The Role of Chief Academic Officer in Community Engagement

We often think of the CAO’s role as only internal without seeing it more broadly. This is a mistake.  Faculty members are expected to go beyond teaching and research and focus on service, including service outside the institution. CAO’s should also play a role externally in engaging with the community for the betterment of their campus. As often the second highest position on the campus they need to not leave it only the President or Chancellor.

There are several reasons for this. First, the institution should be “of” the community not simply “in” it. In addition to giving students an excellent education and building a strong regional and national research expectation, colleges and universities should be making themselves resources to the communities they serve. Promoting service learning helps achieve this by students working on projects of direct value to governmental, educational, business, and nonprofit organizations. Campuses like Michigan State and The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) have also built engagement into their RPT guidelines.  Faculty and staff should use their expertise to address community problems, helping build credibility and goodwill. The CAO is in a critical position to fund and support these efforts.

Second, a reputation of campus community engagement creates support of donors who now see the institution as a good return on investment (ROI). This can create a significant financial benefit to the campus. My previous institution, UNO, in a period of less than 15 years generated over $400 million in private support, mostly from non-alumni.  Community donors saw it as a good ROI. The CAO can be a key catalyst to build this.

Third, it has lasting impacts on the campus culture by creating a sense of connecting students to each other and to a cause larger than themselves.  That strengthens retention and becomes a valuable recruiting tool. It builds national visibility for the campus through organizations such as the Engaged Scholarship Consortium, Campus Compact, The White House Office of Public Engagement, and campus organizations such as the Coalition of Urban Metropolitan Universities.  CAO’s have key roles in supporting involvement in these organizations.

Even campuses that have a strong faculty research focus can accomplish this by adding “community” faculty to teach but also be visible element of that unit in the community. CAO’s can help leverage funding to help this occur. Currently UNO’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice is not only ranked as a top ten program for scholarship but it also has hired community faculty who previously served in leading roles in corrections, policing and justice to serve such dual roles. Supporting this financially and in other ways makes their students more marketable and their program more relevant in the community.

CAO’s should continue to support the campus as an engaged resource, and it will pay dividends in ways that might surprise you.
B.J. Reed, Sr. Vice Chancellor, University of Nebraska at Omaha (retired)

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