Awesomely Urban: A Conversation with Andrew Furco

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2016

The metropolitan setting of the Twin Cities campus is increasingly helping shape its mission and identity.

By Meleah Maynard, Illustrations by Jacob Thomas, Photo By Mark Luinenburg

What does it mean for a land grant university to be engaged with the community at a time when higher education is undergoing fundamental change?

Andrew Furco has spent his career exploring that question. Furco, the University of Minnesota's associate vice president for public engagement and professor of higher education in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, is an internationally known leader and thinker on public engagement. He talked with Minnesota Alumni.

What does it mean to be an urban university?

We have to remember that the University of Minnesota has five campuses [Crookston, Duluth, Morris, Rochester, Twin Cities], so it's not all about location or where campuses are situated. All of the campuses have robust community engagement agendas designed to connect students, faculty, and academic units in partnership with local organizations.

For example Crookston, perhaps our most rural campus, is doing excellent work on urban forestry in the horticulture department. The Center for Small Towns at Morris has partnered with the City of Morris and area schools on a project titled Adapting to Change: Managing Urbanization in Rural America to develop mentorship programs, park development, and managing a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Across the system, we also have faculty, staff, and students doing work globally, much of which is focused on addressing health, environmental, educational, and other urban-focused issues.

And there are programs and units specifically focused on addressing urban issues, such as the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center, the urban studies undergraduate program, and masters in urban and regional planning.

What is unique about the Twin Cities campus?

It is one of the few Carnegie-classified "very high research university" campuses situated in an urban, metropolitan center [see sidebar next page]. This provides the Twin Cities campus with a unique opportunity, and I would say awesome responsibility, to integrate its research and educational activities with the needs of the communities that surround the campus. Given the size of the metropolitan area, there is a rich array of valuable opportunities to partner with nonprofits and governmental agencies to address issues that affect our neighborhoods; with national companies and innovative small businesses on strengthening the development of the future workforce; with educational entities to address K-12 needs; the list goes on.

What kind of engagement is required?

Many issues that urban communities face require a long-term, sustained investment in deriving and implementing solutions. They require systemic solutions coordinated across agencies and stakeholders. The K-12 education achievement gap is a good example. No one agency or entity can solve it alone, and it can't be solved overnight. For an urban-situated campus, it begs the question: What is the role of a research university in addressing these challenges? Because of its metropolitan location, the Twin Cities campus has a proximal advantage to work directly with these urban issues. It therefore has a responsibility to consider what it can do to work in partnership with external entities to tackle these intractable issues. This is what the Twin Cities campus's strategic plan, launched last year, focuses on: solving the grand challenges of a diverse and changing world.

One important part of this agenda is how we engage our students in addressing these community issues. One of my research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education, which I'm conducting with educational psychology professor Geoffrey Maruyama, is finding that many of our students, especially those from urban centers and from underrepresented groups, see community-engaged learning as a central and important component for enhancing their sense of belonging at the University and to their overall persistence and academic success. A large portion of our diverse student body comes from the metro area and other urban communities. Connecting their academic work with authentic community issues allows them to see that the education they're getting at the U has relevance in their personal lives and that it can help them make a real difference in the society.

Is community engagement a core function of the University?

Yes. In the 25 years I have been studying this issue, there has been a dramatic shift in how community engagement is perceived, valued, and legitimized in higher education. However, while it is an important function and increasingly a valued one, we in higher education still need to find a way to reward faculty who do community-engaged teaching and research.

At the U of M, as a system, we have made great strides in building what we call a 21st century approach to community engagement, which means moving from being a university with community engagement programs to being an "engaged university." This is what we mean by making community engagement a core function.

Higher education is changing. The nature of our student body, the nature of faculty work, the organization of our higher education institutions, disciplinary boundaries, advances in technology, new funding models-all of these are reshaping how higher education operates. And community-engaged work, conducted through the 21st century lens, can help it achieve contemporary goals. This is happening at all types of institutions of higher education across the globe. For universities situated in urban centers, community-engaged work can be the key to strengthening relationships with the broader community and leveraging partnerships that help address the most intractable and challenging issues that urban centers face.

Engagement Programs vs. the Engaged University

There's a difference between being a university with community engagement programs and being an engaged university, says University of Minnesota Associate Vice President for Public Engagement Andrew Furco.

The difference lies in these five factors.

Engagement differs from outreach. Traditionally, universities' missions have entailed research, teaching, and outreach, and community engagement has been equated with fulfilling the outreach mission. In contrast, the 21st century model sees engagement also as a means to produce research and conduct teaching.

Engagement is at the heart of the University's identity.

Public engagement must go beyond fulfilling the land grant mission. It must be viewed as integral to the University's identity as an institution that builds and implements research agendas, shapes classroom experiences, promotes educational opportunities, and influences broader society.

Engagement focuses on partnerships.

Historically, the biggest complaint from community members is that researchers come in, do their work, and then leave when the project or grant ends. The 21st century model moves away from implementing short-term projects to building long-term partnerships.

Engagement is with, not to, for, or in communities.

It honors knowledge and experience within communities in ways that allow the University and community to codevelop, codiscover, coconstruct, and coproduce.

Engagement is about institutional transformation.

For engagement to flourish, a university must implement a comprehensive institutional plan that refines and reimagines the existing culture, policies, and infrastructure.


See All Stories

Stay Connected.