26, No. 6, Sept. 21, 2006
Task force studying civic-engagement activities
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
civic engagement James Wescoat,
a professor of landscape architecture, and
Rose Ann Miron, assistant chancellor, are among
members of the Task Force on Civic Engagement.
Wescoat chairs the committee, appointed by
Chancellor Richard Herman, and Miron is an
ex-officio member. The task force hopes to
strengthen connections between the campus and
its communities. The effort includes identifying
already existing opportunities for civic engagement,
developing new opportunities and to make civic
commitment more prominent in campus life and
in the identity of Illinois.
James Wescoat, a professor
of landscape architecture, uses the analogy of a flowering prairie to describe
civic engagement efforts at the Urbana campus: There are hundreds of flowers
blooming on the landscape, but there’s little connectivity
between them and no collective identity.
However, the Task Force on Civic
Engagement in the 21st century, which Wescoat
chairs, aims to cultivate altruism on campus, enhance already flowering initiatives
and create a fertile bed for new growth.
Chancellor Richard Herman appointed the task force in January and asked it to
create a sharpened and sustained curricular and co-curricular emphasis on advancing
the public good. The 26-member group, which includes representatives from campus
units ranging from the department of architecture to WILL-AM/FM/TV as well as
the University YMCA and Urban League of Champaign County, plans to strengthen
connections between the campus and its communities, from the local to the global
The effort is part of Herman’s Strategic Plan for the Urbana campus, an
initiative to “establish Illinois as the leading public research institution
that engages students in civic commitment and community-based learning experiences,” to
help students meet the challenges of modern citizenship and address the most
pressing societal problems.
The task force is leading a campuswide effort to identify the many existing dimensions
of civic engagement, to help define it for the Urbana campus, encourage innovative
thinking about it and make civic commitment more prominent in campus life and
the identity of the institution.
During the spring semester, the task force surveyed people on campus and compiled
an initial list of current civic-engagement initiatives. As task force members
quickly realized, there are hundreds of opportunities for students and faculty
members at Urbana to engage with the community – whether through service-learning
courses or other activities, on the local, state, national and global levels.
But while faculty members and students may be aware of what’s blooming
in their own backyards, they may be unaware of what’s being cultivated
next door, in other academic departments or units.
“We found that there were many offices, projects and people who were devoting
significant or major parts of their work to the community engagement mission,” Wescoat
said. “We found that there are scores of fabulous projects and efforts
all over campus. Most people have a network that they have good knowledge of,
but they’re not aware of other things happening across campus that would
be comparable or complementary. Bringing them into creative connection with one
another is a high priority.”
Over the summer, the task force began four studies. In the first study, they’re
compiling an index of courses and activities that have civic engagement components.
The index will be put online so that visitors to the Urbana campus home page
can quickly locate and learn about opportunities available on campus.
In a study called the “Essentials of Civic Commitment,” task force
members are examining scholarship related to civic engagement in order to advance
future efforts on campus.
“The essentials study is interesting because it’s asking – from
a scholarly standpoint – what types of learning take place in civic-engagement
courses, what people learn, how they learn it and how does it transform subsequent
educational growth,” Wescoat said.
In the third study, the task force is investigating community interest in designing innovative
curricula and school environments for preschool through eighth-grade children
in Champaign. The task force provided $10,000 in funding for the initiative,
known as the Great Campus Project, which is being led by the Urban League of
In the last study, the task force is examining the options for a Center for Public
Engagement and Social Research in Champaign that would promote community-based
entrepreneurship and studies.
Preliminary reports on the studies are expected by the end of the spring semester
Additionally, the task force hopes to boost civic-engagement opportunities on
campus by offering grants of up to $20,000 to fund new and/or restructured courses,
programs, research projects, events and other activities that help focus the
campus’ collective identity. The task force recently issued a request for
proposals with a deadline of Oct. 16. A campus committee will select the projects
to be funded, and the grants will be disbursed at the start of the spring semester
so the projects can be conducted, produced, presented or performed during the
2007 calendar year.
While the proposals can be for new initiatives or for enhancements to existing
efforts, emphasis will be placed on proposals that connect and enhance current
activities, broadening their scope and/or impact and heightening their visibility.
The potential sustainability of the proposal also will be a key criterion.
The East St. Louis Action Research Project, one of the many engagement efforts
at the Urbana campus, is celebrating its 20th anniversary, an exceptional achievement
for any university, Wescoat said.
By studying durable civic-engagement initiatives such as the East St. Louis project, “we
hope we’ll get a better understanding of how the campus can organize itself
to make recommendations to sustain those projects over time,” said Rose
Ann Miron, assistant chancellor and an ex-officio member of the task force.