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For whose sake do we engage?

A Duke student spends a summer building solar cookers for an impoverished community through DukeEngage. Throughout the course of the next year, that student learns from those she helped that some of the cookers are breaking. The student turns to Duke for help, but DukeEngage cannot provide additional funding. Where does the Duke student go?

The Klein-Wells report, “Engaging Excellence,” released publicly this month, offers proposals to restructure civic engagement at Duke to better serve students’ needs. But the report, unfortunately by design, fails to seriously consider the impact civic engagement has on a community.

The Klein-Wells report defines “civic engagement in a university setting” to be “activity that integrates academic learning, personal development and community benefit.” This definition is illustrated by a triangle diagram, with “academic learning” at the top and “personal development” and “community benefit” at the bottom corners. In both the definition and the diagram, “community benefit” happens to bring up the rear.

The co-chairs of the committee that produced the report, Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells and Emily Klein, senior associate dean of the Nicholas School, both wrote in an e-mail that they did not speak with community partners because the purpose of the report was to address internal Duke stakeholders. But if part of civic engagement is actually engaging a community, an integral piece of the “triangle,” how could the committee afford to leave out community opinion?

Junior Ben Dean, one of two students on the Klein-Wells Committee, said the omission of community partners’ perspectives “could have been a fault of the report.” But Dean said many of the committee’s members had experience working with community partners.

Every committee member, however, was a Duke student, alumnus, faculty or staff member. Thus, the impacts of civic engagement the committee found important were those involving the student academic experience, rather than those affecting a community.

The report views civic engagement within the context of the research university machine, but why? Joining a fraternity or a sorority, or playing a sport, or acting in a play is a big part of the college experience for many students, but no one seems to be so concerned in connecting those experiences to the classroom or to research.

Duke today is faced with an important question: Should civic engagement be a means to achieving the University’s ends, or should it be an ends in and of itself?

The Klein-Wells report envisions civic engagement as an educational tool, but the committee members I spoke to were split on that issue. Civic engagement should be its own end. Although research and academic coursework can augment civic engagement, service is not cheapened just because it isn’t followed by a thesis paper. Sometimes, such an academic focus can create perverse incentives that ever-so-subtly harm a community. The diversity of civic engagement opportunities on campus calls for organic reflection, be it academically oriented or not.

The report discusses some of the finer points of what civic engagement is and what role it should play at Duke. Some of the structural recommendations are well made, but the report stopped too short. It mentions “community benefit,” but then fails to consider what impact that should have on civic engagement at Duke. There is no discussion about project sustainability, a requirement for responsible engagement.

When a student, or Duke as a whole, makes a commitment to a community, that commitment has to be lasting. A broken promise could be more devastating than not making that promise in the first place. Does DukeEngage ensure project sustainability? Will the new civic engagement setup at Duke enable students to maintain their involvement when it requires funding and resources? The report doesn’t ask these questions.

Senior Adam Nathan, also on the Klein-Wells Committee, stressed that the group was not charged with fundamentally changing how civic engagement was performed at Duke or to assess individual programs. Instead, the group was supposed to find new ways for service programs on campus to collaborate more effectively. Then where is the committee that asks whether these service programs actually work in the first place? Are we building a better house without checking for cracks in the foundation?

In its current form, it seems that after a civic engagement experience, Duke will push students to extract academic production out of their service. But when it comes down to providing a lasting community benefit, that outcome is up to students to provide alone. Such a system will inevitably lead to broken promises, and an irreparable fracture in the “triangle.”

The child who doesn’t know the alphabet cannot read a Duke student’s research report on the failures of the American education system. We have to decide what we believe as a University—Should we teach that child his letters for his sake, or for our own?  

Elad Gross is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Friday.


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