In my eighteen years as a university president, I have come to realize that, while policy usually drives institutional change, it is often the little things we do on our campuses that make the biggest difference in our immediate and extended communities.
Following the first Charlottesville debacle in the U.S., community leaders, including no small number of university presidents, took to their keyboards to compose forceful statements on their commitment to diversity, taking public stands against the disturbing incidents that questioned the very nature of our social contract.
Before composing my message to the King’s University College community, I stepped out of my office, took a right, and walked down the short hallway to the Vitali Lounge to breathe in the clamour of eighty young girls and boys who were lost in a world of their own, a world defined by scissors, paper and paint. They were crafting together as part of the activities of the London Interfaith Peace Camp. Chatting with their adult and teenage counsellors and listening to the young Muslim, Jewish and Christian ‘campers’ as they prepped for their upcoming field trip to the local synagogue provided me with a hopeful perspective from which to reach out to my faculty colleagues, students and alumni and re-framed my reflections on heritage marchers in Virginia, the assault on a Quebec mosque, and so-called travel bans.
My encounter with them reminded me why a post-secondary academic institution like mine decided many years ago to help establish and support an outreach centre dedicated to building understanding between the different faith groups within our city, an undertaking which many had characterized as a needless departure from our core educational mission as a publicly-funded university.
I am happy to say that I am not alone in the view that universities and colleges have a fundamental responsibility to connect to their communities and use their human and capital resources to build the society of which they are a part. There is an emerging conversation in Canada right now regarding the enormous role colleges and universities might play in strengthening the fabric of Canadian society.
Social infrastructure building is the emerging term that embraces existing campus priorities such as community engagement, social innovation partnership, and community-based research and recognizes that universities and colleges should play a bigger role in doing so is at the centre of this developing conversation.
To be clear, Canadian universities and colleges have been community-building agents for a very long time for the simple reason that partnerships are integral to the advancement of the academic missions of research, teaching and service. In many cases, overall institutional mission drives community engagement. Operationally, community partnerships are necessary for the successful delivery of many programs and the research agenda of particular departments, or scholars.
In smaller communities and in colleges, there is often a deep awareness that vibrant connection to community is at the heart of institutional relevance- in other words, if you don’t serve the needs of your local community, you may not be around very long. While the motives for engagement in and with the community can be quite complex, the end result is more often than not the strengthening of both community and educational institutions.
Socially-engaged learning and community-engaged research has always been part of King’s mission and praxis since our founding over six decades ago. It’s why we were home to the first social justice and peace studies honours program in the country and lay claim to the London Poverty Research Centre, King’s Liberal Arts 101 (a program for non-traditional students), the Centre for Jewish Catholic Muslim Learning (which sponsors the Interfaith Peace Camp), and a plethora of academic, community outreach and social finance programs and practices.
What is changing on our campus, however, is a growing realization that we need to do more to make these programs more sustainable and that, in partnership with other PSE institutions, we can increase their community impact. So, King’s has made a strategic commitment to build upon its local and often small-scale programs and leverage its position as employer, purchaser, and centre of teaching and research.
The promising conversation at King’s is also underway on campuses across the country. Should Canada’s universities and colleges accept the challenge to make social infrastructure an institutional priority and work with community groups, supporting agencies and government, it is possible to imagine the establishment of impactful and sustainable cooperative initiatives that would bear tremendous social dividends for all Canadians.
It’s time Canada’s educational leaders recognize that the proven initiatives that have made their campuses and our communities stronger are worth building upon. To do so intentionally and collectively would, arguably, be a game changer not only for our institutions but for the country.