Jan. 5, 2011

CU recognized as an 'institution of community engagement'

Cornell University has scores of programs that do everything from helping children avoid burns to educating men in prisons and supporting the sustainability of small farms.

For its community engagement, the university has earned the nation's top recognition. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching -- whose classifications of colleges and universities are considered the country's gold standard -- has designated Cornell an "institution of community engagement," Carnegie announced today (Jan. 5). Cornell is now one of only 311 U.S. colleges and universities to receive this classification.

Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy and Senior Vice Provost Ronald Seeber were the executive sponsors for the application to Carnegie. "In these times, community engagement is more important than ever," Seeber said. "In the 21st century, it is essential for a university or college to demonstrate its value to society through its interactions with the communities its students and faculty members are trying to learn about and serve."

Carnegie defines community engagement as "the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity."

To receive the designation, Cornell, which is New York state's land-grant university, had to provide descriptions and examples of institutionalized practices of community engagement that showed alignment among its mission, culture, leadership, resources and practices.

Cornell has significant depth and breadth in its scores of community-related programs, Seeber said. The Cornell Public Service Center functions as the university's primary hub for student community service and service learning, involving more than 7,000 students and 150 faculty members in civic programs annually. Other examples include the Cornell Prison Education Program, which provides free education for 120 incarcerated men each year. Ten Cornell faculty members typically teach courses and other faculty members -- including President David Skorton -- give guest lectures, supported by 80 undergraduates who serve as teaching assistants.

Other programs cited in the application include the Community and Regional Development Institute. It promotes entrepreneurship, innovation and regional economic competitiveness in New York state's Southern Tier through collaborative initiatives to identify new opportunities for economic growth and by enhancing university-industry connections to promote technology- and knowledge-transfer. The Cornell Small Farms Program promotes the sustainability of small farms that contribute to food security and healthy rural communities; it also offers cooperative extension programs, such as online classes for beginning farmers, and provides neutral information about the needs of small farms to inform public policy decisions. And Weill Cornell Medical College's Department of Surgery Burn Education Initiative provides outreach programs for groups such as firefighters, children and foster parents to prevent burns among high-risk populations and to promote community understanding and empathy for the needs of recovering burn victims. Its work was among factors recently leading to the fewest civilian fire deaths in New York City in 90 years.

"The classification demonstrates the strength and range of Cornell's relationships, with groups from nonprofit organizations to local governments," said Murphy. "Benefits exist both for the university as well as for communities. Our students can apply lessons learned in the classroom and come to understand the real issues that often underlie theories and principles. Our faculty members gain robust research sites for their work. And communities have the opportunity to educate us about what is needed for them to thrive."

Preparing the application took considerable effort, given the breadth of community-related activities across the university. Amanda Kittelberger in the Office of Land Grant Affairs, working with Nathan Fawcett, also in the Office of Land Grant Affairs, and Leonardo Vargas-Mendez of the Public Service Center, headed up the project. They were aided by 18 faculty members and other key contacts representing all the undergraduate colleges and professional schools.

The Carnegie Foundation, through the work of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, developed the first typology of American colleges and universities in 1970 as a research tool to describe and represent the diversity of U.S. higher education. The Carnegie classification system continues to be used for a wide range of purposes by academic researchers, institutional personnel, policymakers and others.

The Carnegie Foundation created the community engagement classification in 2006. Unlike its other classifications that rely on national data, this is an "elective" classification -- institutions elect to participate by submitting required documentation. The next opportunity for colleges and universities to apply will be in 2015.