This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Retreat participants look at UB's strengths in civic engagement, public policy

Published: May 12, 2005

Contributing Editor

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Some 80 faculty members representing academic departments ranging from economics to architecture and media study to law gathered May 5 in Clemens Hall for an "envisioning retreat" on civic engagement and public policy aimed at looking at UB's—and Western New York's—current strengths, as well as emerging strengths and opportunities, and how to attain them.


"The (civic engagement and public policy) area cuts across more of the university than any of UB's other strategic strengths" identified as part of the UB 2020 strategic planning process, noted Robert Granfield, associate professor of sociology, who served as facilitator of the group.

He stressed that the term "civic engagement" in this instance does not focus on volunteer opportunities, but rather on research and scholarship that deals with broad policy issues and the importance of applying scholarly expertise at the local, regional, national and global levels in the interests of advancing the public good.

Granfield encouraged participants to "think broadly" about the unique aspects of UB that may be applied to civic engagement and public policy, and what areas need to be focused upon in order for the university to become an internationally recognized leader.

"We're looking for a breadth of involvement, and how we can collaborate, develop research agendas and think across research areas to other strategic strengths and intersections of areas," he said.

After breaking into four groups for roughly 45 minutes, the participants reconvened to discuss a wide range of strengths that UB currently possesses.

Technology and geography were at the top of one group's list, which group leader Peter Pitegoff, vice dean and professor of law, called "a critical piece that cuts across borders" to place Buffalo in the center of a "corridor" between Toronto and Rochester for the study of public-policy issues.

UB's proximity to Canada was a frequently mentioned strength, as was globalization, both in terms of fields of study and the number of students and faculty members who come to UB from other nations.

Even Buffalo's status as a city in decline is a strength, said Isaac Ehrlich, UB Distinguished Professor and chair, Department of Economics, College of Arts and Sciences, and another group leader.

"Buffalo is a declining city and area," he said. "We have a wealth of data right in our backyard that can be brought together in a meaningful way."

His was not a unique perspective. "This is a distressed community and environment, with poverty issues, urban issues and gender issues within households and communities," each of which provides opportunity for study and assistance, said Shubha Ghosh, professor of law.

"A lot of us are doing and studying, using the local community as a lab," added Pitegoff.

While Western New York may be declining, that same decline is making the community more like the rest of the country, Ehrlich pointed out, moving the region from a heavy manufacturing economy to a service economy.

"The more we look like the rest of the country, the more we'll share its fortunes," he said.

It is vital to consider civic engagement and public policy as a two-way street, said Lynn Mather, director of the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, with scholars and researchers engaged in the community, giving back in terms of resources and support.

UB's emphasis on interdisciplinary research is another of the university's strengths.

"Our existing interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary relationships are a unique strength," said Robert Reis, professor of law. But Sarah Elder, professor of media study, disagreed.

"I have found tremendous programmatic and administrative barriers to being interdisciplinary," she said.

So, what are UB's emerging areas of strength and how does the university go about pursuing them?

An increased emphasis on globalization and gender, facilitating more interdisciplinary research, and on diversity and equity are needed, said Ehrlich.

UB needs to develop nationally recognized centers of learning, similar to the Rockefeller Center at New York University, which focuses on the larger issues that New York State and state government faces, it was suggested.

Developing an academic center of scholarship to improve rankings and prominence through the study of civic engagement and public policy also was suggested as a means of raising the university's national profile.

Other suggestions to increase UB's national prominence included:

  • Facilitate cross-disciplinary communication and connect resources to encourage a broader knowledge of technology, particularly how technology affects the social sciences.

  • Hold an annual conference on civic engagement so academics nationally would connect UB with civic engagement and public policy.

  • Become a "first mover," introducing-and receiving funding for-novel programs.

  • Develop an administrative structure that facilitates the generation of interdisciplinary hires and grants.

  • Become the home to journals and other publications on civic engagement and public policy.

  • Create a doctoral program in civic engagement and policy studies to allow UB to become a repository of excellence and expertise.

The university also needs to think about how to institutionalize issues of engagement, including the education and training of community leaders, encouraging creativity and innovation, and working on problem solving in collaborative ways.

The university community needs to think about Buffalo as a laboratory for looking at such issues as community development, urban and regional issues, globalization, environmental issues, racial equality and international and human rights.

Improved communication is important to these goals, both between the university and the community, but perhaps more importantly, between the UB North and South campuses.

Although funding is always a concern, participants pointed out that these new initiatives also present an opportunity to raise funds through the naming of new centers and scholarships.