Scholars and Leaders from CU Campuses Gather to Discuss University’s Public and Community-Engaged Scholarship

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By Gretchen Minekime


Whether it’s addressing workforce development needs, providing data on air and water quality, or supporting future physicians with placements at regional health education centers, the University of Colorado actively partners with communities to address the issues facing our state.

In recent years, the Board of Regents and President Saliman have made strengthening connections around Colorado a top CU System priority. Against this backdrop, representatives from all four campuses gathered last April to discuss the University of Colorado’s public and community-engaged scholarship efforts. The Boulder campus’s Office for Outreach and Engagement organized and hosted the April gathering. The presidents of two influential national organizations with a focus on public and community-engaged scholarship (Engagement Scholarship Consortium [ESC] and Campus Compact) supported the summit, providing opening remarks and facilitation services; ESC also provided fiscal sponsorship through a grant.

Building partnerships with communities and harnessing the University of Colorado’s academic resources to address public issues has been an institutional priority since at least 1912 when leaders created University Extension to reach beyond the campus. A quote from the department’s first director, Loran D. Osborn, rings as true today as it did then.

“Only a fortunate few have the privilege of being in residence at the University of Colorado…Its expert resources are too valuable an asset to the state to be thus limited. They should be at the disposal of individuals who cannot come within the college walls, and communities which are seeking information and guidance in solution of the complex problems of modern life.”

Extension efforts eventually grew into the University of Colorado system, which was established in the early 1970s. Over the years, each of the system’s four campuses has built a reputation based on its unique attributes. By no means is the reach of each campus limited to its immediate geographic area, nor can any of the campuses alone address the complex needs facing Colorado communities. Participants who attended the April 21 summit shared their perspectives about potential gains from more coordination and related obstacles. They explored issues pertaining to communications, financial and human resources, data, and approaches with community partnerships.

Those gathered included campus-level administrators of research and faculty development, several chairs, deans, and program directors, and a small number of faculty and staff practitioners. Together, the group explored ways that coordinated and collaborative efforts would reduce redundancies and increase efficiencies, while increasing opportunities for more profound community impact and authentically building the university’s standing with diverse constituencies throughout Colorado.

They also identified challenges related to decentralization, inadequate resources, messaging and political will. Many participants emphasized, however, that an aligned approach would not need to be at odds with each campus’s distinct characteristics and offerings. Instead, leveraging the best from each campus in a more coordinated approach to partnering with the residents of Colorado could reinforce the unique character of each while achieving greater collective impact.

“A major part of the mission of CU is to serve the State of Colorado. Community-engaged scholarship is an important way that we do that,” said Lynn Vidler, professor and dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “The summit facilitated connections between faculty at the different campuses who are engaged in this work and highlighted for CU System leaders the impact they are making. I was truly inspired by the mission-focused work everyone is doing.”

Participants’ exploratory efforts regarding a more coordinated approach to public and community-engaged scholarship will complement the CU system Office of Outreach and Engagement’s work, especially the group known as the Strategic Colorado Outreach and Engagement (SCOrE) team convened by Vice President Tony Salazar. SCOrE is the coordinating body for the university’s outreach activities and comprises representatives from all four campuses.

According to Salazar, “The incredible service that CU provides to Colorado communities has been and will continue to be driven by the work of the faculty, staff and students on our campuses. At System, we seek to help coordinate and publicize engagement statewide for even greater impact.”

In response to one proposal that emerged from April 21 summit participants, System will be covering membership costs for all four campuses to join Campus Compact for one year. A leading national organization supporting public engagement in higher education since its creation in 1985, Campus Compact membership will unlock access to a number of opportunities and resources. The organization’s national conference will be held in Denver April 7-10, 2024.

More than one hundred years after Osborn encouraged the University of Colorado to extend its resources beyond campus borders, the problems of modern life continue to increase in complexity. The university can still play a unique and transformational role. As Colorado’s first and largest university system, it is the University of Colorado’s responsibility to offer its best to the residents and communities of this state.