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Task force promotes ‘culture of engagement’

BY DANNY VALENTINE | NOVEMBER 05, 2009 7:20 AM

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There’s a phrase UI community members are almost certain to hear emphasized a great deal more in the near future: “Public outreach.”

As the higher-education landscape changes drastically, UI officials are looking for ways to make the university more relevant to outside groups, particularly to Iowans.

That’s where the Task Force on Public Outreach and Civic Engagement comes in.

The 25-person commission held its first public forum Wednesday, taking suggestions and updating the public on its vision for how the UI will partner with communities and organizations statewide.

The committee proposed a “transformational change” that better aligns teaching, research, and service with engagement, said the panel cochairman, Professor Steve McGuire.

The task force has four plans: to transform the UI in terms of engagement, partner with community colleges, expand arts and humanities engagement across Iowa, and identify an arena to coordinate faculty and staff engagement projects.

Many at the UI are already involved with the community, but there is little structure to publicize their efforts, and much is only discovered throughout the institution by word-of-mouth.

“Right now, we don’t know the projects — all the projects — people are doing,” McGuire said.

Better engagement would allow the UI to “harvest the lessons learned from experience,” he said.

UI political-science Professor Tom Rice’s citizen survey in Washington, Iowa, conducted this past summer, is an example of outreach efforts that benefit both the community and students.

He said several Iowa cities could benefit from citizen surveys, but a typical survey of 500 people costs around $20,000 to $30,000.

So this past summer, Rice, and a group of high-school and UI students conducted a poll for Washington, Iowa, officials, asking questions they wanted to know but never had the money to ask, while simultaneously providing students with beneficial and marketable skills.

“It was a great experience,” he said.

Rice said he wants to start a class next spring that would conduct similar citizen surveys for other Iowa towns.

“To me, it’s a win-win all the way around,” he said. “It meets the definition of outreach and then some. It has value added … We think it’s an excellent way to give students in political science the kind of applied skills they wouldn’t otherwise get.”

But for some, there may be little incentive to partake in public engagement, because it might not count toward tenure.

“This is a huge question,” said Rice. “In good conscience, I can’t recommend my junior faculty to do this kind of research unless they have the traditional scholarship in place. We need to be able to reward them for outreach that is serious.”

One of the committee’s preliminary goals is to provide incentives for faculty and staff to engage the public.

The task force, which is one of six created to help guide the UI’s overall strategic mission, will host one more public forum on Nov. 10. Members will then submit a report to the Provost’s Office by Dec. 1 on how the UI can improve public engagement.


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