Diversity and Democracy

Building Momentum for Community Engagement: From Structural to Cultural Change

A Hasidic tale tells of a rabbi quizzing his students. He asked, “How can we determine when the night ends and the day begins?”

One of the students suggested, “Day begins when, from a distance, you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep.”

“No,” answered the rabbi.

Another student asked, “Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?”

Again, the answer was “no.”

“Please tell us the answer,” said the students.

“It is,” said the rabbi, “when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize them as your sister or brother. Until then, it is night and darkness is still with us.”

Change comes slowly to institutions of higher education. From one moment to the next, or one year to the next, it can proceed gradually, almost imperceptibly. Not unlike when night becomes day, significant turning points can be recognized only afterwards, when one reflects back. At Allegheny College, we believe we are experiencing the gradual dawning of a new day, and we reflect here on our change process.

Inspiration from National Efforts

One source of the coming light of morning has been Allegheny’s involvement in the Bonner network. Allegheny participated in the Bonner High-Impact Initiative, a three-year effort beginning in 2012 through which participating institutions aimed to change their curricula by linking high-impact educational practices with community engagement. To meet initiative goals, the Allegheny team proposed three innovations—a new academic requirement focused on civic engagement, a center for local knowledge and research, and a community listening project—that found significant traction on our campus and contributed to institutional changes now underway.

In September 2015, the Bonner Foundation coordinated a conference at Allegheny in response to a call issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U 2015) for all students to create signature projects focused on issues that matter to them and to society. Provosts, chief academic officers, and civic engagement administrators from more than twenty schools gathered to explore the potential of connecting the Bonner Foundation’s four-year, cocurricular, developmental model with AAC&U’s vision of guided pathways leading to culminating signature work. Emerging from this conference was the concept of community-engaged signature work, which brings into sharp focus the potential efficacy, relevance, and impact of undergraduate signature projects.

In remarks opening the conference, John Saltmarsh, director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, reflected on different paradigms of change on college campuses. The Bonner Program advocates for change that is rooted in student voice and student development; others argue that campus change results from change in faculty culture. These visions need not be mutually exclusive. In our experience, however, one thing is clear: effective institutional change relies on changes in institutional structure and changes in institutional culture. At Allegheny, structural change involves a robust shared governance process that includes faculty, students, staff, and administrators working together on standing committees to deliberate and make recommendations around the curriculum, budget, diversity and inclusion, academic and community standards, and strategic planning. Cultural change, through which changes in structure are put into practice, takes place more organically, unfolds over a significant period of time, and involves the whole community.

Institution-Wide Structural Shifts

Three recent changes in institutional structures are setting the stage for significant cultural change at Allegheny. These three changes—new core curriculum requirements, revised tenure and promotion guidelines, and the launch of the Allegheny Gateway—will place community-engaged signature work closer to the heart of the educational experience for Allegheny students. The shared project of putting these changes into practice—infusing them into our culture—defines Allegheny’s current moment.

Core Curriculum Changes

In November 2014, over 70 percent of faculty voted in favor of new distribution requirements: a power, privilege, and difference requirement; a global learning requirement; and a civic learning requirement. This change in the core curriculum resulted from several years of campus-wide discussion and debate, some of it difficult, on topics ranging from pedagogical philosophy to logistical concerns. Faculty and students on our curriculum committee worked with members of our faculty council and assessment committee to collect community input through open meetings, an anonymous online survey, and debates held during full faculty meetings. After academic departments and programs identified the courses that would meet the new requirements, we launched the new curriculum in fall 2016. Our goal is to infuse our strategic priorities related to civic learning and diversity, as well as priorities for learning, more transparently and intentionally across each area of the curriculum.

The new requirements will provide supportive frameworks for an element of Allegheny’s curriculum that will stay the same: our longstanding tradition that every student completes a senior comprehensive research project. This graduation requirement is the culmination of a scaffolded educational pathway along which students travel over their four years as undergraduates (Coates et al. 2014). It offers a strong foundation for community-engaged signature work, as illustrated by several recent senior comprehensive projects:

  • “Oh Freedom! Our Own Sounds: A Meadville Community-Based Theatre Piece with Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” a play based on the community’s history and residents’ experiences (Katie Beck, 2013, Bonner Leader) (Editor’s note: read more about Katie Beck’s work here.)
  • “Meadville Time Trade: The Analysis and Reflections of Building a Time Bank in Meadville, PA,” an initiative to create a local currency based on the equal value of every person’s volunteer time (Paige Missel, 2014, Bonner Summer Intern)
  • “Tool City Voices: A Series of Podcasts,” an empowering youth voice project focused on identity and place (Haley Marblestone, 2016)

Tenure and Promotion Guidelines

Shortly after approving the core curriculum changes, the faculty voted in April 2015 to establish new promotion and tenure guidelines that support a range of high-impact practices, including service learning and community-based learning, and that recognize diverse approaches to scholarship, creative activity, and professional development beyond traditional published works, including community-based programs or initiatives. Like the curricular changes, these changes emerged from a multiyear process that included committee work, surveys of academic departments, and discussions at open meetings, with lively sparring among faculty about issues of credibility and evaluation.

The new guidelines passed by a wide margin (over 80 percent in favor), indicating that cultural change is underway. But there is work yet to be accomplished. Our tenure and promotion review committee depends on faculty within departments to contextualize the work of individual candidates, and those faculty members need to equip themselves to implement the new guidelines. Putting the changes into practice will require persistence and consistency from department and program chairs, the review committee, and the provost, as well as open communication and a self-conscious process of evaluation.

Allegheny Gateway

Writing of persistent divides among the civic engagement movement, the diversity movement, and the global learning movement, Caryn McTighe Musil (2011) offers a profound challenge to the higher education community: “It is time to braid these divided movements into one strand. Students deserve an education that prepares them to become responsible citizens deliberately working to repair dangerously stratified societies” (240). Allegheny took this challenge seriously as it finished its most recent strategic planning and accreditation evaluation processes. From these processes emerged the Allegheny Gateway, a multi-office center that aims “to graduate students equipped to be global citizens of a diverse, complex, and interconnected world” by “braid[ing] together curricular and co-curricular education in U.S. diversity, global learning, and civic engagement.” Through the Gateway, Allegheny students “develop a clear vision of who they are in the world, an inclusive and global perspective, and the commitment to be citizen-leaders addressing the complexities of the modern world” (Allegheny College 2016).

The Gateway is located within academic affairs, with staff reporting through the associate provost to the provost. While faculty involvement is encouraged and recognized, faculty within some academic programs were initially apprehensive of this new unit that blends curricular and cocurricular learning opportunities. Nonetheless, the Gateway has successfully launched several new initiatives, including programs that will promote community-engaged signature work. A series of new academic concentrations, including Food Access, Law and Policy, Science and Society, and Equity, will create guided pathways for individual signature projects and serve as vehicles for shared projects through which students can address pressing societal issues using multiple disciplinary perspectives. The Gateway has also integrated one of the projects created through the Bonner High-Impact Initiative: the Network for Local Knowledge and Research, which brings together community partners, college students, and faculty members to address community-defined issues in a structured setting. The Allegheny Community Engaged Student Fellows, a student-initiated Gateway program, trains students to assist faculty members as they embed service-learning pedagogy in academic courses. Finally, the Gateway Global Scholars program, comprising a cohort of fifteen rising second-year students, integrates global learning, US diversity, and civic engagement in a three-year program involving curricular and cocurricular requirements.

Momentum for Cultural Change

As the evidence summarized above suggests, Allegheny College has accomplished a remarkable number of structural changes over a short period of time. Reflecting on our progress, we can attribute our success to a few practices:

  1. We began with a strategic planning process to invite broad input and identify the best ways of realizing our institutional mission and goals.
  2. We stayed student centered, always asking what students would learn and experience in the newly changed institution.
  3. We included community members when planning and implementing community-engaged work.
  4. We respected voices of dissent, acknowledging that change is difficult and that different individuals will embrace change with different levels of investment and at varying times.
  5. We took risks, trusting the process we had established to modify structures and advance cultural change.

As we move forward, we are considering several strategies to accelerate shifts in Allegheny’s culture. Over the next two years, we will encourage departmental-level conversations using Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Disciplines (Musil 2015). We will offer faculty development programs that focus on Boyer’s (1990) four domains of scholarship: the scholarship of application, integration, teaching, and discovery. We will find new ways to incentivize, for both faculty and students, the practice of developing collaborative senior comprehensive projects focused on local, national, or international problems. We will offer a lunchtime learning series with representation from faculty, community partners, and students, focusing on epistemology that promotes collaborative knowledge production.

As we continue to cultivate excellence in the Allegheny College experience, we will reinforce the value of rigor in the academic disciplines in tandem with the value of community engagement. These two pivotal foci should remain perpetually in dialogue; each has something to say to the other. We will know that Allegheny’s culture has shifted when conversations about community-engaged signature work are familiar and commonplace; when this work is valued across the campus community; when there is a sense of bottom-up as well as top-down momentum for this work. We will know the culture has shifted when community-engaged signature work is visible in symbol, heralded in narratives of student learning, and recognized in public celebrations.

The Allegheny valedictorian was invited to the last faculty meeting of the year. She asked the faculty, “How can we determine the hour of the dawn of a new day in higher education?”

One tenured faculty member suggested, “It is when the college mission statement articulates a commitment to global learning, civic engagement, and diversity.” 

“No,” answered the student.

A junior faculty member asked, “Is it when the college has modified its hiring practices, tenure and promotion guidelines, and core curriculum?”

Again, the answer was “no.”

“Please tell us,” cried the faculty in unison.

“It is,” said the wise student, “when the whole academic community—students, faculty, and administrators—recognizes from afar the essential relationship between educating within the rigors of a discipline and educating in service to the global common good.”


AAC&U. 2015. The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Allegheny College. 2016. “Civic Engagement.” http://sites.allegheny.edu/commservice/.

Boyer, Ernest L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Coates, E. Lee, Aimee Knupsky, and M. Soledad Caballero. 2014. “Charting a Required, Senior Capstone: Diverse Scaffolding for Transformative Experiences.” CURQ on the Web 34 (4): 10–15.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. 2011. “Remapping Education for Social Responsibility: Civic, Global, and U.S. Diversity.” In To Serve a Larger Purpose: Engagement for Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education, edited by John Saltmarsh and Matthew Hartley, 238–64. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

———. 2015. Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Disciplines. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Dave Roncolato is director of civic engagement for the Allegheny Gateway and professor of community and justice studies at Allegheny College; Ron Cole is provost and dean of the college and professor of geology at Allegheny College.

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