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Leveraging University / Community Engagement

In Summer 2015, Portland State University's Dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs (and Kitchen Table Democracy Board member) Dr. Stephen Percy sat down to talk with Metroscape, a publication from PSU's Institute for Metropolitan Studies, anout how the university is a "collaborative open space".  The following is an excerpt of Dean Percy's interview with Sheila Martin, Director of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies.  Read the whole interview here

Sheila Martin: What are your initial thoughts about the college’s role in the region?

Dean Percy: One of the advantages of College of Urban and Public Affairs is its rich array of institutes and centers that, together, have long histories, great capacity and energy, and real impact. The academic programs here in the College of Urban and Public Affairs are also really powerful and relevant in today’s world. Urban and regional planning, governance and public management, criminology and criminal justice, and public health are all at the forefront of our nation’s challenges and opportunities.

I recently asked my staff to create an inventory of projects and initiatives in which our college faculty and centers and institutes have engaged in the state of Oregon since January 2013. So far we have counted 190 distinct projects—efforts designed to support effective government, urban and regional planning, health, and public policy. This is a powerful measure of CUPA’s impact in our community, region and state.

And another thing I would say is that Portland is a place where its residents care about governance, planning, and the region’s future in a richer and a deeper way than any other community in which I’ve lived. That doesn’t mean that other cities don’t care about those things, but it is so deep in the culture here. There are powerful notions here about sustainability and smart planning to manage urban growth and emphasize density in order to preserve natural lands and assets. There is such a strong awareness here of stewardship, that is valuing and protecting the region’s natural beauty and resources.

So if you’re going to have a school of public affairs, and you want that school to be able to get involved and have impact, you could hardly pick a better place than Portland. It’s a community that’s willing to ask questions and have important conversations.

And that kind of questioning needs the kind of knowledge, convening, and research that a university can provide, and we have that here. It makes CUPA extremely relevant to Portland.

SM: How do you think that willingness to engage is connected to the fact that the university is located within the city?

Dean Percy: Well, the centrality of our location is really a wonderful asset because we are literally within walking distance of so many key public policy arenas. So our location makes it easy for us to engage in so many arenas of public policy debate and decision making.

I think that as visibility and appreciation for the university increase—and I think that is happening, as it is for many urban research universities—there’s even more likelihood that people will want to become involved and connect with us as a potential asset in all kinds of planning, governance, and problem solving to enhance life quality. I’ve seen in other universities that, when people learn that you’re a willing and relevant community partner, not just a bunch of scholars focused on their own fields, people’s willingness and interest in having you at the table increases dramatically.

SM: What have you identified as the most important opportunities for the college to serve the community better?

Dean Percy: Well, I would say a few things. First, my goal is for the college to become the go-to place for public policy and planning. That’s already happening, so we’re not starting from zero. But I’d like to ratchet it up even more, so that if the community has a public policy or planning issue, and they need answers, they will think—we’ve got to call the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State because that asset base is so important.

Second, I think this college is at an interesting point where it could be a catalyst within PSU to do things at a more campus-wide level, rather than just at a college level. I’ll give you an example. I recently convened a meeting of all PSU deans to explore how the university as a whole could embrace the public challenges of an aging population. The college has the

Institute on Aging, which is a very important core in this effort. The issues related to aging are so emergent, so in need of an interdisciplinary approach. Our college can be a catalyst for bringing other people together on the issues. I believe we will have a significant leadership role. Not the leadership role, but an important role, just the same. And if we approach the issue of aging from a holistic, multi-disciplinary perspective, I think the university as a whole will benefit.

This whole notion of collaboration is, at least in the back of my mind, one of the key challenges we have in promoting civic life and life quality in general.

SM: So collaboration within the university is a key to serving the community better?

Dean Percy: Well, yes, that and collaboration with relevant partners. And this gets to the notion of collective impact. We think about technology and how it’s changing things—like improving medical records, healthcare, and other things. We’re relying on technology to be a huge problem solver. It can be. But in solving and responding to human problems, technology may be only one asset. What’s also needed is for people to step out of their own realms to do something together for a collective impact. And our capacity to harness human ideas and initiatives and to bring together relevant organizations to work together is just in its infancy. How many times are you going to hear, well, if only we could work together? But we often don’t. And it’s hard to do. But that’s the challenge of moving forward in the 21st Century—how to harness talent and energy and organizations to collectively pursue issues. And I think a university has this wonderfully unique space where it can operate. In many ways it’s a safe place for collaboration. It’s often— not always, but often—a step back from the political world, and can serve as a kind of neutral convener in many cases. Our collaborative governance people, in the National Policy Consensus Center, have some very good strategies for doing that. We also focus on creating and disseminating knowledge. Evidence-based work is in heavy demand—predictive analysis, big data—these are things a university can provide. So we’re in this wonderful place where we can be an important node for some of this work. We can be a kind of “collaborative open space” where ideas can be expressed and knowledge can be exchanged.

What I’ve found is that communities generally appreciate what universities can provide—especially when universities demonstrate that they understand the need to operate on a community timeframe, not an academic timeframe. When you have research centers like CUPA does that are organized to be responsive to requests, and when you have faculty and administrators who understand the importance of collaborative partnerships, and when you understand your value-added— when you get all those things right—the university is more and more valued.

Read the rest of the interview via Metroscape's digital edition.