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May 17, 2007


What constitutes academic achievement? Usually it is defined as either educational service or the creation of generalizable knowledge that advances a field. What if that generalizable knowledge came about through community service, while creating community programs and engaging students regarding their civic responsibilities? Would that still qualify for academic credit toward promotion? The University of Pittsburgh now thinks that it does. How we got to this point defines shared governance.

As part of an ongoing dialogue in the University community stemming from two Senate plenary sessions focused on community service and engagement, “The University in Civic Engagement: Service in Our University Mission” in 2002 and “The Scholarship of Engagement” in 2004, the University Senate community relations committee created an ad hoc community engagement subcommittee of faculty (some from tenure and academic freedom), students and administrators. This subcommittee addressed these issues in a report that was reviewed by three Senate committees: community relations, educational policies and tenure and academic freedom. The final report was approved by Faculty Assembly and Senate Council in December 2006 and passed on to the provost for possible changes in the Faculty Handbook. In late January, Robert Pack, speaking for the provost, endorsed the recommendations and forwarded them to various units in the University, stressing that individual units may weight academic credit differently based on their unique situations. The result was a rewording of the Faculty Handbook to underscore the academic merit of generalizable knowledge stemming from community service programs.

What was this report and how does it affect the faculty and students of the University of Pittsburgh? The report first reviewed the current University mission, policies and guidelines and then considered national benchmarks and Carnegie classification options on community engagement, developing guidelines for better defining community/public service as it relates to teaching and research work of faculty and to the student learning experience. While the final authority for defining and recognizing service rests with each academic unit, this report developed broader guidelines to assist academic units in developing, implementing and assessing teaching and research as they relate to public/community service. The report drew on a wide range of benchmarking materials on community engagement, public service and service-learning, including the Carnegie Foundation on the Advancement of Teaching, Campus Compact and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

The subcommittee concluded that service should encompass three dimensions: service to the academy, service to the profession or discipline and service to the community (public service). However, it is in the “public service” dimension where the subcommittee was concerned that academic public service be distinguished from “volunteerism,” which is an important expression of citizenship but not an academic extension. Service should generate knowledge, and this knowledge should be generalizable to ensure that public service is connected to our teaching and research missions.

Thus the report concluded that public/community service should:

• respond to community-identified needs and be co-created with the community;

• have tangible, measurable outcomes that can be evaluated and documented through process assessment and products of research or outreach;

• generate knowledge that should be generalizable.

In stressing community engagement and partnership, public/community service also should:

• articulate a process for entering into a service partnership that respects the assets, values and dignity of the community;

• build or enhance the capacity of the community or community partners;

• be sustainable by the community and/or by future collaborations with the University;

• educate faculty/students and the community partners through a process in which all are co-learners from the knowledge and expertise of one another.

The report also said that the University should encourage faculty and student citizenship that includes co-curricular volunteer service and civic engagement activities as part of the living and learning experience at the University. However, connecting community or public service to the teaching mission, faculty role and student classroom learning experience must extend beyond volunteerism and significantly connect curriculum to service efforts. Service-learning or research service-learning connects community service with the teaching and research curriculum of a profession or discipline through course or project work for academic credit.

Thus, in addition to the previous guidelines for community service, service-learning or research service-learning should:

• demonstrate co-learning among university and community partners that is sustainable in the field as well as in the classroom;

• provide a record of what knowledge was co-generated, how the curriculum was applied in the field and what learning was internalized.

Service in teaching and learning may also incorporate research service-learning to:

• enhance professional development and leadership of those engaged in the learning;

• advance research as an integral component of the service provided;

• promote faculty and student scholarship within the discipline or profession, as well as across disciplines and professions.

Our University already has distinguished itself as an engaged university by creating its Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC), hosting a national COPC conference, bringing national leaders on community engagement to our Senate plenary sessions and other campus forums, and faculty publishing in the literature of civic engagement. We were recognized among the 25 higher education institutions ranked as “Saviors of Our Cities” by Evan Dobelle of the New England Board of Education for their community and economic impact. The perception of the University of Pittsburgh is of an “engaged” institution that has had significant community and economic impact in its region and local communities. This growing recognition of our University’s work affords an opportunity to make community service and service-learning centers of excellence within our institution.

— Michael Pinsky, Tracy Soska & Linda Hartman


Michael R. Pinsky is a professor of critical care medicine and vice president of the University Senate. Tracy Soska is a professor of social work and a member of the Senate’s community relations committee. Linda Hartman is a professor in the Health Sciences Library System and co-chair of the Senate’s community relations committee.

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