The Impact of a Community-University Collaboration: Opening the “Black Box”

Siemens, L. (2012). The impact of a community-university collaboration: Opening the “black box”. Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research, 3(1), 5-25.


Within the Social Economy, universities are working with community representatives to undertake research projects, service learning opportunities, and increasingly, academic program development, all with the objective of addressing social challenges. As many are quick to caution, the community is actually a sum of its various actors, interests, accountabilities and needs, which university staff and faculty must work to understand. Like the community, the university is a complex organization with politics, conflicts, tensions, and competing goals and objectives. Within this larger context, these various components, focusing on government, academic and administrative stakeholders, will impact and may even limit aspects of a collaboration between the university and its community partners. Through examination of a case study related to a graduate program, which was collaboratively developed between the university and community representatives, this article will identify and explore those accountabilities and the resulting impact on the collaboration. It will conclude with recommendations for similar partnerships.

The author presents her experience collaborating with community partners to develop a Master’s level degree in Community Development (MACD) at the University of Victoria. Early on she states “These [university] individuals must approach the community with cultural humility and ensure that they understand its culture and context before undertaking activities with them. For a partnership to be successful, all parties must understand the other, meaning that community members should undertake activities to learn about the university’s context.”

I couldn’t agree more. We often read about how the university needs to understand our community partners but we rarely read about the community needing to understand the complex, bureaucratic and administratively burdensome university. Compared with many of our community partners who are lean organizations with relatively flat decision making structures, universities are monolithic giants with very little transparency to external partners. This paper uses the development of the MACD to illustrate the complexity of university decision making and the tensions that arise when working with “partners” who are unable to be equal “partners” in the process due to policies established at many levels of the university and through provincial legislation.

Although UVic launched the MACD course in 2.5 years it can take up to 5 years to pass all the different levels of university and provincial approval. Community – please be patient with us. We mean well but we are large and vertical not small, horizontal organizations.  Table 2 describes the different decisions made throughout the process and Table 3 describes the approval process for a new graduate level degree.  Community was not involved in any decision making process. Despite being instrumental in the development of the idea and the curriculum and identifying potential instructors, community was shut out of decision making roles relegating them to advisors.  While we often see university professors or administrators with Board level positions of community organizations we rarely see such engagement of the community on university decisions – advice frequently, but decision making rarely. This results in tensions if the community doesn’t understand the unusual policy and legislative environment of their university partners. As the author writes, “During the program planning stages, community representatives of the working group played an active role in decision-making within the parameters set by the Faculty of Graduate Studies…This role was mediated to active consultation and advice during the program implementation stage with regards to curriculum, instructor qualifications, student recruitment and other operational issues. This change in role and input has led to tensions between some community representatives and the university as it raises the question of the meaning of the term “partnership” and corresponding extent of control and formal decision-making that can be exercised by community representatives within this type of collaboration.”

Another aspect of the MACD process illustrates the limited ability of community to be equal partners in program delivery. “While there was an agreed commitment to have community practitioners teach within the program, the School of Public Administration had to ensure that these sessional instructors met the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ requirements of at least a master’s degree. Consequently, some community members with significant professional expertise but no graduate degree remain ineligible to teach in the program.”

There is a movement towards community engagement in the higher education sector as exemplified by initiatives like the Canadian Community Campus Collaboration Initiative lead by the Governor General, SSHRC, United Way Centraide Canada and ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche; the Beacons for Public Engagement of the Research Councils UK; the Talloires Network institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education and the Global University Network for Innovationwhich seeks a “renewal of the visions, missions and policies of higher education across the world under a vision of public service, relevance and social responsibility.” The case study of this paper illustrates a degree of institutional inflexibility that is inconsistent with universities seeking to engage with local and global communities.

Key points for discussion:

  1. Authorship – like the critique I had for a previous journal club posting about an article on the community’s capacity to engage with research evidence, the sole author for this paper is an academic. If she is reporting on a partnership with the community and reporting on the community’s challenges working with the university, why doesn’t she include her community partners as authors? Message for all community engaged academics: it’s time to walk the talk and treat your partners as equals throughout the research process including scholarly dissemination.
  2. Transparency – Three years ago I was asked, “What is the problem to which knowledge mobilization is the answer”. In the first of a three part blog series we published that a lack of cultural transparency between researchers and their collaborators is the problem to which knowledge mobilization is the answer. Lack of transparency and cultural understanding challenges our ability to form institutional partnerships. We must abide by external legislation. We have more control (albeit limited) over our own institutional policies. It is therefore incumbent upon us to communicate these constraints to our partners. How well do you see these constraints communicated between your local university and community partners?
  3. Research vs. Learning – Is engaging community partners in a research program easier than the experiences described in this article? Research is more of an individualized activity than teaching. Unlike degree programs that are provincially regulated and approved through a university’s Senate process, in Canada the majority of research is funded by federal agencies and rarely subject to institutional approval. There is a trend for research funding agencies like to embrace partnered research funding while maintaining their investment in investigator driven research. In some funding programs the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research are also engaging non-academics on peer review committees, not only for relevance but for funding decisions. What can teaching and learning programs learn from research programs?

RIR is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article.  Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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