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Community Relationships, Engagement, and Outreach

Background 

 

 As a land-grant university, SDSU is tasked with ensuring that community relationships, engagement, and outreach are succinctly aligned with and helping to strengthen its academic and research missions. SDSU Extension is the primary outreach arm of the university, and it is celebrating its six-year anniversary since the 2011 reorganization that occurred as a fiscal response to diminishing resources. While the magnitude of this restructure was initially difficult and moved the physical presence of SDSU Extension out of many local communities, new relationships, statewide delivery mechanisms, technologies, staffing models, and educational models have since been employed. As a result, a stronger, more effective system positioned to serve the citizens of South Dakota has emerged. 

The SDSU Alumni Association has worked to strengthen existing relationships and forge new alliances with alumni chapters by formalizing chapter agreements in concentrated alumni areas. The SDSU Foundation staff has grown as a result of the development services agreement with SDSU, allowing them to increase their outreach efforts. The two organizations work closely together as evidenced by the new Alumni Center expansion of the Lohr Foundation Building. 

An indicator in the Impact 2018 Strategic Plan was for the university to receive Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification. Community engagement under this classification is described as a collaboration between the institution and the larger community for a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. In January 2017, the Jack Club Hub tracking system was launched to record engagement with the community. This is one step toward achieving this goal, as community service hours are a major component of the application. Despite being a priority, the application package for this classification will not be submitted until 2020. 

Exponential growth in on- and off-campus facilities that serve both SDSU and the communities in which they reside has occurred over the past five years. For example, Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium and the Performing Arts Center both bring visitors to Brookings and help support local economic development. Many of these facilities also host numerous camps and conferences, some of which are brand new, and others rich in tradition like Hobo Days and Little International. The West River Ag Center encompasses research, teaching, and Extension and hosts many community meetings and workshops. Not only has there been physical expansion of facilities, but diversification of the audiences served, examples include the Wikaske Alliance at the Native American Nursing Education Center in Rapid City and the Wokini Initiative launching on campus. Moreover, growth has also occurred through increased affiliations with universities, tribes, tribal colleges, high schools, and technical institutes, and has allowed for expansion of delivery of services to all South Dakotans. 

Relationships are driven by people, and they would not be possible without our employees, students, and alumni. SDSU employees and students are exploring ways to engage in their communities whether it is related to job responsibilities, class assignments, or a personal desire to serve. Examples include student integration with health care systems to provide screenings or SDSU employees serving on various boards and committees. While face-to-face relationships exist, we cannot forget that relationships are also maintained in writing or electronically through the distribution of magazines, such as STATE magazine, newsletters, social media, and websites like sdstate.edu, igrow.org, statealum.com, and sdsufoundation.org. Financial relationships are also critical to SDSU’s ability to engage in outreach, and many of the opportunities identified above would not be possible without the relationships and agreements developed 

Lessons learned 

The following lessons have been learned: 

Make bold moves. While the SDSU Extension restructure was extremely difficult in the beginning, the strategic and bold move has paid off in forging ahead with new and innovative relationships. Many land-grant universities are following suit with similar re-organizations, but because SDSU made the move six years ago, we are national leaders in many cutting-edge, community/locally-based research, teaching, and outreach initiatives. The SDSU Extension website (igrow.org) reached its milestone of more than 1 million users. A follow-up survey with stakeholders conducted in 2016 by Paulsen Marketing showcased that this new model was not only retaining those that had previously come to Extension for services, but engaging new and younger audiences. 

Uncertainty in direction of outreach. What do we want the response to be when we ask employees, students, or alumni what their definition of outreach is as it relates to their role at, or with SDSU? What is our vision of integrating both education and research, scholarship, and creative activity into the community? Even though it is etched in our land-grant mission, there have not been strategic efforts to invest in further defining this role, clearly delineating the expectations through professional development and other opportunities, and most importantly, encouragement to continue on and move forward. 

Relationship with city of Brookings. The town and gown relationship found here is something others in the state and region work to emulate. Whether it is coming together to further develop and expand opportunities for growth at the Research Park at SDSU or the city investing in the Performing Arts Center, we can do more working together than we can individually. To continue to succeed, we need to ensure that we have clear and consistent communication as we develop strategic plans and long-term master plans, in hopes of developing a shared vision and concrete understanding of shared roles. This might help prevent a repeat of what happened when the fence was built around McCrory Gardens and the negative feedback we received from members of the community. 

Defining and measuring outreach/engagement/relationships. These topics are not easily quantified, measured, or defined and may take significant resources to understand. For example, the Jack Club Hub tracking system released in January 2017 has not been fully utilized due to lack of funding to conduct trainings with student organizations. There are examples at SDSU of tracking mechanisms that have been utilized to define and measure these relationships, but whether they have been shared broadly, or thought about in context of utilization by other programs, should be considered. 

Silos and missed opportunities. When entities operate in isolation whatever the level—individual, local, departmental, program, college—this lack of strategic attention by the wider audience can equate to missed opportunities. For example, in an era where admission rates are falling, is everyone assessing how they can incorporate admissions into their role? Are we consistently treating our multiple roles of discovery, education, and outreach as separated activities or as a comprehensive whole? Do the marketing and branding guidelines employed at the university prevent integration of our brand into rural households, high school classrooms, and other venues? There is a need for better information sharing regarding plans/programs/decisions made both within and outside the walls of the university to create more support and synergy among employees, students, and alumni. 

National trends and external picture 

Social media and electronic communication cannot be ignored both as a strategy to engage in outreach, but also as a means by which to discredit the university, or those associated with it. Awareness by employees of how external activities may affect their employment has become a critical component of today’s society. For example, what is posted on social media could result in the loss of their job or a demotion. How to couple both social media and external activities with the expectation to be involved in outreach will need to be at the forefront of professional development. 

Attention must be paid to the changing demographics of society and what their needs/wants/desires are for engagement and outreach. Students want more engagement and experiential learning to take them outside the walls of the classroom, thus faculty must be prepared with the resources and knowledge to bring this to fruition. Funding is shrinking at all levels, and engaging in unique partnerships and sponsorships to fulfill this mission will need to be considered. Because of shrinking funding, adjunct faculty or temporary employees may be brought in at an increased rate to provide workload coverage. Does this impact how these categories of employees see their role in outreach? What impact may it have on the quality of our education programs and research, or does it create new avenues for including the community in fulfilling the work of the university?

Strategic themes 

Several strategic themes for this university’s relationships, engagement, and outreach stem from these background lessons and national trends: 

  •  The university belongs to everyone: it is a means by which employees, students, alumni and the entire community have a lasting impact on society 
  •  Admissions is the responsibility of everyone (employees, students, alumni). 
  • Professional development and strategies articulating why it is important and focused on how individuals can develop community relationships, engagement, and outreach is warranted. 
  •  Resources play an integral role in the ability to create relationships. 
  • Lack of connections and relationships at a local and state level present great challenges. 
  • SDSU Extension needs to be recognized as an integral part of SDSU by those outside the university. 
  • A customer service mentality, both internally and externally, is the backbone of relationships and outreach. 
  • Relationships and innovation drive economic development creation and impact, which is needed in South Dakota communities. 
  • Many strategic initiatives should be driven by intentional integration of research, teaching, and outreach. 
  • Volunteers are critical to delivering the land-grant mission in the future, and improved reception and retention of volunteers. Linking volunteers to their specific desires must be accomplished. 
  • A systematic way of measuring and capturing data related to relationships, engagement, and outreach will drive successful designations such as the Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification. 
Options 
  • Decisions made in silos or at the individual level have a much wider ripple effect than is often assessed, and may stifle the university from moving forward. Engagement of diverse voices around these decisions would help to ensure that all perspectives are being heard. Relationships take several months/years to build, and the university needs to assess whether decisions and current policies/procedures that are in place are opportunistic or harmful to these efforts. 

  • Encourage and provide training to all levels of individuals that want to have a “seat" at a new table that can benefit the university. 

  • Provide training on customer service and what that looks like at all levels. Define the expectations for customer service. Developing a culture of customer service is supported by encouraging and rewarding “riding for the brand.” 

  • Ensure that those serving in the "external arm” functions of the university are equipped with internal information and that those on campus are aware of off-campus capacity. All three missions need to support relationships and each other.