This paper is presented as part of the Working Papers series for COMM-ORG: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. Copyright is held by the author. To cite, use: [author] [date] [title], paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development.

“Higher Education Engages with Community: New Policies and Inevitable Political Complexities”

Kathleen Staudt and Christine Thurlow Brenner

The University of Texas at El Paso


Theoretical Perspectives: Partnership IS Political
Regional Context
      Case 1: Alliance Schools
      Case 2: Young Scholars Investigate Bankers’ Lending Practices
      Case 3: City Agencies as Partners Conclusions and Lessons Learned
About the Paper and Authors


            In a fine collection about the role of higher education in building civic capacity, essay writers offered tribute to the late Ernest Boyer who believed universities were about far more than generating credit hour production and getting tenure.  According to Boyer, universities should engage with their regional communities to contribute to problem solving and social justice (Boyer, 1990; see Bringle 1999).    Related interdisciplinary analytic collections on “service learning” propose a new kind of research and teaching that reaches beyond the traditional academic classroom (Zlotkowski 1998; Battistoni and Hudson 1998).  With the use word “service,” perhaps proponents aim to depoliticize what is an inherently political project as the university fosters new relationships and constituencies in its regional context.  We analyze some of those political complexities in this essay, and offer some lessons as scholar activists move from program creation to growth and consolidation stages in their community partnerships.

Theoretical Perspectives: Partnership IS Political

            As colleagues in a political science department, we look at our region through a political lens.  Our understanding of policy change, including higher education policy change, reflects the symbiotic connection between policies and political constituencies.  Political constituencies promote new policies, the common sense directional understanding, but advocates of policy change also cultivate political constituencies (Stone, 1997) and should expect conflict in those associated with redistributive policies, such as the social justice issues Boyer highlighted (Lowi 1964).  When higher education institutions are perceived to be aligned with social justice organizations, including those that challenge the status quo, we should expect conflict.  According to Clarence Stone, “Gains tend to go only to those who are mobilized, enjoy significant allies, and can sustain a bargaining position over time” (1999:7).  A university can serve the role of “significant ally” in affecting community change; however, such conflict will pose difficulties for university leaders.  Established relationships with the status quo, privileged constituencies in their region could be threatened by new community alliances.  Stone finds that “program professionals [and, we would argue, university professors] see lower-income neighborhoods as more fertile ground than upper-income areas for civic engagement; the less affluent communities have greater need and therefore stronger incentives to take on a new relationship with the schools [including universities] and the city’s Neighborhood Office.  In the civic engagement model, policy is not something public agencies [or public universities] deliver to citizens, but rather a matter of joint co-production” (1999:10). 

            Also classic in political science literature about regulation is the alleged “iron triangle” relationships among government officials, political constituencies, and businesses (Lowi 1979).  Triangular relationships have been analyzed between land grant universities, the government agricultural county agents, and their farm constituencies (Selznick 1949 for the precedent-setting research).  Organized farmers represented the interests of the privileged rather than of all those who tilled the land. Analyses like those gave rise to the word “co-optation” for insights about how the ostensible “public” interest in government institutions, whether universities or agricultural field agents, served the private interests of selected private constituencies instead.

            Then and now, university leaders are attentive to their historic, actual, and potential constituencies.  These range from alumni to sports enthusiasts, various professionals, and others who contribute to or detract from the university mission, whether donors, alumni, or those in the media.  As state legislatures reduce their subsidies of higher education, and people protest steep tuition hikes, university leaders must raise increasing proportions of their budgets through grants and development activities. This process is marked in state of Texas. Higher education leaders, then, are highly conscious of regional constituencies.

            One common way for public institutions to respond to new initiatives is through the creation of enclave offices (for extensive elaboration, see Staudt 1985).  These enclaves, located at the margins of an institution’s technical core, limit the risk to the institution and its leadership. Yet risk is omnipresent with new initiatives, particularly those that cultivate new constituencies and especially those that align universities in a redistributive agenda, redistributing opportunities and resources in ways that shift power relations.  Boyer’s advocacy of social justice engagement is precisely the sort of redistributive agenda that will likely evoke political conflict. 

           Universities sometimes create more than one enclave unit to pursue different initiatives and constituencies.  Ideally, these enclaves would speak with one voice or coordinate efforts with one another.  In the real world, a single reporting relational structure aims to facilitate that single voice and coordination.  Yet even in those real world conditions, enclave units may compete with one another for funds, turf, and authority.  Each may pursue ideological visions with a limited common ideological ground, thus setting the stage for professional conflict within the university and across its boundaries to a region’s diverse constituencies.

            In this essay, we analyze the University of Texas at El Paso with its transformative policy change that pursues the sort of public engagement that Ernest Boyer celebrated, often with students learning through service and community-based research.  These policies have moved beyond their birth into growth, consolidation, and potential political landmines. Through several case studies of engagement with social justice and redistributive agendas, we examine perceived university alignments that threaten the status quo.  We look at various partnerships, from formal to informal and from established to new groups that use different methods.  We highlight the time and new kind of labor associated with facilitating these partnerships.

             Leaders must plan and prepare for the inevitable conflicts in partnerships. We worry that only the stable, risk-taking leader will embrace such activity.  Advocates of higher education transformation, including the seemingly apolitical “service learning” advocates, should be prepared to deal with these inevitable complexities as universities transform their missions. Before moving to the cases, we highlight aspects of our regional context, in which numerous social justice issues emerge.

Regional Context

            The University of Texas at El Paso is situated at the U.S.-Mexico border in a binational metropolis with 700,000 residents in El Paso and 1.5 million residents in Ciudad Juarez, representing the 17th largest and 5th largest cities respectively in both countries.  In this region, at least a quarter of the population lives in poverty north of the border, and more than half, south of the border.  El Paso’s per capita income has steadily declined over the last half of the twentieth century to just under three-fifths of the U.S. per capita income (Staudt 1998:Ch 3).

            Despite the attention that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had for the border as a gateway of the Americas, El Paso has yet to capitalize on those opportunities.  In 1997, it earned a dubious distinction: El Paso had the largest number of NAFTA-displaced workers, now numbering more than 10,000.  Juarez, on the other hand, employs more than 200,000 workers in export-processing factories known as maquiladoras.  After the peso devaluation of 1994-95, official minimum wages diminished to approximately $25 weekly.  When first constructed, the City of El Paso’s Department of Economic Development web site contained links with charts totaling annual Mexican labor costs, including fringe benefits, to approximately $1,500 per worker per year.  Jobs are available in only limited supply in El Paso, which registers official unemployment figures in double digits, more than twice the rates of Texas and the U.S. economy as a whole (Staudt, 1998: Ch 8; Sharp 1998).

            Given these grim economic realities, many people look to higher education as a means out of minimum-wage job prospects.  The University of Texas at El Paso, a doctoral research-intensive university (Carnegie classification) which hovers around 15,000 students, is the only major comprehensive institution in far west Texas.  The University has aggressively sought external funding to respond to declining legislative appropriations and to position itself as a model of regional outreach.  UTEP’s demographics offer prospective grantors the opportunity to invest in “diversity,’ for its Hispanic students number approximately two-thirds of the entire student body.  By the late 1990s, UTEP’s total sponsored projects placed it fourth in the state, behind the flagship schools like the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A & M.

            Under the leadership of President Diana Natalicio, strategic planning emphasizes a mission of commitment to the region and its people.  Tenure, promotion, and evaluation guidelines still prioritize research, teaching, and service, but highlight the importance of integral connections among those three criteria, including community-based research and teaching.  Top-down leadership has begun to be coupled with bottom-up strategies in which critical masses of tenured faculty emphasize community-based teaching and learning in recruitment and evaluation.  

            The Kellogg Foundation invested resources in community-based teaching and learning in UTEP’s College of Nursing (now Health Sciences) and Texas Tech Medical School.  Nursing and medical training underwent reform in more interdisciplinary ways, sensitive to cultural and linguistic diversity in the community.  Among important legacies that the project helped sustain were four health clinics in outlying colonias, or unplanned settlements beyond the city boundaries.

            The Collaborative for Academic Excellence also created a partnership to improve academic performance among the region’s approximately 150,000 public school children.  Since 1992, the Collaborative Director has convened regular meetings with the University and Community College Presidents, the Chambers of Commerce, and the largest Community-Based Organization (CBO) in the region, the El Paso Inter-religious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO).  The Collaborative, with support from multiple sources, helped to raise expectations for all students and to spur dramatic improvements in students’ scores in the Texas accountability system that exceed those of other large urban districts, including Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio (Navarro and Natalicio 1999).

            More recently, the Kellogg Foundation invested resources in the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Business in the creation of the Institute for Community-Based Teaching and Learning (Community Partnerships, for short).  In this Institute, a classic enclave unit, we have invested considerable time in coordination, task-force management, and individual course connections to CBOs, public schools, and public agencies.  The Institute seeks to deepen students’ learning through projects that respond to community needs.  These projects are meant to produce reports, studies, and/or other concrete “deliverables” for which students are accountable, under the direction of faculty and community representatives. 

            While the Community Partnership idea sounds simple, its practice is quite complex, labor intensive, and potentially charged politically.  To be a successful community partner, faculty members are necessarily involved in building relationships of trust and alignment with some, but hardly anywhere near all the kinds of organizations, schools, and agencies with needs.  Their courses may be subject to changing dynamics and information, challenging the luxury of pre-planned and controlled course delivery.  Moreover, successful community partners open themselves to outsiders and work with students who bring a semester seasonal commitment to the experience. 

             At UTEP, near the end of the second year of the project, around thirty faculty members bring various levels of commitment to community partnerships in their teaching.  The commitment ranges from the mere claim to offer a course with community partnership opportunities to those that thoroughly integrate teaching, research, and service with one or more organizations.  Some have developed new research niches with these connections as well as new collaborators within and outside their discipline and institutional base. 

             Some faculty have also ‘bumped’ into other territory and turf carved out in the more entrepreneurial centers on campus whose directors facilitate contracts and grants around similar relationships, but with agencies often more well endowed than those with which Community Partnership faculty connect.  These centers seek funding from a broad range of institutions, from government to private donors, a local business foundation of which provided funds for the birth of one center.

             Below we consider three cases of community connection that became far more complex in practice than in initial discussions.  As participant observers, we provide an overview from which lessons will be drawn later for possible application in other models and places.  We do not mention organizations and agencies by name.

             Certain themes and questions emerge from these cases.  Are partnerships authentic, among equitable partners?  How are they institutionalized?   Do they likely disrupt existing community power relations, and if so, how and with what consequences?   Do universities speak with one voice on controversial, redistributive issues, and if not, what are some consequences?  How do faculty members negotiate relationships with community agencies for their students?  What’s the political fallout from controversial partnerships?  Who’s co-opting whom?   

Case 1: Alliance Schools

            One of the first community partnerships got built with a multiple group of faculty who served as “Mentor Professors” for eight Alliance Schools in El Paso.  All the schools are located south of the interstate highway (formerly the railroad tracks), close to the international border with Mexico, in city neighborhoods with few higher education aspirants and parents with high school diplomas.  Alliance schools are those which make and act on commitments to engage parents with teachers to improve schools, raise standards, and promote the kind of academic achievement that leads to success in higher education.  Parent engagement moves far beyond simple parent involvement as cookie bakers, popcorn poppers, and photocopy makers on campus.  Strong parent leaders have moved into community organizing around other policy issues, such as public services, road improvements, and training for displaced workers.  This is clearly a redistributive project, likely to evoke conflict or at least anxiety and threat to the status quo about the redistribution of opportunities and resources.

            Alliance Schools were born in 1992 when the Texas legislature allocated funding for schools that worked with Industrial Area Foundation (IAF) faith-based organizations around the state.  The oldest of these organizations is Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, but El Paso’s organization came close behind, organized in 1981.  IAF organizations are Alinsky-type groups that work with mostly working class, low-income, and/or minority populations which heretofore exercised little voice and power in the political process.  IAF style is assertive and nonpartisan, but one that demands accountability from public officials (on Texas Alliance Schools, see Shirley, 1997).  In El Paso, the IAF organization claims to represent approximately 50,000 residents.

            In 1981, the El Paso IAF organization was perceived to be an outside group of radicals who agitated a quiescent population, content in their subordination.  Organizers, several of whom work fulltime, faced intimidation and threats.  After nearly two decades, the CBO still retains a radical edge and a protest style, but many recognize its leadership and ability to leverage resources for the community.

IAF organizes people to become leaders who work on “winnable” goals, which range from the mundane (traffic lights) to water and sewer services, and more recently, school remodeling and laptops for students.  By the 1990s, the IAF organization had become a mainstream CBO, recognized for its leadership and allied with powerful forces.  It won support from bankers for workforce training programs and from business people who support parental engagement for the long-term goal of a more educated populace who will earn more and thereby increase the tax base.

            Yet the CBO continues to ruffle feathers because it organizes the formerly unorganized.  Like other IAF organizations, it can upset power relations in communities and incur the wrath of establishment powers allied with other parts of the university.  Universities, however, are rarely monolithic entities, and UTEP’s leadership supports a prevailing pluralism, at least at this stage of Community Partnership.  

            Eight faculty members work with a group of Alliance Schools, all of which are far from monolithic.  One common characteristic among them is that principals dare to take risks, opening up their schools and thereby departing from the typical closed campus management strategy.  Working with organized parents (not a mere PTA/PTO), principals make campus culture, teacher styles, and goals open to scrutiny, dialog, and negotiation.  Rarely do all teachers welcome the “culture of conversation,” versus the “culture of hierarchy,” that Alliance Schools promote.  And Alliance Schools mean that schools will have many meetings, at school, in homes, at parent academies and leadership retreats.  Schools and their communities become sites for organizing strategies.

            Active Mentor Professors become part of Alliance School strategy.  To develop this partnership, university leadership and the community partnership coordinator Staudt spent many hours in meetings, on the turf of both public schools and the university.  The partnership evolved through relationship building rather than through formal contracts and written agreements.  Each Alliance School replicated a miniature version of the overall partnership, often complex because all the major stakeholders had to be present, including the principal. Initially, antennas were up over the many agendas, overt and potentially hidden, around the table.  But relations of trust got built. 

Initial expectations about the university-school-CBO connection sometimes changed.  For example, a middle school in the Alliance invited support from a “social studies” faculty member to help improve teaching and student performance on the accountability tests. Staudt’s mentorship, as a political scientist, involved nearly a year of support for parent academies before the social studies work could begin.  Not all faculty would relish the opportunity to become part of a group’s organizing strategy, yet it offered a concrete way to cement relationships of trust, to facilitate steep learning curves about counterpart organizations, and to further social justice goals.  That middle school, fortunate for its strong and stable leadership, draws as many as 150 parents to its parent academies, numbers unheard of in most middle schools, even those in economically privileged neighborhoods.  A team of Staudt’s students researched and prepared a handbook for parents on their children’s pathways to higher education, a service learning deliverable for this and other schools.  For Mentor Professors at other Alliance Schools, principal rotations and lagging parental commitment, however, meant lapses in demand for faculty-student service learning deliverables. 

            Even more problematic for Community Partnerships are traditional public schools that seek connection, but worry that Alliance School affiliation is part of the process.  More community partnerships exist with non-Alliance Schools than Alliance Schools, yet some perceive an unholy alliance in the Alliance School partnership.  They worry that relationships with the Community Partnership enclave of the University could result in real parental engagement and the perceived politicization of their schools.

            The Alliance School-Mentor Professor relationship rests on relationships of trust, rather than formal contracts and grants.  CBO organizers started from the top, with the President, and organized themselves down through Deans to the faculty trenches.  It has become an annual tradition to hold a large assembly to symbolize the relationship with the legitimizing presence and speech from the University President who pledges her interest in developing support for pathways to higher education for the alliance families.  In 1999, the participants numbered 400, but this increased to 1,000 at the 2000 assembly, publicized in the local media.  A “Compact” pledging parental, child, teacher, and University President support signifies symbolic meaning to individuals on paper and to newly organized constituencies on large posters at the assemblies.  The process of obtaining actual signatures and storing compacts bureaucratically would go beyond the logistic capabilities of even the most skilled of IAF organizers.  Besides, no phrase on a single sheet can begin to capture the complexity of the parent-teacher-student support structure. 

            Alliance Schools represent an unusual university partnership, probably the only well developed relationship between a local IAF and a university in the United States.  University staff members help legitimize and expand a social justice CBO’s organizing strategies, yet one that represents the American dream of self-sufficiency, merit-based opportunity, and democratic voice.  Had the partnership occurred before the IAF organization developed, matured, and developed coalition strategies that shared common ground with the business establishment, it might have been doomed as excessively risky for visible connection with the university.  Had the partnership occurred in a vacuum of any connections between the university and public schools, it would have fed the conspiratorially minded.  However, plenty of obvious evidence exists of university partnerships with other school organizations through student teachers and grant collaborations, alleviating some anxieties.  Ultimately, IAF organizing involves shifts in power relations, but around the common ground over which many constituencies agree:  parental engagement for students’ educational successes, better jobs, and a higher tax base.

Case 2: Young Scholars Investigate Bankers’ Lending Practices

            In 1998, a non-profit community organization was born to provide paid internships for high school students to pursue research and thereby to develop regional leadership skills.  With support from a political representative with a social justice agenda, it raised funds from a variety of local, regional, and national foundations and businesses.  Students’ research projects focused on regional public policies using community-based interviews and web-based data analysis, thus falling within a seeming ‘service learning’ methodology.  This effort was conceptualized as a formal community partnership, but it involved some university staff, space, and mediation, thereby creating perceptions of partnership-like alignment.

            Such alignment would not be problematic for goals around which many constituencies would agree, such as parental engagement for students’ educational success (case 1).  The 1999 summer project, however, addressed business access to capital and bankers’ lending practices, with the working hypothesis that out-of-town banks exported more capital than they reinvested in the city.  When Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, it responded to and legitimized perceptions of unfair lending practices.  In El Paso and other places, widespread perceptions existed about businesses facing a lending squeeze, but perceptions had never turned into facts or sustained media visibility.  An Economic Summit in 1998 highlighted access to capital as a major problem for business development in the city. While the wider public might have an interest in the results of a methodical study, proprietary interests of private businesses such as banks often preclude full disclosure.

            The media gave a great deal of attention to the young scholars’ study, and even before results were released, controversy surrounded the report.  The program director, a former journalist linked to a (former) university staff member and to the prominent public official, became as visible as bankers who were concerned about the research design and methods.  Once the study was released, however, the students’ findings resonated with public perceptions of unfair practices.   The media continually gave space to the study results, questions about the students’ methodology, and students’ access to full information.  Students relied initially on web-posted information and the banks themselves until banks began to refuse cooperation, all of which is outlined in the students' footnotes.  The banks cried foul, and mediation seemed necessary to avert a highly polarized conflict.

            The University President asked the Dean of Business to host a meeting between the scholars and bank Chief Executive Officers to determine if the controversy could be mediated.  Brenner attended the mediation meeting along with other business faculty.  At the meeting, bankers had the opportunity to explain their data collection and reporting practices, while students asked many insightful questions that demonstrated their knowledge of the subject.  But tensions emerged in discussions about the obstacles students faced and the banks’ claims of proprietary information, and the mediation process was in danger of breaking down.

One banker proposed seeking common ground between the students and the bankers and moving beyond blame assignment.  Brenner elicited agreement among banks to fund a more in-depth study of local capital access.  The university, providing a basis of unbiased research, would conduct the study.  Should or would the young scholars themselves, once enrolled at the university, assist in the research effort?  On the one hand, they had the knowledge and interest to continue the research quest.  On the other hand, their involvement could be conceived as co-optation. 

            This fundamental question provoked deeper concerns about whether funding sources bias research results.  What role might the banks play in study design?  In analyzing the data?  On the surface, university researchers appear to be objectively pursuing scientific research questions and results.  In practice, when the stakes are so high, paranoia runs deep. Should the university even undertake the project?  One of the university centers, with an applied research mission, sought to engage business faculty for their expertise in the survey instrument design,  The essence of our role as university researchers is that we bring objective perspectives to a research problem.  Hypotheses formation based on our knowledge of the subject area, testing the hypotheses and reporting findings and conclusions is at the heart of the academic approach to policy questions.  In the end, a group of private business leaders stepped in to fund the study rather than the banks.  Meanwhile, residents and students got intensive media education on the perceptions of politics in the research process. 

            Public engagement in applied research will inevitably confront difficult controversies for meaningful questions like these, the answers for which involve community stakeholders with intense interests in outcomes.  If educational institutions are to involve youth in civic engagement and research, should it avoid controversial policy issues?  Hardly.  But relationships with established and new constituencies are at risk, and university leadership will need to be involved.  Ideally, that leadership will speak with a single voice, a challenge difficult to meet when the boundary line between university and community shifts or gets muted with activists who cross the line.   

Case 3: City Agencies as Partners

            Like many city development departments, one in El Paso manages a large staff, with all but a handful of three scores of employees on “soft” grant money.  The department pursues a variety of goals, but one important goal among them is grant-seeking activity.  Without hard budgets of its own, the agency gets saddled with tasks that outsider agencies impose upon the marginal, politically weak agencies in the city.

            Community Partnerships worked on two ‘service learning’ tasks in this development department.  The first involved the agency’s role in support for the “human development” segment of federal grant money.  Specifically, the agency facilitated the growth of Community Resource Councils (CRCs) in poverty-stricken neighborhoods in a federally designated zone.  The second involved a far-flung compliance review for federally imposed mandates for which the city lacked sufficient staff and/or slack resources to hire consultants.  Verbal understandings and commitments existed both projects, but neither one detailed tasks in a formal contractual partnership.  One flourished; the other floundered.

            Let’s start with the service learning of the first task.   Two political science classes organized teams of students to analyze civic capacity in the poor neighborhoods.  In the first, a summer class, students brought different degrees of knowledge and commitment to the project.  They identified leaders and issues outside the scope of existing city and neighborhood knowledge bases.  In short papers, the knowledge was condensed and exchanged with the city and neighborhood organizations.  No official contracts were signed; rather, relationships of trust existed over tasks of what were probably considered to be of marginal importance. 

            In the subsequent fall class, teams of students built on the foundation of the summer coursework, utilizing schools as sites from which to identify leaders, issues, and potential activities.  The schools have not been well connected to neighborhood activity, despite the active participation of parents, especially moms, and the availability of public space in these buildings, among the few public functions not yet downsized.  The fledgling CRCs welcomed students’ labor, particularly with the delays and confusion association with the belated appointment of a city board and the delays in elaborating on procedures for CRCs to tap the meager resources (10% of the overall grant) that might trickle down to them.

            Just as in summer, the fall students brought different degrees of knowledge and commitment to the community partnership aspects of the course.  Drawing lessons from summer, when at least one student was confused about the federal project and communicated misinformation with community members, an examination was administered, on which students had to earn a “B,” before allowing them into neighborhood teams.  Students involved, though, learned well about the diverse agendas stakeholders brought to the process: bureaucratic stonewalling, conflict within CRCs (especially as money began to trickle down), and hierarchy among CBOs (the well established versus the less established).  With CRC hunger to learn about the procedures for getting resources, a meeting was established to invite several city board members.  When they didn’t appear, Staudt as instructor crossed the line from teaching/scholarship into political action so that board members would take community people more seriously.  There is some discomfort associated with this sort of boundary crossing, as graduate school inculcates the importance of impartiality and distance.

            Despite lack of signed contracts for this free labor, the city development agency cooperated with the faculty and students at the university.  Information was exchanged, and it trickled down to the neighborhood leaders, the ultimate stakeholders in a social justice community partnership.  Such was not the fate of the second task involving federal compliance review.

            For the second service learning task, two university courses were redesigned to train students in compliance law and implementation.  Utilizing considerable lead time, months before the course, with numerous meetings with development agency managers, staff, faculty and community partnership staff, verbal understandings existed about the complicated project tasks.  Students and faculty got access to bureaucratic documents that are normally difficult to secure.  Graduate students conceptualized the project, while a large class with hundreds of introductory students would implement this fragmented, far-flung project.

The instructor staked his whole course design on the presumed willingness of the city agency to pursue its side of the unwritten partnership relationship, just as the same city agency did on the neighborhood project.  With student contributions, the university was reluctant to contract and commit to results dependent on course requirements rather than money exchanged for services.   The city agency raised its legal back, stalling the arrangement until the city attorneys and the council granted their approval.  Approval, if obtained at all, would only occur well after the seminar and course were over.  The instructor, faced with agency back out, had to revise his course requirements over two-thirds through the course.  It was an awkward and discomforting experience.  

            These partnerships connected two public institutions in political relationships with different stakes.  The first involved low stakes associated with marginal neighborhoods and information lacking political sensitivity.  The second was high stakes, associated with inter-governmental relations, huge class enrollments, and labor not controlled within the incentives and confines of a consulting contract.  Ultimately, the seeming “free labor” for both tasks became, perhaps, undervalued labor.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

            The University, engaging courses with community partners and public schools, pursued activities that responded to Boyer’s calls to transform higher education.  In so doing, it moved from the initial collaborations of good will into occasionally thorny political conflicts.  The tasks with which faculty members and students were engaged might be labeled service learning, but this was more than ‘service.’  New policies generated new constituencies, alignments, and the perception of an altered status quo.

            University leadership, enclave leaders, and partnership faculty would be naïve if they did not recognize the political complexity and conflict inherent in higher education transformation policies.  Ideally, they would coordinate their work, perhaps connecting with constituencies in a single voice.  Yet neither universities nor communities are monolithic, nor are single voices always accessible.  The result can be a pluralist hemorrhage, creating misperceptions and potential polarization, undermining the very bridge-building mission of community partnership. 

            In this article, three cases outlined the political and potential conflict dimensions of partnership and perceived partnership.  In the first, Alliance Schools, a CBO, and University leaders and faculty created a lasting partnership through relationships and interaction rather than formal, written agreements.  The partnership has its ups and downs, for many stakeholders are involved and key stakeholders like principals are transferred.  Moreover, the time commitments are extensive.  Yet it is a partnership that works toward the long-term interests of various intersecting constituencies in the community.

            In the second case, a community group pursued a high-stakes study with the potential to damage financial institutions’ community image.  Although no university partnership existed, activists who cross the line from university to community tapped resources in ways that created a perception of collaboration.   In efforts to mediate and resolve the ensuing polarization, the university experienced diminished prestige as a neutral site for research.

            The third case demonstrated the wavering interest of a public development agency in partnership.  In this, as in all partnerships, both community and faculty/students contribute quality time and when that time produces no outcome, sustained collaboration is undermined.  The cases raise, but do not resolve the matter of whether elaborate formal contractual mechanisms are appropriate.  If public agencies tie themselves in red tape, can and should the university do this as well in a seasonal course?

            These cases provide no definitive answers to all types of universities in the variety of contexts in which they are situated.  The cases do, however, offer insights and warnings about the inevitable complexity and conflict that universities face when they embark upon Boyer-like social justice missions or when their members pursue high-stakes action research.  Below are some lessons we share.

*First, universities and partners should choose one another carefully.  Partners always bring baggage, whether it is time and/or ideological/research agendas.  In the context

of polarized conflict, supposedly neutral research becomes politicized.

*Second, neither universities nor communities are monolithic.  University enclave offices should try to find common ground, but assume divergent agendas with which faculty may or may not want to connect.

*Third, partnership commitments are a considerable time investment, not guaranteed to consolidate relationships given the inevitable mobility of partners, whether principals, faculty, or CBOs themselves.  Partners should pursue some, but minimal formal agreements about their tasks and responsibilities in an inherently changing relationship.

*Fourth, “bridge builders” are essential players in the establishment of community partnerships (Bringle, Games and Malloy 1999).  University faculty and staff who can assist with connections, relationship development, and project visualization provide the critical linkage between students and the civic community.  While some faculty members inherently possess this person capacity building skill, others will need training and assistance in order for the maximum educational potential to be realized from community-based teaching and learning.


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About the Paper and Authors

This paper was written as a chapter for a forthcoming AAHE volume in 2000. In late 2000, UTEP created a new umbrella center, called the Center for Civic Engagement; Staudt is its Director. She is Professor of Political Science, and Brenner is Assistant Professor of Political Science. Brenner is also an Associate Director of UTEP's Institute for Policy and Economic Development, formerly known as the Public Policy Research Center.