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February 9, 2018

Senate Matters

Reflections on Community Engagement at Pitt

An experience of faculty and students working with community partners to understand the impact of the region’s industrial collapse on communities and peoples inspired my passion for university-community engagement. When I came to the University 25 years ago, a major impetus was my experience working with my former faculty from the School of Social Work on the “River Communities Project” studies in the Mon and Westinghouse valleys in the wake of the industrial collapse of the 1980s. As the nonprofit executive for the then-new Westinghouse Valley Human Services Center, I had the opportunity to work with project principal investigator Jim Cunningham, other faculty colleagues and graduate students on these studies. These studies were useful to policymakers, grant-makers, service providers and community leaders in developing responses to the region’s many challenges.

Coming to Pitt’s School of Social Work after 10 years in those valleys, I was excited to join my alma mater’s faculty and endeavor to enhance greater community engagement at my school and in the larger University community. As a social worker, I was a community organizer — but Pitt has probably been the toughest community I ever sought to organize.

Over these 25 years here, I have seen a gradual evolution of community engagement and partnerships at our University, and I have been fortunate to work with some wonderful colleagues, champions and university leaders along the way. We continue to make slow and steady progress on that journey.

Colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania — an exemplar among engaged research-intensive universities — published a book, “The Road Half Traveled: Universities at a Crossroads” (Hodges and Dubbs; 2012), in which they argue that while universities have greatly expanded their community engagement work, much work remains — especially institutionalizing community engagement in the core work of universities. They argued that although many great universities were active “in” their cities, they are not necessarily universities “of” their cities. The University of Pittsburgh has long been at this crossroad but has recently ventured beyond this intersection to make this work strategic to our mission and goals.

Our University also has a history of various community outreach and engagement offices and initiatives. One of these was Pitt’s Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC), a HUD grant-funded initiative for colleges and universities to work in partnership on community identified issues — which I was pleased to lead on campus from 2000-10 with colleagues Sabina Deitrick and John Wilds. It also includes the established Community and Governmental Relations Office, which grew out of earlier community engagement efforts emerging from our becoming a public university and responding to pressing issues from the surrounding neighborhoods. As Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg would note, “The City is our Campus,” and, thus, we have always been strongly “a university in the city.”

Building and sustaining a culture and institutional commitment for community engagement has always posed a challenge. Through the shared governance mechanism of the Senate Community Relations committee — which I was pleased to co-chair for many years — we were able to sponsor Senate plenaries recognizing and defining community service in our mission and underscoring the need to reward faculty’s engaged teaching and research. While campus dialogues did not move us to institutionalize community engagement or push us to the “Holy Grail” designation of the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, it ensured this spark would continue to guide and encourage faculty, staff and students aspiring to this work.

A major catalyst for greater student engagement arrived with Kathy Humphrey, then-vice provost for student affairs and dean of students. She championed initiatives, such as the Office of Cross Cultural and Leadership Development; the Office of Residence Life’s Living Learning Communities (including the community engagement/service to others communities that I work with); and, of course, a strong student community engagement and service office, PittServes. Misti McKeehen has provided strong and enthusiastic leadership as PittServes’ first director. Student passion for engagement can foster faculty and staff engagement; however, the University’s academy must truly promote and sustain a culture of engagement.

In her transition to senior vice chancellor for engagement, Humphrey has continued to champion university-community engagement with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s support. My COPC colleagues and I distilled our collective community partnership history and vision for the chancellor’s office’s consideration. In addition, an ad hoc committee of faculty and staff has begun harnessing a united campus voice for advancing Academically-Based Community Engagement (ABCE). Through a series of “idea exchanges” over the past few years — somewhat paralleling the university strategic planning process — ABCE strove to better integrate community engagement and service into our academy.

Over the past few years, two important milestones have demonstrated greater commitment to community engagement at Pitt. First, “Strengthening Our Communities” became one of the goals in the strategic plan for which all units are responsible for supporting. The second — and a powerful catalyst for achieving that goal — was the chancellor’s office establishing Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers (CEC) Initiative. A new assistant vice chancellor for community engagement, Lina Dostilio, is ably guiding that initiative as the university sets up CECs in the Homewood and the Hill District neighborhoods this year and, hopefully, neighborhoods beyond.

This past fall, the Senate Community Relations committee took up a recommendation from the ABCE idea exchanges. A resolution moved through Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, endorsed by the chancellor’s and provost’s offices, to actively pursue the Carnegie Optional Community Engagement Classification. This long-sought goal for institutionalizing community engagement means that we are willing to hold our feet to fire in using our community service mission to enhance those of teaching and research and to make community engagement a center of excellence. In this commitment to benchmarking, monitoring, and evaluating our community engagement work, we can truly become “a University of the City” — a city whose name our institution carries.

After 25 years of community engagement work at Pitt, I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on our progress — often halting and episodic — in moving toward establishing an infrastructure and culture that integrates our teaching, research and service. I am also excited for the younger colleagues who will continue to carry this work forward to excellence at Pitt. Much work lies ahead.


Tracy Soska is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and co-chair of the Senate Community Relations committee.


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