Towson University is the national headquarters for the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU). CUMU’s journal, Metropolitan Universities, one of the leading community engagement journals in the field. This unique open-source journal has a long history of publishing innovative and guiding work for community engagement practitioners. It has been a publication venue for multiple TU faculty. TU is also a member of the Place Based Justice Network. The latest issue represents a collaboration between these two entities.

The latest issue of Metropolitan Universities, Vol. 35 No. 1 (2024): Productive Tensions and Uncomfortable Conversations, focuses on many of the dilemmas facing diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice issues in contemporary higher education. The theme of productive tensions and uncomfortable conversations was developed and edited by TU Faculty Director for Community Engagement and Partnerships Dr. Matthew Durington along with colleagues Dr. Jennifer Britton from Drexel University and Dr. Katherine Feely from John Carroll University. In these precarious times for DEI and social justice work, the issue is meant to address many of the complex issues surrounding this engagement work nationally. Themes for the journal include the topics of:

  • External tensions: issues between a university focus and community interests.
  • Internal tensions: embodying values and alignment on our campuses.
  • Tensions between words and action: how do you define and measure impact?
  • Epistemic justice: whose knowledge counts and how is it valued?

Journal articles based on these thematics range from critical discussions of extractive knowledge, anchor networks in legacy cities and university/public school partnerships among others. Below is an excerpt from the introduction to Vol. 35 No. 1 (2024): Productive Tensions and Uncomfortable Conversations:

Too often in higher education and community engagement work we rightly focus on our successes with communities and achievements in diversity, equity and inclusion work. And, rightly so. We highlight when we get our place based and hyper local social justice work right. But what about when it doesn’t go well, or when stumbling blocks are created by the customs and practices of higher education itself? If we are going to be honest about our community engagement and place based work we would recognize that the work leading up to those successes are where the real entanglements occur. It is the arduous but rewarding process of rapport building and finding common ground for projects that makes up much of the work. But, it is hard to adequately reflect the nature of this in a publication, university reward structure, or in quantitative measures of impact. There are tensions and uncomfortable moments in rapport building and working with partners, and inside of our institutions there are numerous obstacles to connecting equitably with partner communities This is even more heightened when we are working with underserved populations or with communities that have tense relationships historically and contemporaneously with higher education institutions. Sometimes things don’t work out. Why? Sometimes the best laid plans are subject to shifting administrations and the attention spans of faculty projects. Why? We may live our academic lives by semesters, but our community partners do not. How do we navigate that reality? 

There are problems, tensions, challenges, and failures in place-based work. Why not have a productive dialogue on these issues and own them? If we are able to share with one another the things that get in the way of anti-racist community engagement, aren’t we creating a more transparent space? Aren’t we interrogating the power dynamics of higher ed institutions and communities in doing so? We want to further critical conversations on these questions with our higher ed community, and, ideally our community partners as well. 

What are the ways that we usually measure impact in place based and community engagement work and what is problematic about it? An easy assertion is the undervaluing of qualitative data to quantitative analysis. Why do we give so much power to the N? Is it more powerful to ask five or six uniform questions to 1,000 people? We know there is value there. But is it over valued in data dashboards and storytelling around engagement work? Do we give as much weight to the deep narratives and rapport that comes from working with a small population over an extended amount of time? What if this is based on advocacy work? Do funding sources, donors and philanthropy recognize deep place based work or is it just about the larger aggregate? How can we create a metric based on the joy of kids reengaging play and education after Covid? Could we translate that to grant applications? 

These questions have guided the engagement work for BTU (Baltimore + Towson University) and thought partners on the TU campus and beyond. They are types of questions and issues that need to consistently be addressed as we adhere to strong community-based research methods and community-based learning. As we continue to evolve our engagement ecosystem at Towson University we can reflect on the many programs and workshops that have sometimes created some uncomfortable conversations. In addition, our paramount concern to consistently receive feedback from our community partners has been part of our DNA at TU as we work for the public good.

Check out the issue and if you have any questions about engagement work reach out!