London, Western 'Engage' over town-gown relations

By Paul Mayne
November 07, 2013

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Is Western engaged in the community? Does the university create positive social change? If so, how are these impacts measured and where is there room for improvement?

Answers to these and other questions are expected to be addressed Thursday, Nov. 14, as Engage Western brings together campus representatives, community members and special guests to share perspectives and stories about the ways academic institutions partner with their communities to mobilize knowledge, create social change and acknowledge the role of the university in public life. 

The full-day event is part of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s Open Doors, Open Knowledge national campaign of events on the theme of university-community engagement.

Presented by Western’s Student Success Centre and Public Humanities @ Western, Engage Western will feature visiting experts and voices from the university and the local community, followed by roundtable dialogues showcasing successful community-university partnerships.

The day will wrap with Stories of Health at Western, a public storytelling initiative and community-engaged research project, taking place at 6:30 p.m. at the Wolf Performance Hall, London Public Library (Central Branch).

Anne-Marie Fischer, community service learning coordinator at the Student Success Centre, said the event will serve to celebrate and showcase the important contributions Western, and universities in general, are making to the educational, economic, cultural and social well-being of our communities.

“Western is a very engaged university, with many programs, courses, units and research centres that are set to address community needs and contribute to the public good of our communities,” Fischer said. “However, as a collective whole, the impacts of these initiatives are yet to be recognized and measured, and thus, the full potential of community-university partnerships for Western is yet to be realized and understood.”

Some may ask if it’s really a university’s role to create positive social change, or if that responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the students, staff and faculty, who are part of that community, to act on their own.

Fischer said it would be unfair to say a university needs to create positive social change, as not every academic discipline lends itself to such outcomes. But in many areas, as experts and generators of knowledge, the university community has a duty to mobilize the assets they have existing within the university, in a way that it does contribute to the greater public good.

“We are seeing a very strong trend of campus-community engagement sweep across Canada, Simon-Fraser and Memorial University being bi-coastal exemplars of this trend, which have taken great steps toward these ideals through creating institutional infrastructure that encourage collaborations with community,” she continued. “Quite often, students, staff and faculty don’t know what opportunities exist within our communities for engagement or what our community needs are, so the university can play an important role in creating connections.”

PhD candidate Joel Burton, partnerships and community engagement associate director in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities’ Public Humanities program, said the idea a university has a responsibility to its community is as ancient as the institution of the university itself, which designs a community of scholars brought together to support one another in the pursuit of knowledge. 

“To that end – the university and the staff, faculty and students that populate it – must not be thought to be separate from one another, but rather as one and the same, with a sense of shared responsibility toward creating a robust culture of learning that promotes the active pursuit of knowledge within, and beyond, the disciplines,” Burton said. “To continue to meet that profound sense of responsibility, the university must strive to create programs and build courses of study that allow it to reach out beyond itself toward the community.”

Fischer added Engage Western should be “a celebration of collaboration” and act as a demonstration of the potential that exists when universities partner with their communities.

“We hope Engage Western will bring more light to the fact that Western is an incredibly engaged university and help us acknowledge and celebrate the ways that we are making true and meaningful impacts on the communities that surround us,” she said.

Burton added he thinks this one-day event has the potential to grow and strengthen the area of campus-community collaboration here at Western.

“We also believe it has the potential to create the conditions for a thoughtful exchange of knowledge, based on mutual trust and shared interest, that could give rise to new and lasting partnerships between the University and its multitude of communities, with the far greater potential to inspire and sustain this important work at Western,” he said.

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Engage Western

9 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 14

Mustang Lounge, University Community Centre

A panel discussion (9:45 a.m.), Perspectives on Community-University Engagement, will include Martin Taylor, Community Based Research Canada; Cheryl Forchuk, Lawson Research Institute; Maureen Golovchenko-Spencer, Pillar Nonprofit Network; Belinda Leach, the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship at University of Guelph; and Rick Ezekiel, The Student Success Centre at Western.

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8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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