In an all-campus email from Jan. 29, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Joyce Jacobsen announced the publication of the University’s Civic Action Plan, a document crafted for the purpose of guiding students and instructors in their development as community leaders. The plan envisions civic engagement as a lifelong process, one with which people can engage long after they leave the University and Middletown communities.
“[The Civic Action Plan will] guide us in becoming an increasingly ‘Engaged University’ where we build student, faculty, and staff capacity for civic participation, where we prepare our students to engage in civic participation throughout their lives, and where civic responsibility is a visible institutional commitment,” the email reads.
The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life (CSPL) houses the best-known service-learning programs on campus, with the Office of Community Service (OCS), Jewett Center for Community Partnerships (JCCP), and the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship operating under its auspices. Through the CSPL, courses that focus on public engagement are offered in various subject areas, from journalism to nonprofit management. Work-study and volunteer opportunities can be found with groups that operate out of the OCS or JCCP. Students can tutor at local schools, work at an after-school program, or work with the Center for Prison Education, among others. Courses with service-learning components are also offered through individual departments and may focus on the publication of research, curation, or education.
While the University’s engagement in the Middletown community remains important, the crux of the Civic Action Plan is the education of students as participants in the public sphere more generally. The first component of the plan, titled “Building student capacity for civic participation,” aims to redirect efforts toward the individual’s development of a civic identity. Through service-learning courses and opportunities within Allbritton, students can cultivate tools and knowledge to effectively participate in the public sphere.
“Through its community partnerships and other programs, approximately 400 students annually work with individuals and institutions beyond the borders of the campus to solve problems and create opportunities,” the Civic Action Plan reads. “A new fund for innovation in the JCCP will support creative proposals by our students for additional community-involvement initiatives.”
Increasing student preparedness includes not only service-learning opportunities, but also instruction in the skills necessary for one to effectively contribute to their community. At the Patricelli Center, Director Mikaela Kingsley ’98 remains attentive to the myriad ways in which one can prepare for a life of civic engagement.
“I don’t think so much in terms of skills as much I think about aptitudes,” Kingsley wrote in an email to The Argus. “I like to say that the Patricelli Center teaches ‘problem-solving mindsets and skill sets.’ That includes everything from specific tools like root cause analysis, human-centered design, and lean startup method to general competencies like cultural awareness, empathy, oral presentation skills, data-driven decision making, etc.”
University President Michael Roth ’78 expressed his enthusiasm for the new student-centered approach to civic engagement at the University. As he explains, to invest in its students is to invest indirectly in both the local community and wherever students may end up following graduation.
“I think our job is actually to educate everybody to be more prepared to participate in the public sphere, whether that means through activism and protest, through institutions and participation, or other domains,” Roth said. “So I think that supporting students with that goal in mind is something we haven’t really articulated or put out there before.”
Supporting faculty and staff initiatives comprises the second initiative listed in the Civic Action Plan.
“Staff, too, are engaged in a wide variety of civic projects. The JCCP will create an inventory of these activities, as well, working more closely with other institutional entities such as Human Resources, Usdan, and Athletics,” the plan reads. “Once the University has an even better sense of the range and depth of staff commitments…support will include increased communication resources, co-sponsorships, and making some university facilities increasingly available in support of civic projects.”
The third and final aspect of the plan is directed toward the Middletown community itself. The JCCP will hire a coordinator to work with its new director, Clifton Watson, and the Center will be reaching out to a wider variety of departments on campus to develop community programming.
“Enhancing recognition of Wesleyan’s role in public life is also helpful in creating an atmosphere pervaded by civic energy,” the plan reads. “Communications will continue to showcase the civic work of students, faculty and staff, as well as our institutional efforts in this area. These efforts include partnerships with other organizations, as well as public stands taken by the university (often through its president) on national issues bearing on its educational mission.”
With the suspension of all programming at the Green Street Learning Center in December 2017 (it will close officially in June 2018), one of the University’s most popular community initiatives has come to an end. According to President Roth, it became financially inefficient to continue running the program.
“The Green Street…originally the Green Street Arts Center, was started with the idea that the University would help it get started and then it would work on its own,” Roth said. “That was the plan, and it was never really…. It wasn’t a good plan in that regard because that never was possible.”
He also suggested that the University is not the best institution to administer such a program.
“And so I think that the Green Street Center did a lot of great things, and I spent a fair amount of time there and saw up close the great work being done with kids,” Roth said. “But I think that when we started that program, we said, ‘Should the University provide a free daycare in Middletown?,’ the answer would have been pretty clear that there are probably better organizations [that are] better equipped to provide daycare in Middletown than the University.”
However, as Roth noted, the University’s end goal is still to educate students in an effort to develop individuals who can participate effectively in public life.
“But I think the point of [a new community initiative] should be, in addition to being a good partner to other organizations in Middletown, the point of it should be to prepare Wesleyan students to participate in the public sphere,” he said. “If we want to operate a school adjacent to Wesleyan, that’s a different kind of project.”
According to Kingsley, the University must consider many factors when determining how best to engage in the wider community.
“I do think there are some key principles to keep in mind as we proceed, for example, what does the community want and need (as opposed to what we want or think they need), what are the real assets of Wesleyan (financial, social, intellectual, and otherwise) and how can they be best leveraged in a sustainable way, and what actions or investments will yield the greatest return on investment (social return, not financial return),” Kingsley wrote.
As a learning institution, Kingsley said, Wesleyan has much to offer its community.
“I would say that as an anchor institution in Middletown, we have a responsibility to our City,” he wrote. “Historically universities have been places where knowledge is created; in today’s world, I think the role of a university should be about translating knowledge (and evidence, critical thinking, creativity, etc.) into action.”
Molly Schiff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.