By Cassie L. Barnhardt
Higher Education and Student Affairs

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Through my research, I study the ways universities engage with matters of public and civic importance, and how they understand, interpret, and communicate their sense of social responsibility. Making sense of social responsibility in higher education is ultimately about deciphering the extent to which a university uses its unique talents and capacities to do the most good for the most people.

Higher education institutions, especially public ones, are responsible for comprehensively responding to society’s learning needs, and the various ways in which campuses fulfill these responsibilities is referred to as public outreach and engagement.

In the early days of American higher education, reaching the public was part of the impetus for constructing a parallel system of education distinct from the procedurally closed system of private higher education prominent throughout the American colonies. The burgeoning nation aspired to make education more accessible to individuals, but interest in developing public universities was also motivated by an aspiration to assist communities in applying knowledge and solving community challenges so that the country could further develop its capacities.

Today, public engagement is typically pursued via university-community partnerships in areas such as public health, business, technology, education, social work, and other fields. The College of Education’s outreach and engagement efforts include initiatives such as the Oakdale Prison Choir, the Shelter House Writing Project, and Strong Girls Read. While many positive outreach and engagement milestones have occurred, there is always more that universities can do to meet society’s learning needs.

Colleges and universities are distinctive from other organizations. They do not make laws or proscribe policy relating to collective topics such as climate and environmental science, human rights, public health, teaching strategies, and economic or foreign policy. However, colleges and universities are essential sites for contributing knowledge, discovery, and innovation to address these urgent and socially-relevant matters, because they are prefaced in inquiry, dialogue, and debate; fiercely committed to excellence and achievement; and situated to serve in the simultaneous role of advisor and social critic.

The unique capabilities of colleges and universities impart them with a much-needed set of tools to assist society in resolving social problems. Higher education as a field can offer expert insight on collective problems that affect communities, rigorously test propositions to assure wise and effective action, generate new tools and innovations, make new discoveries to improve understanding, anticipate outcomes and make evidence-based predictions, and facilitate learning and understanding on issues of identified need.

“The hope is that by encouraging public and civic engagement through individual and organizational educational processes we might create a world where human dignity is paramount.”

The hope is that by encouraging public and civic engagement through individual and organizational educational processes we might create a world where human dignity is paramount, controversy and conflict are met with an eagerness to learn and understand, and self-interest is moderated by collective commitments and responsibilities to the community.