The University of Guelph is a mid-sized university (approximately 20,000 students) with seven colleges and several campuses, known both for research intensiveness and for being a comprehensive university that is student centered. The strategic research plan and other documents emphasize engagement and knowledge mobilization through research themes, including food, health, environment, and community, and the Integrated Plan reasserts a strong commitment to the development of students through fostering engagement with community.
Challenges and Opportunities
As with almost all Canadian universities, the University of Guelph has a number of historical and current initiatives towards better community engagement. Efforts by research, teaching, and support units at Guelph working on community engagement practices and initiatives include co-curricular work in Student Affairs, Learning Circles and other opportunities for innovative community-engaged pedagogy from the Centre for Open Learning and Educational Support, the long-standing extension and outreach work within and beyond the Ontario Agricultural College and the Guelph and Ontario Ministry of Food and Rural Affairs Partnership Knowledge Translation and Transfer programs, which deeply link and exchange new knowledge opportunities with community and university constituents. The Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI) has drawn on this rich context to develop capacity for the scholarship of community engagement, participating in efforts toward greater recognition of community-engaged scholarship (CES), through supporting strategic capacity building in faculty, students and community. The College of Social and Applied Human Sciences has clearly articulated an ongoing commitment to addressing relevant social issues through college research themes, highlighting faculty research strength in community based research and students participation in community engaged learning applied to local and global societal issues, including through housing the Institute.
In work towards institutionalizing engagement practices, challenges include recognizing and integrating efforts across a number of largely autonomous colleges, units and stakeholders that approach engagement from different perspectives, ideologies and preferred outcomes. Efforts toward a university-wide strategy for knowledge mobilization are crystallizing: a vision for building capacity for local and global engagement through a school for civil society and engagement was completed in spring 2013, with a number of projects that will be contained in a new school now being piloted, such as the Guelph Lab and “just-in-time” curricular models that have been co-constructed with community partners.
Specific initiatives towards institutionalizing engagement
Various opportunities and support towards engagement have included:
Institutional hubs for research and teaching that support excellence in community engagement, partnering and research:
The Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI) draws on strong traditions of community engagement and socially responsive research to foster mutually beneficial community-university research partnerships. CESI builds capacity for community-engaged scholarship by strengthening faculty and student engagement with local, national, and international communities of interest, addressing faculty reward and development, and training and supporting faculty and students in engagement and knowledge mobilization. Innovative and experimental support mechanisms include faculty research affiliates using service commitments towards developing community research agendas, and the new Guelph Lab which seeks to address difficult issues of citizen engagement in the city and university. CESI also supports the Research Shop, where graduate students work with community organizations and collaborations on community driven research outside of their regular programs of study.
The School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD) brings together major academic fields concerned with creating strong communities in Canada and around the world - Landscape Architecture, Rural Planning and Development, Capacity Development, and Rural Studies. Research is often practical and focused at and with the community level. For example, SEDRD received an Excellence in Planning Award from the Ontario Professional Planners Institute for its publication Rural Landowner Stewardship Guide for the Ontario Landscape, a self-assessment tool for environmental issues ranging from water preservation to energy conservation for citizens and communities. This project, led by Profs. Wayne Caldwell and Karen Landman, received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and involved partnership and participation with a number of graduate students and dozens of community members and groups.
The International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation was founded in 2013 by Prof. Ajay Heble with support from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant. The Institute expands on the work done through a SSHRC-funded Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP) research project which used musical improvisation as a tool for developing transcultural understanding, emphasizing engagement with communities. The Institute focuses on three main areas of research: practice-based research, the creation of experimental technology and media, and community and social practice. Involving over 30 community partners with 56 international scholars from 20 institutions, the Institute boasts a truly interdisciplinary team of community partners and researchers with expertise in critical, literary, historical, musical, sociological, anthropological, technological, and philosophical inquiry, policy-oriented social research, law, and creative response.
Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) is the University of Guelph’s unit dedicated to the study of biodiversity at multiple levels of biological organization. In 2013, The Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) was created with support from Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, and Genome Canada to serve as BIO’s academic research and applications branch. Consisting of faculty members, graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and research and development-focused analysts, CBG is the hub for the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project. iBOL is the largest initiative ever undertaken in biodiversity genomics; it involves over 1,000 researchers in 26 countries developing an accessible DNA barcode reference library. At Guelph, BIO’s BIOBus carries researchers and students into community to biodiversity hotspots across North America to collect specimens of insects and other invertebrates, adding hundreds of thousands of specimens to the reference library.
The Centre for Business and Social Economics (CBaSE) gives students the tools to become business leaders committed to community engagement and a sustainable future through course credits, startup incubation, and experiential learning opportunities. Through the CBaSE course and applied community projects students work with their peers across academic disciplines to provide business-consulting services to a local organization, proposing sustainable solutions to real world cases. As the College of Business and Economics’ (CBE) enterprise unit, CBaSE acts as the conduit between the university and the local business community, partnering with organizations such as Innovation Guelph to support local entrepreneurs and providing startup support to University of Guelph alumnus and students through The Hub incubator program. In November 2014, CBE received a grant from the provincial Youth Jobs Strategy to expand CBaSE’s initiatives designed to introduce more businesses and students across campus to the culture of entrepreneurship and to support more youth-led businesses.