Countdown to Coalition Series Part 2: Strengthening Education Through Community and Civic Engagement

January 4, 2024

In our countdown toward unveiling our new organizational identity and our movement towards identifying as a Coalition, we reached out to Paula O’Loughlin, Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs at Augsburg University. Our Director of Member Services, Kara Trebil-Smith, asked Paula to help us explore the idea of how specifically civic and community engagement strengthens higher education, on a large scale and at the individual level. We share Paula’s interview below. 

Let’s start by getting to know you a bit. Can you share a bit about your role at Augsburg, your experience in higher education, and how community and civic engagement has shown up in your work?

My role is pretty much what it suggests and it’s a pretty cool job. I support and lead everything related to student learning and living which includes what used to be student affairs, all things faculty, community and civic engagement through our Sabo Center. Community and civic engagement are a big part of my “why” for higher education leadership and for my career in higher education overall.

My career in higher education began at University of Minnesota – Morris in 1996 as an Assistant Professor of Political Science. Civic engagement figured into my work there from the beginning. Every year, I had my intro students doing participatory action research on young people’s voting habits and my upper level students getting involved around rental codes and more advanced civic engagement projects. Within a year, I was involved in what was then known as the Invisible College, the faculty organization that developed as a counterpart to Campus Compact around the time of the Wingspread Declaration. At the same time, I got involved through the University of Minnesota’s effort to bring civically engaged scholarship and public research into its tenure code. This enabled me to work with critical leaders like the Provost for the entire University of Minnesota Bob Bruininks, senior faculty legends like Ed Fogelman and Martin Sampson, and public intellectuals like Harry Boyte. So my civically engaged teaching led to research which led to changes inside and outside the academy.

I was at an AAC&U meeting when I realized that as much as I loved teaching and research with my students, I could do more good for more students if I helped make systems and enable cultures that would support civically engaged learning. So in 2012, I went to the dark side and became an administrator. I was Associate Provost and Dean of Arts and Humanities at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter for four years before I switched states and roles and became the Provost and Dean at Coe College in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Since Coe is an anchor institution for Cedar Rapids,  I got in on the ground floor of the college’s strategic plan which for the first time intentionally linked the fortunes of the college to the needs of the greater community. It was a wild moment to experience as college and community learned how they could draw on each other. 

After six years, which included the pandemic and a stint serving as Coe’s Dean of Students as well as Provost, I was ready for a new challenge. The Augsburg opportunity presented itself to me. I have found Augsburg to be as amazing as I expected. Augsburg’s explicit commitment to the community as part of its mission and the way we live out our mission in everything we do transcends the norm. I like to think we are concept-testing the promises of the next generation of community engaged institutions. This is incredibly important for our society right now and I am proud to have connected with this institution and community.

Tell us about some of the dynamics you are working in at your institution? What are internal and external factors impacting the educational experience?

One is what everyone faces– the tension between doing our mission today and being sustainable enough to be able to do our mission in perpetuity. A second dynamic we live with is what it means to be an anchor institution in the heart of an ever-changing Minneapolis. As a school, we have always been rooted in our community, and our community is in the midst of constant change. Last but not least, I would say we are always discerning what it means to be both a private institution and to have avowedly public goals. Our students’ overwhelmingly come from modest origins. Attending Augsburg means they can go further than they might have otherwise, and their communities benefit as well. We are making a case for the “small-p” public community-based  purposes of higher education as a private institution at a time when there’s neither interest in ‘small-p’ public purposes of higher ed, nor higher ed generally.

The fore-mentioned are some of the critical external factors influencing students’ educations today. Equally critical, most higher ed institutions’ are predominantly white faculty and staff, and our students are increasingly bipoc. We owe it to our students and our communities to have our schools reflect their communities better or we will not be doing our mission. 

Your president has been engaged with the Compact for a long time, and has long been invested in the work of community and civic engagement in higher education. What does having buy-in from leadership mean to you? What does it mean for the institution?

It’s tremendous. As you note, Paul has been doing this for a long time and he is a recognized radically modest rock star in this work. He, like me, understands at a visceral level how important our mission is and why that mission has to always come first.  He thinks about community engagement and civic purposes of higher ed intuitively, like I do. This shared vision means we can bounce ideas and initiatives off each other. We also can both be involved in this work at local, regional and national levels and better attain our shared goals for Augsburg and our community.

From a purely pedagogical perspective, students are more likely to enhance their critical thinking skills, the most vital skills for healthy democratic engagement overall in a society, by community engagement than most other pedagogical interventions… It is good for the student and for the body politic if you as an educator bring community engagement into your pedagogy.”

Your career has led you to work on more than one of our member campuses. How does being on an engaged campus lead to a different student experience? A different community experience?

I don’t know what it would be like to work at an institution that was not an engaged campus, but I suspect I would not enjoy it. Being an engaged campus is so critical to all the core student success indicators. Engaged campuses enhance students’ retention, social capital, sense of belonging, efficacy and engagement overall. Together, these enhance students’ likelihood of graduating. Students from engaged campuses are also more likely to believe they can make positive change in the world when they graduate, and that is something we all need. Our communities’ benefit equally from these relationships. They benefit as students come to see community members as fellow travelers and people dedicated toward answers not obstacles. Students on engaged campuses come to see their communities as vibrant and fun to live in after graduation, and future workplaces.

In your work with and as faculty on a college campus, what benefits do educators gain by incorporating community and civic engagement into their teaching and research? What are some ways that leadership and administrators can support faculty in this work?

There are so many benefits for educators who choose to incorporate community and civic education. Students approach classes differently and with more engagement. Questions arise with a new lens on old research that you can then pursue. You as the educator find yourself feeling more connected to the community as well, sometimes despite your best efforts. From a purely pedagogical perspective, students are more likely to enhance their critical thinking skills, the most vital skills for healthy democratic engagement overall in a society, by community engagement than most other pedagogical interventions. So, it is good for the student and for the body politic if you as an educator bring community engagement into your pedagogy.

I think one of the biggest things leaders can do to support faculty in this work is by affirming its significance for the institution’s strategic goals. Equally important, we as leaders need to make explicit that this work is valued in the hidden economy of promotion, tenure, merit pay, etc., within our institutions. If we say it matters, it needs to be articulated as such. Finally, I think we need to break down the binary that exists between the practice of community engagement by our institutions and individual social mobility of our students. There is nothing wrong and everything right if our institutional practice of community engagement enhances our students’ experience of personal social mobility. The goals are not antithetical and in fact are both critical for the long term prospects of “small-d” democracy.

“I think one of the biggest things leaders can do to support faculty in this work is by affirming its significance for the institution’s strategic goals.”

Lastly, tell us about your vision for our coalition. What are some actions you see our members working toward to further our goal of strengthening education for an engaged democracy?

I think we are going to be able to focus on strengthening what an engaged campus looks like in our part of the United States. I am excited by the coalition’s inclusiveness toward all kinds of institutions in both states. I think having community partners as active members of the coalition will make us much more strategically smart in our communities. Finally, I think we are connecting back and also forward to the original goal of this work a la Wingspread, and Dewey before then by connecting more clearly and openly with civic engagement work. The civic and the community are intertwined and it’s nice to be open about it.

We thank you, Paula, for reminding us of what we all gain from dedication to this work, especially in such clear and concise language. We know that your insights are bolstered by a long career in community engagement, and that your students, institutions, and communities have benefited from your work. We look forward to continuing our Countdown to Coalition Series in 2024, when we will delve into what it means to work toward the public purpose of higher education, and share our strategic priorities as an organization moving forward. 

The Countdown to Coalition Series is a multi-part blog series dedicated to examining the “why” of our work as a coalition-building organization for colleges and universities in the Midwest. This series will pave the way for the official unveiling of our new organizational identity in Spring 2024. We invite all of you to gear up for this new adventure together by celebrating change and reflecting on our values, the work we’ve done together for over two decades, and the work that is yet to come.