Worcester State University
Center for Service Learning & Civic Engagement


The Future of Community-Based Learning and Service at Worcester State University—A Vision

Charles Cullum
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Talk Delivered at the Celebration of Service
Blue Lounge of the Student Center
Worcester State University
April 14, 2011

The mission statement of Worcester State University declares unequivocally that we affirm our place in and our commitment to our regional community. Specifically, we acknowledge that we are a “public” and a “metropolitan” institution, we accept our responsibility to “address[ ] the intellectual and career needs of the increasingly diverse citizenry of central Massachusetts” Dr. Cullumand to “develop[ ] new programs responsive to community needs,” and we aver that we “value[ ] teaching excellence rooted in scholarship and community service.” 

I am pleased be here today to congratulate the Intergenerational Urban Institute and the Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement for actively seeking to accomplish that mission, as shown both by the numbers of faculty and students who have been involved in service learning and other forms of civic engagement and by the wide range and high quality of the projects themselves. Allow me to cite just a few examples of the kinds of projects that our students have been involved in: one: determining the feasibility of turning waste vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel, working with the group, Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA); two: mentoring youth in the Latino Education Institute’s after school programs; three: collecting oral histories for the Worcester Women’s History Project; and four: tagging Red Bellied Cooters for the Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife group.

Through the hard work and leadership of Maureen Power, who has led Worcester State’s Intergenerational Urban Institute for many years, and, more recently, of Joyce Mandell, who has brought her own organizational skills and tenacity to the Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, and to all of our faculty who have accepted the challenge of adapting their own pedagogical approaches in order to include these kinds of projects, we are poised to move to a position of prominence in community-based learning and service.

Nothing less than such prominence is the vision that the Center for Service learning and Civic Engagement’s leadership and Advisory Board have projected as a part of their recently completed Strategic Plan. I’d like to focus on this vision statement as a model of how we should target our efforts in community-based learning and service. In five years, they propose, “Worcester State University will be perceived locally and nationally as a community engaged institution….Upon graduation, each student will have had an opportunity to link their academic learning with real world service, either through a service-learning course or an internship….WSU faculty will be recognized, honored, and celebrated for their contributions and service to the larger community….”

Included also in this vision is that Worcester State will qualify to be approved for the Carnegie Elective Classification for Community Engagement. This approval requires a clearly demonstrable  institutional commitment of policies and  resources, for example, a campus-wide infrastructure—an office, staffing, and budget;  definitions of and processes for identifying, tracking, and assessing  community engagement activities; and recognition of such activities through awards and celebrations.

This vision is, as a vision should be, ambitious, but I share this vision and I believe that the realization of it can be possible if we commit ourselves as disciples of community-based learning and service to strive to impel the institution to achieve this goal. The main point that I want to make today is that the cultural moment, the zeitgeist, for moving forward to this vision could not be better. For, from a number of influential directions, the winds of community-based learning are gusting.

First, the assessment movement that began gaining traction in the mid-1980’s has become the sine qua non of accreditation by the nations’ regional accrediting bodies. I remember well when I taught at a university in Michigan in 1989, its accrediting body, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, was one of the first to require that the Self-Study give some limited attention to assessment in addressing the standards. (I remember it well because my wife wrote the Self-Study and it was all over our dining room table for a year.) Now, as everyone here who is on a NEASC sub-committee knows, assessment results and how they are used to improve the institution, what is termed “Institutional Effectiveness,” are the most essential part of the analysis of every standard. This emphasis on assessment shifts the focus from teaching to learning and from measures of inputs, faculty credentials and library holdings, to student outcomes, what students can demonstrate that they know and can do.

John Tagg, who just gave a talk at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences on March 25, sponsored by the Worcester Consortium, discusses the shift to the student and to learning in The Learning Paradigm College. Citing the research of John Biggs, Tagg says that a true student-learning paradigm should be focused not on “what the student is,” that is, smart or not-so smart, and not on “what the teacher does” (Tagg, p. 19), that is, transmit information, as through a lecture, but rather on “what the student does,” on helping students “to undertake… appropriate learning activities” (Biggs, qtd. in Tagg, pp. 31-32).

Tagg expands on this model by outlining a number of characteristics of the learning paradigm college. One of these is that student activities should “require frequent student performances” (p. 124), by which he means “tasks that are visible and meaningful to others” (p. 155). He defines performance as “the product of applied understanding” that involves “a dynamic interaction with the environment” (pp. 155-56). Further, Tagg argues, student performance should be authentic, that is, should be “the kind of work people do in real situations, situations where their actions will have significant consequences” (p. 157). If the performance of a task relates only to the immediate educational context, Tagg maintains, it “has no clear connection with the world outside and beyond the academy” and “lacks authenticity” (p. 158).

Unmistakably, community-based learning meets all of Tagg’s requirements for authentic performance. To the extent, then, that the assessment movement has resulted in a significantly increased emphasis on student activity, our efforts to implement a continuous, systemic model of assessment across all academic programs calls also for an increased emphasis on community-based learning.

Second, continuing the emphasis on assessment outcomes, the Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts has set the following Vision: “We will produce the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation. We will be a national leader in research that drives economic development” (http://www.mass.edu/currentinit/visionproject.asp, accessed 4/9/11). For three of the five outcome areas of the Vision Project--college completion, measured by retention and graduation rates; student learning, following standard national assessment measures; the elimination of disparities in outcomes and graduation rates among ethnic, racial, economic, and gender groups; --community-based learning can play a positive role, as shown in George Kuh’s 2008 book, High-Impact Educational Practices. For a fourth outcome area, workforce development, the alignment of our degree programs with key areas of workforce need in the state’s economy, community-based learning fits naturally. Our work to achieve the Commissioner’sVision Project, then, coalesces with our efforts to achieve the vision of the Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement.

Third, since 2005, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has been promoting its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (or LEAP) campaign, which it defines as “a national initiative that champions the importance of a twenty-first-century liberal education—for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality.” This campaign is organized around what the AAC&U calls “Essential Learning Outcomes.” These outcomes fall into four basic categories. Two of those categories are closely aligned to the outcomes realized through community-based learning. One category is “Personal and Social Responsibility,” which includes civic knowledge and engagement, both local and global, intercultural knowledge, ethical reasoning and action, and skills for lifelong learning. The LEAP document notes that these learning outcomes should be “anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges” (http://www.aacu.org/leap/vision.cfm, accessed 4/9/11).  The second category that is relevant to community-based learning is “Integrative and Applied Learning,” including the ability to synthesize various types of knowledge. This outcome, the LEAP document states, should be “demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems” (http://www.aacu.org/leap/vision.cfm, accessed 4/9/11).

All four of the LEAP outcomes serve as the guiding principles underlying Worcester State’s new Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum. Through the implementation of this curriculum, we declare that the depth of knowledge and skills of a particular major area of study should be grounded in a comprehensive liberal arts education that gives our graduates going out into the fluctuating economy of the twenty-first century the ability to move not just from one job to the same kind of job, or from one company to the same kind of company, but to move from one career to a completely different career.

In its 2007 report, “College Learning for the New Global Century,” the Association of American Colleges and Universities states this point very bluntly:

“The general public—and many college students—continue to believe that choosing a ‘marketable’ college major is the key to future economic opportunity. Guided by this conviction, many students see study in their major field as the main point of college, and actively resist academic requirements that push them toward a broader education…. Those who endorse narrow learning are blind to the realities of the new global economy” (p. 15).

Today, as this report indicates, the study of the liberal arts is not an inconvenience for students on a stable career path, but rather a necessity to provide the ability to navigate through a complex, rapidly changing, and increasingly diverse global environment. Moreover, the learning outcomes of significant areas of the LEAP program can be best met through community-based learning. For this reason, the AAC&U report goes on to recommend specifically that “every student engage in some form of field-based learning and that faculty and staff create opportunities …for students to learn collaboratively and systematically from their field-based experiences” (p. 37).

Furthermore, as we move forward with the Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum, we are planning on an emphasis on integrative learning, which is at the top of the national agenda as the next step in curricular reform in higher education. Integrative learning seeks to identify and enhance linkages among the student learning outcomes of the general education curriculum, the student learning outcomes of the disciplinary majors, and students’ experiences beyond the curriculum and the campus. On April 12, the Coordinator of LASC, the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, our Grants Director, and a number of others of us met with trustees of the Davis Foundation about our proposal for a new three-year grant from Davis to support such approaches to integrative learning. This grant, then, if funded, will also support our push toward increasing community-based learning and service as one form of integrative learning.

Fourth, state and federal government and business and industry are crying out for greater connections among themselves and higher education. For just a recent example, on April 4, the Worcester Consortium sponsored a breakfast meeting of government, business, and education leaders from the Worcester region, with the title, “The Education and Workforce Pipeline in Greater Worcester: Challenges and Opportunities.” The focus was on ways that all areas could work toward better preparing high school graduates to succeed in college and college graduates to succeed in the world of work. The opening greeting came from the federal level from the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training of the U.S. Department of Labor, Jane Oates. She outlined five areas that should be focused on. One: Partnerships of all kinds. Between schools and colleges; between community colleges and universities; between industry and colleges; between everyone and local, state, and even and federal government. Two: Improved retention and graduation of students. Three: Education and training in the STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—programs. Four: Relevance in academic programs, by which she meant inclusion of “real world” examples and experiences. And Five: Encouraging students to diversify their academic programs, for example, combining a liberal major with a business minor. Another breakfast meeting participant was the Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development for Massachusetts, Joanne Goldstein, who emphasized the importance of connecting students at every level to the world of work, through internships, summer employment, and academic, governmental, and business partnerships. Without question, the approaches that government and industry recommend do or can involve experiential learning as a key element in the achievement of their goals.

From all of these initiatives and projects, all of these directions, then, we can garner support—theoretical, political, moral, and, to at least some extent, financial--for the achievement of what I believe is our shared vision for the Intergenerational Urban Institute and the Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement. In achieving this vision, we will be achieving in large measure also the mission of our University.

Again, congratulations to the leadership of the Institute and the Center and to the faculty and students who have participated in their programs and projects. All of you constitute this vibrant and vital element of the excellence that is Worcester State University. Thank you.

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