This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Developing civic responsibility

Focus on university as ’good citizen’

Published: April 20, 2006

Reporter Contributor

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Faculty and administrators from seven UB schools and several departments in the College of Arts and Sciences have proposed a five-year plan that would lead to recognition of UB "as a top research institution that is dedicated to research and scholarship devoted to civic engagement and public policy," one of the UB 2020 strategic strengths.


The plan calls for the creation of a Service-Learning Research and Development Center, an Institute for the Study of Law and Urban Justice, a Public Health Policy Institute, and an interdisciplinary graduate program in public policy studies.

In a white paper detailing steps to develop this strategic strength, the authors state that by reaffirming UB's "civic responsibilities, public purpose and connection to its communities, we are seeking to renew the land-grant mission in contemporary terms."

As context for this effort, the white paper makes the point that from the 1862 Morrill Act that led to creation of land-grant colleges, through the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act that gives universities a financial stake in innovations produced from federally funded research, "universities across the country have cultivated mutually beneficial relationships with the public."

The university not only prepares students to be good citizens, but also recognizes its stake as an institution in the affairs of the community. "It is, in other words, a good citizen itself."

The authors find existing strengths in civic engagement and public policy at UB in most departments in the CAS and almost every school—from the work of the Urban Design Project in the School of Architecture and Planning to the professional services provided by MSW students in the School of Social Work.

Nils Olsen, dean of the Law School and one of the authors, calls civic engagement and public policy, "the broadest area of all the 10 strengths." The May 5, 2005, envisioning retreat to discuss opportunities in this area drew 80 faculty members.

"As the most comprehensive public research university in New York State, UB possesses the academic breadth and vision necessary for a program of excellence in civic engagement and public policy: broad-based and successful programs in both the health and basic sciences; comprehensive undergraduate and graduate studies in the social sciences, humanities, and engineering; and a full complement of respected professional schools—including law, management, pharmacy, architecture and planning, dentistry, medicine, public health and health professions, nursing, social work and education," he added.

"These professional schools," Olsen said, "have in place extensive and highly regarded clinical educational programs that are closely connected to their diverse publics at the local, regional, national and global levels and have an unmatched record of professional training and socialization of students, significant service to the community and associated scholarship and teaching innovations."

Olsen added: "As the envisioned faculty working groups are empanelled to refine and elaborate those specific areas of civic engagement and public policy that UB will concentrate upon through this strategic strength, there is great potential for significant and meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration and for leveraged external and governmental funding to support this effort."

The white paper sees three challenges to developing civic engagement and public policy at UB: the extraordinary breadth of the area, which the authors call "both an advantage and a challenge;" possible confusion between "civic engagement" and the mission of UB's Community Engagement Task Force; and the need to distinguish scholarship and teaching in this strategic strength from generic public service.

At a Feb. 27 presentation to the UB Council, Robert Granfield, professor of sociology and another author on the white paper, defined civic engagement at a public research university as "the generation and distribution of knowledge whose aim is to enrich public debate about the assorted social, cultural, economic, political, health, ethical, legal and religious issues that confront the multiple publics that make up the world within which we live."

Granfield described the public policy component of the strategic strength as more specifically a subject for research and scholarship—"what we do best"—focused on a critical assessment of the impact of government policy on multiple levels, from the local to the international, including research that focuses on such things as declining cities, problems associated with housing, aging, crime, educational access, immigration and health care, as well as the persistent inequalities associated with race, social class and gender.

The white paper identifies seven strategic opportunities for UB in the area of civic engagement and public policy:

  • Economic development and technology transfer. Assets in this area include the Center for Human Capital in the economics department and a new collaboration between the schools of law and management and the Office of Science, Technology and Economic Outreach encompassing study and practice in intellectual property protection and technological entrepreneurship. There also is o broad-based energy throughout UB that is centered on issues of economic opportunity and development.

  • Law and social justice. UB "has an international reputation as an interdisciplinary center for the study of law and society scholarship," according to the white paper, which cites the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy as a significant asset as well as a proposed Institute for the Study of Law and Urban Justice in the sociology department. Examining law and social justice "within transforming urban areas" will create "vigorous synergy" among UB scholars from a variety of disciplines.

  • Water resources. With Buffalo located on the shore of a Great Lakes system that contains one-fifth of all the world's fresh surface water, this resource is a natural strategic opportunity for both scholarly work and practice at UB. Researchers in the schools of engineering, law, architecture and planning, public health, several departments in the CAS and various interdisciplinary centers are already studying issues concerning remediation, protection, and exploitation of water resources.

  • International and cross-border issues. The white paper quotes Michael Frisch, professor of American studies, who describes Buffalo as "the fulcrum of perhaps the most complex, interesting transnational urban region in North America," a region that includes Montreal and Toronto, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. This area of opportunity is already the scene of many collaborative explorations as UB embraces a global perspective.

  • Pre-K through 16 Education. Describing challenges in primary, secondary and post-secondary education both in the U.S. and globally, the white paper states that education "must be conceptualized as a public good." Work in this area will be directed in substantial part to understanding the current nuances of educational policy and practice, improving the quality of instruction pre-K through 16 in math, the sciences and foreign languages, and creating and strengthening the pipeline for broader access to higher education of a broadly diverse group of students.

  • State, local, and regional governance. UB faculty have "significant expertise and a strong track record in basic and applied scholarship in governance studies," according to the white paper, particularly exemplified in by the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth. The authors say that UB can build on its existing resources to become an acclaimed center for governance scholarship.

  • Public policy studies. The white paper proposes the development of an interdisciplinary graduate program in public policy studies, through the doctoral level, and the creation of a public health policy institute. It says that through this work, UB "will join the ranks of distinguished universities that are committed to exploring the relationship between public policy and improvements in the quality of life for all."