Creating a New Kind of University:
Institutionalizing Community-University Engagement
Edited by Stephen L. Percy, Nancy L. Zimpher, and Mary Jane Brukardt
(Bolton, MA: Anker, 2006)
This book is of a special kind, which a more useful title would have made clear. That is, it is the story of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, its ambitious community engagement project called the Milwaukee Idea, and the changes accomplished under the leadership of a charismatic president—Nancy Zimpher, also one of the book’s editors.
Why should readers want to read a book that should have been called What Happened at UW-Milwaukee?
One reason, not very urgent in my case at least, is simple curiosity about institutional transformation of a large urban university with an uncertain mission and something of an inferiority complex toward its system’s flagship campus (Madison). The Milwaukee Idea is a plan to “’create a new kind of university’—by engaging every one of its schools and colleges to realize the institution’s core mission of service to the local community and indirectly, therefore, to American society . . .”
This dedication has important roots on the one hand in the history of higher education in Wisconsin and sociology and politics (the needs of Milwaukee) and, on the other hand in important philosophical and pedagogical thinking from John Dewey to the Kellogg Foundation’s call for an “engaged university” and Ernest Boyer’s challenge for the New American College to solve the problems of the twenty-first century.
This story is worth recording and will be interesting and inspiring to readers, probably, insofar as they are interested in community engagement or a parallel change at their own institutions.
And this is the second reason for reading Creating a New Kind of University—for transferable information that might be applicable in another institutional setting. I found it disappointing in this area. I want to know how the Milwaukee Idea can be influential in other universities, how some of its lessons can be carried over. The authors are too busy analyzing and, to some extent, extolling UWM and what it did in Milwaukee to provide very many generalizations useful to planners elsewhere.
It’s true that the chapter “The Path Ahead: What’s Next for University Engagement” strives to provide some of these, and under the heading “Six Promising Practices” suggests that institutions should, in order to institutionalize community engagement,
1 Integrate engagement into mission
2 Forge partnerships as the overarching framework for engagement
3 Renew and redefine discovery and scholarship
4 Integrate engagement into teaching and learning
5 Recruit and support new champions
6 Create radical institutional change.
Nothing wrong with any of these ideas, of course, beyond their familiarity and predictability, at least for readers who have been sampling the literature on civic engagement.
My disappointment with the book does not diminish my admiration for what the leaders, faculty and students at UW Milwaukee have accomplished. It seems to have been a genuinely radical institutional change, and in the right direction.