Op-Eds and Commentaries

USF's Return on the public's investment

By Harold Keller
Special to The Tampa Tribune
Published: February 21, 2016

In the midst of legislative sessions and an election year when public higher education is increasingly at risk of further reductions in resources, one must address questions of the relevance of universities and some of their disciplines, and particularly, for public universities, the public benefits they provide. Public universities receive ever-decreasing state and federal resources, and questions abound as to what our communities are getting in return. In other words, what is the return on investment? In this commentary, I will describe how the University of South Florida engages with our communities locally and globally to enhance sustainable economic development and quality of life.

USF is designated by the Carnegie Foundation as a community-engaged, high-research, productive university, and recognized by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities as an "Innovation & Economic Prosperity University." Both are recognitions for USF's strong commitment to economic engagement with the community.

The Carnegie Foundation defines community engagement as "collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. The purpose of community engagement is the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good."

USF has four university-wide offices that provide support to faculty, students, community members and businesses relating to one or more forms of community engagement (Office of Community Engagement & Partnerships, Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement, Career Services/Internships, and USFConnect). The offices coordinate their activities, along with numerous other community engagement programs in units across campus, through a standing Community Engagement Committee.

The Office of Community Engagement & Partnerships (OCEP) supports two kinds of community engagement: community-engaged experiential learning (also called service learning) and community-engaged research.

Service learning is a type of teaching and learning where students are learning new knowledge in one or more of the disciplines and simultaneously working with a community organization to apply that knowledge in order to address community-identified needs or problems. Students can test out theories and new knowledge with real-world problems, learn about and interact with people often different from themselves, and enhance their interpersonal and career-related skills. Students are learning from the community as much as they do from their textbooks and professors.

Participation in service-learning courses has been shown to increase grades, persistence in school, and graduation on time. In the past year, USF offered over 231 service-learning courses, with close to 4,000 students enrolled, providing over 58,215 hours of meaningful service — an economic value of greater than $1.3 million (based upon the federal estimate of value of volunteer hours).

OCEP also supports community-engaged research where research questions are framed jointly by university and community partners, the research is conducted and analyzed together, and the results are communicated back to the wider community in accessible and usable ways (not just to our professional journals). We also connect university researchers to community organizations that need program evaluation and performance assessment. Over $100 million in external grants have been received in the past year involving community-based research. We hold match-up events in the community where we broker relationships between community organizations and faculty to enable service-learning courses and community-engaged research projects.

As examples of just a few of our projects with the community, we have developed marketing strategies, finance and budgeting frameworks, and grant-writing for nonprofit organizations and small businesses; developed community gardens for neighborhoods and schools; planned sustainable recycling programs; developed and landscaped around retention ponds; provided GIS mapping of neighborhood assets; tutored and mentored children and youths; taught English as a second language to immigrants; provided physical and mental health services to individuals with minimal resources; and facilitated youth leadership programs and access to certificate and post-high school education.

We are launching a new initiative, the Community Sustainability Partnership Program (CSPP), where we will match students and faculty in existing courses with 10 to 20 interconnected projects defined by a municipality or consortium of community organizations. Thousands of hours of innovative applied research conducted by students under faculty supervision will address community-defined projects.

If you are interested in connecting your organization with service-learning courses, community-engaged research or program evaluation, contact OCEP at www.usf.edu/engagement.

The Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement (CLCE) supports leadership development and student volunteer service with local and global communities to foster civic engagement. Volunteer service may be over the course of a day, a week or a semester. Student organizations have committed volunteer service hours to a community organization for a full year. Last year, 13,281 students provided almost 200,000 hours of community service, with an economic value of over $4.4 million. Examples of student volunteer services include neighborhood clean-ups, recycling campaigns, helping file tax returns and completing forms for families seeking access to post high school education and credentials.

For service opportunities for volunteers, contact CLCE at http://www.leadandserve.usf.edu/

In order to enhance career and workforce capacity, USF Career Services underwent extensive revision and established a new Internship Office designed to support the further development of high-quality opportunities for all students to participate in academic and non-curricular internship experiences.

The Internship Office provides training and support for the development of career-ready skills and works closely with business, corporate and community organizations to provide paid and unpaid internship experiences for students. Regular career and internship fairs are offered for students from almost all disciplines, as well as networking workshops with business and community partners. In a given year, close to 3,000 students experience some form of formal internship experience.

For internship or student/graduate hiring opportunities, contact Career Services/Internships at www.usf.edu/career-services/students/internships.aspx.

USFConnect provides community entrepreneurial support by uniting technology and talent with businesses. It hosts the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, with over 60 resident and affiliate companies and start-ups, as well as the Student Innovation Incubator, with over 39 student-led companies. It provides training and resources for research, business development and government entities.

If you have a business and economic development initiative, need support for technology start-ups or wish to do business with USF, contact USFConnect at www.research.usf.edu/rf/usf-connect.asp.

All university-community engagement is conducted through reciprocal, collaborative partnerships, characterized by mutual respect and mutual benefits. The return on investment is clear: University-community engagement enhances sustainable economic development and quality of life through partnerships with residents, neighborhoods, community organizations, nonprofits, municipalities and governmental agencies, and business.

Investing in public universities benefits us all.

Dr. Harold Keller is director of the USF Office of Community Engagement & Partnerships in Tampa.
Contact: hkeller@usf.edu.