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University Practices for Making Community-University Partnerships Work for All

In the breakout sessions that concluded the 2019 AAAS Communicating Science Seminar, a group of attendees explored the innovative ways public and land grant institutions are fulfilling their public commitment by responding to the needs of the communities in which they are embedded.

The past several decades have seen a growing interest in community-university partnerships in science, both in the United States and globally. Public and land grant institutions in particular view community-university partnerships as a means of fulfilling their public commitment to respond to the needs of the communities in which they are embedded, and to the students they educate. What makes community-university partnerships successful, and what are the challenges involved in their implementation?

We took advantage of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in February 2019 to explore these questions with scientists, outreach specialists, and scholars engaged in community-university partnerships, as part of a session we organized entitled ‘Best Practices for Community-University Partnerships’. Our goal was to assess our collective experience with community-university engagement, including both success stories and challenges, and to develop some practical suggestions for supporting these partnerships at the individual and institutional levels. The participants in this discussion were almost exclusively scholars based at universities or research-based boundary organizations (organizations that facilitate university-community relationships by serving as mediators—examples include university outreach offices, on-campus museums, or agricultural extension services). We hope to follow up with a similar discussion that focuses on the perspectives of community partners.


What works well?

Community-university partnerships take many forms. Participants in the AAAS meeting included university-based scholars involved in community-based research, public engagement with science, and citizen science. While not comprehensive, this arguably represents the most common types of partnerships. Flexibility and creativity, including innovative science communication methods like using games to explore serious concepts, and creative promotional materials are helpful in promoting and sustaining community-university partnerships. Undergraduate students play a key role in bridging the gap between communities and universities, especially for institutions where most of the population is from the local community. Undergraduate research scholars may also serve as important role models and mentors for area youth navigating higher education.

Co-ownership and co-production of research with community partners was universally identified as an approach that bolsters strong community relationships, with an emphasis on working jointly to set goals, establish expectations, and promote accountability. Transparent, open, and rapid communication, specifically in regards to sharing research results with the community, is integral to productive partnerships. Scholars identified the importance of meeting in community-centered spaces (i.e. libraries, churches, community centers), engaging youth in the community, and centering community needs and availability when planning events (timing, location, transportation, childcare, meals, etc.). Spending time in the community outside of research activities is an important means of building trust and demonstrating continued commitment.

Detroit community engaged field school event
A 2019 community-engaged field school event in Detroit.| Photo credit: Moira Zellner

Communities may perceive a university as isolated or disconnected from the community in which it is embedded. In response, one approach is to designate the university campus as a space for exploration by making it accessible and welcoming to the public. Indeed, for scholars at public universities, it is important to remember that public university campuses and facilities are funded through taxpayer dollars, and to acknowledge these contributions through creating shared experiences with the public.

We recognize that in most cases, scholars are not trained to take on the roles necessary for building robust university-community partnerships. ‘Boundary spanners’, or professionals who have been trained as outreach specialists and science communicators, facilitate these partnerships in multiple ways. For example, they coach researchers new to a community in culturally appropriate engagement practices. Boundary spanners can also sustain community connections, ‘horizon scan’ for new engagement opportunities, create science communication and decision support products, extend the range of community partners, implement processes for conflict resolution, and sustain partnerships through financial and staff support.



University scholars identified time as a limiting factor in establishing and maintaining partnerships. Activities related to community-university partnerships are often in addition to, not in place of, other job expectations such as teaching and research. Scholars may lack training in ways of meaningfully communicating and engaging with diverse audiences, and this lack of training and cultural competency may lead to interactions that harm communities. Scholars also may struggle with making connections to communities, especially ones they are not a part of, and which are under-represented in academia, which can lead to scholars continuing to engage with known, established, or readily available partners. This may limit broad participation and further perpetuate uneven power dynamics.

The work of community-university partnerships often straddles traditional categories such as applied science, decision support, and community development, making the task of identifying an individual funder for this kind of work complicated. Moreover, meaningful partnerships develop over long periods of time, and grant funding typically lasts for no longer than 3 to 5 years. There is a need for flexible funding to support community-university partnerships. Equitable sharing of funds between university and community partners is an important challenge and one that is directly tied to uneven power dynamics. This challenge may be intensified by both administrative red tape on the university’s part, and by a community partner’s lack of capacity or desire to manage, distribute, and report on funds. In some cases, this challenge is mitigated when community groups have been directly funded by a private foundation to participate in partnerships with universities.

Another specific concern is the under-valuation of partnership work in university tenure and promotion policies. This can lead to power differentials within the university, in which professors and researchers (often white and male) who are more productive in traditional academic terms gain institutional cachet while their colleagues who focus on engagement (often female/scholars of color) may not always get credit commensurate with their scholarly contributions to the fulfillment of the university’s mission. 

Finally, historical legacies of institutional harm to communities in which scientists are working is a significant challenge. Many of us have heard stories from our community partners about researchers publishing partners’ words and ideas without their consent; violating clearly articulated boundaries such as requests not to approach certain spaces or people; and extracting data from a community without sharing the learning from the project with the community. It is important for universities to acknowledge past harm caused by their employees and affiliates and to make strides towards addressing injustices. Universities could also offer training for faculty and students in the ethics and practice of community engagement.


Conclusions and Recommendations

Administrative culture change in universities is needed for the broader success of community-university partnerships. Even at institutions which ostensibly promote and support these partnerships, in most cases there is a lack of recognition and incentives for early-career scholars engaging in partnerships, and a lack of financial structure enabling these partnerships. Moreover, it is quite possible (even likely) that past harm has been done by the university to communities in which university scholars wish to work.

Universities recognizing and publicly apologizing for this past harm, while not sufficient alone to mend these broken relationships, would represent an important first step in supporting the work being done ‘on the ground’ to build partnerships of mutual respect and trust between university and community scholars. Boundary spanners and organizations can play a critical and often under-appreciated role in facilitating community-university partnerships. Universities would do well to support these boundary organizations by hiring qualified staff to work in them (preferably staff from under-represented communities) and equipping them with resources.

In an era in which public support for research is of vital importance in addressing complex societal problems, successful and sustainable community-university partnerships will be an important means of maintaining relevance for research institutions. We are mindful of the old saying: “We value what we measure, and we measure what we value.” If community-university partnerships are to flourish, it will be vital for institutions to find metrics to measure their value, and to invest in supporting the work that produces it.

Photo of the Kellog Intitution report cover
An engagement guide from the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grand Colleges.