University in Society: Organising for Engagement in Ireland
Avila, Maria (2012) University in Society: Organising for Engagement in Ireland. PhD thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth.
In this thesis I look at the implications of replicating the organising practices utilized in the creation of the model of civic engagement at Occidental College in Los Angeles at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM). I do this through a case study of NUIM and its role in enhancing democracy in the region and in the Republic of Ireland. I place my study in the larger context of the current global discourse regarding the mission of higher education in society. Furthermore, my research is underpinned by theories and practices from the field of civic engagement. Civic engagement usually refers to partnerships between higher education institutions and their surrounding communities, with the purpose of enhancing university education while contributing to improving the community. This definition of civic engagement in academia is supported by Zlotkowski (1998), McIlrath and Mac Labhrainn (2007), Jacoby (2003), and Ehrlich (2000). While the civic engagement model created at Occidental aimed at establishing reciprocal and mutual beneficial partnerships between the College and the civic, non-for-profit sector, my case study at NUIM also includes partnerships with the government and corporate sectors. Many authors refer to engagement between the university, government, and corporations as triple helix. Such authors include Etzkowitz et, al. (2000) and Hagen (2002). Others advocate for engagement that includes higher education, the civic, government, and corporate sectors. To illustrate this latter model I offer three examples of universities from the US, Ireland, and the UK. The model created at Occidental College was based on community organising practices, and my PhD research was based on Participatory Action Research (PAR). While designing my research approach I discovered that there are strong similarities between the philosophy and practice of PAR and community organising. Using in-depth, narrative interviews with my research participants I also discovered that this type of interview is very similar to conducting one-to-one, relational meetings, a strong foundation of my training and work as a community organiser. Thus, my study allowed me to establish clear similarities between community organising and PAR. This was significant given that both my work at Occidental and my PhD research originate in my lifetime community organising work in Mexico and in the US. Moved by an interest in a deeper understanding of the origins of my interest in creating societal change and in connection with the focus of my PhD, in this thesis I engage in critical reflection about my personal and professional journey. Through this critical reflection I explore stories of my family in Mexico, including one about my father organising to acquire land, along with his fellow agricultural workers, when I was only four. This type of critical reflection, according to Mezirow (1990) can profoundly change the way we understand our world, other people and ourselves, and it can lead to actions to change society. This process of reflection did result in a deeper understanding of my work throughout my adult life, and it gave me a new level of emancipation personally and professionally. Although most of my interviews took place with academics and administrators at NUIM, I also interviewed a small sample of academics, corporate executives, government and civic leaders at the national level. All interviews focused on the question of the role of higher education in society, and they included stories of participants' views and experiences in civic engagement as well as stories of the model created at Occidental. The findings from the interviews showed that there is a diverse range of answers to the question of the role of higher education in solving society's problems, particularly in regards to enhancing democratic values and practices. An interesting discovery was to hear some participants outside of academia who are opposes to the notion that higher education could take such role in society. From interviews with M NUIM participants I discovered a significant interest in exploring the question of NUIM's role in enhancing Irish democracy, and in creating a model of civic engagement for the university. The world recession that started in 2008 has caused many social, political, and economic challenges for Ireland and this is the context in which my research took place, and in which civic engagement is evolving. While recognising the multiple problems currently plaguing Ireland some participants also expressed that these challenges, along with the current re-examination of the mission of higher education, offer an opportunity for higher education to play a leading role in enhancing Irish society.
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