Civic engagement is distinctly Drexel

Drexel was founded in 1891 with a mission to provide practical training to both men and women who would become innovators, building knowledge and improving conditions in a rapidly industrializing world. Education for the public good and the notion of applied learning drove our earliest development as a university. Our anchor mission today is of a piece with that founding vision. Getting our students, faculty, and staff engaged in a very direct process of generating mutually beneficial solutions with local partners, at ground level, fundamental to how we teach and operate, and which will continue to drive how we do teaching and research, and our role in West Philadelphia.

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