The public engagement field offers some ideas that colleges may draw upon as they seek to bring faculty, and even the broader community, into decision making.
Community college faculty have a number of conventional ways to take part in campus decision-making, including faculty senates, committees and councils. But too often, those conventional mechanisms for input or consultation still leave faculty feeling “out of the loop” and frustrated that the most important decisions seem to be made from above or outside. Faculty would like more productive, meaningful opportunities to engage with each other, administration and students.
Regardless of the changes college administration are seeking, it is now widely recognized that not even the best ideas will live long enough to thrive without the active engagement of faculty. Higher education reform work is ripe for more deliberative, dialogue-based forms of faculty engagement. The broader public engagement field offers some ideas and models that colleges may draw upon as they seek to bring faculty, and even the broader community, into decision making.
For the last three years, Public Agenda has partnered with the League for Innovation in the Community College’s (“the League”) on their Faculty Voices project. We have asked ourselves at each step of the way: What would it look like for faculty to explore and co-create more sustained, deliberative forms of participation?
We worked directly with community college faculty to hold conversations on increasing student success. We also created a set of resources, including the Choicework discussion guide “Expanding Opportunity for All: How Can We Increase Community College Student Completion?” and a facilitation toolkit called “Facilitation Challenges and Interventions: Video-Based Training for Facilitators”. All of these trainings, resources and tools are designed to enhance the ability of colleges to tap the insight, expertise and commitment of faculty as genuine partners in innovation on behalf of helping more students succeed.
We have also sought to bring in our engagement expertise from outside of higher education, itself anchored in deep experience with community problem solving.
Based on that experience, together with what we’ve learned in our partnership with the League, we believe that there are two approaches to broad-based public engagement that could be of particular value to community colleges committed to innovation: Participatory Budgeting and the Study Circle.
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process that started in Brazil in the 1980s in which ordinary residents decide how to spend part of a public budget. Over thirty years later, PB has proliferated in several countries, including the United States. In the U.S., PB is among the fastest growing forms of public engagement in local governance. The process is not complicated, but it is intensive for both participants and for elected officials and their staff. Participants in PB meet to brainstorm ideas for projects to fund and develop project proposals. A broader group of participants then vote for projects. PB funds are then awarded to winning projects.
The process has been adapted for different contexts, including college campuses. For example, Brooklyn College and Queens College, both part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, have recently implemented PB processes on their campuses. Brooklyn College has allocated $25,000 for the process and Queens College has set aside $5,000.
Our intern Janice, a Queens College student, participated in the PB process on her campus. She wrote of her experience, “Though this was only the first cycle, participatory budgeting as a tool for civic engagement at Queens College noticeably brought the community together. PB has the potential to build real student power and radically change the way CUNY allocates funds.”
Currently, at both Brooklyn College and Queens College, only students participate in the process. However, it would be would be groundbreaking to create a truly democratic process where everyone in the campus community could participate in making these budget decisions.
Another democratic process that would be a great fit for any college is the study circle process. Portsmouth Listens is an example of a study circle that can serve as a model. Portsmouth Listens is a deliberative engagement process that brings together citizens of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to collaborate on issues affecting residents, including reducing bullying in schools and discussing the city budget with elected officials.
A core group of 8-12 people are responsible for deliberating like a jury or policy board on the issues at hand. These dialogues are facilitated by a neutral moderator. The group then conveys its insights to local legislators. This process works because legislators honor their resulting conclusions. Portsmouth Listens organizes citywide dialogues in which anywhere from seven to 30 such groups have worked with the same question.
The keys to success for these engagement processes have been that they are ongoing and sustained, and include a diverse group of people that are able to participate in different ways. In both examples, community building is at the core, which allows participants to gain trust in the process as well as each other. Most of all they are fun and interesting.
Leaders and officials support and value these forms of participation because they offer opportunities for “ordinary” people to be involved in real decision making. They are not just some throw-away effort from leaders to pacify the hopelessly disenfranchised and to create the illusion of public involvement kept at a safe distance from real decision making.
Both of these models of deliberative engagement can easily be adapted to college campuses. They would be particularly useful community colleges, offering faculty, administration and students more productive and meaningful opportunities to engage with each other and contribute to the decisions that affect their lives.