Developing Lifelong Civic Habits at Widener University

The desire to develop rich, reciprocal, generative partnerships that simultaneously transformed the lives of students and the communities they served was not a central goal of Widener University in 2002. Likewise, no one had connected the students’ community-based engagement with their preparation for work. However, over the next decade Widener embraced its role as an engaged university in one of the nation’s most distressed cities, Chester, Pennsylvania, and discovered that by doing so it was providing students with a rich learning environment to develop not only lifelong civic habits but also valuable skills for their work life after college.

Prior to 2002, the university sought to distance itself from the environment surrounding the campus. The negative reputation of Chester was one of Widener’s greatest obstacles to attracting students, and a series of unfortunate incidents involving students and local citizens led to the university’s decision to barricade itself off from Chester by enclosing the campus and forcing entry through a set of gates, which denied local citizens access to the school. The reality at the time was that Chester—with high crime rates, failing schools, and an increasingly difficult political environment—made it tough for Widener to intervene in a meaningful way. However, as difficult as it might have been to engage the community, there was no systematic mechanism or desire by the university to form truly democratic partnerships to address societal issues through engagement. There also were few community leaders who viewed Widener as a potential partner or as a catalyst to reconstruct a meaningful democratic polity in Chester.

Internally, shared governance was fractured from years of a hierarchical university leadership approach, as well as from two contentious promotion and tenure cases that led to a lawsuit filed against the university by faculty members. In other words, in 2002 when I arrived at Widener, the university had a far from ideal environment internally in which to engage in generative, interdisciplinary partnerships, and neither faculty nor students felt empowered to create democratic partnerships with local citizens to address the serious issues facing Chester.

Top-Down Management versus Democratic Partnerships

For a large portion of its history, Widener University was a military college, but in 1972 it became a civilian university. Still, over the next three decades, the administration adopted the tone set by their military predecessors—a top-down management style that was not democratic in practice. As the university grew, a shared governance model emerged that allowed for more faculty voice in decision making; however, the power remained concentrated in the hands of very few people. In 2003, a survey of faculty members revealed that few felt they had any voice in institutional decision making.

As the new president, I thought it was important to engage a broader range of constituents in decision making to chart our future. We started with the creation of a strategic planning committee made up primarily of faculty members who sought input from key stakeholders inside and outside of the university. Next, we created a new mission and vision for Widener that would focus on the role of an urban university in addressing societal issues through civic engagement and the formation of democratic partnerships. To help achieve that mission, the university developed an office of community engagement and hired an experienced person with a background in community development to build connections with Chester.

The type of organizational transformation we collectively achieved at Widener over the next decade is a case study of democracy, in all its messiness, at work. Campus constituents involved in that change, including students who became part of that process, learned how to listen to others, design more inclusive democratic processes, stay engaged when things got tough, and come up with innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Working Internally to Develop Capacity Externally

In the fall 2003, after months of listening sessions and meetings with hundreds of constituents, Widener hosted a visioning conference with myriad stakeholders, including Chester community members. More than 100 people participated in the daylong workshop that produced a set of shared values that were later included in the school’s new mission and vision statements. To encourage broader participation, both statements were shared publicly for further feedback before being adopted by the board. The result was a new direction for the university that had civic engagement with the local community at its core. While the vision conference produced the desired result, perhaps the more important outcome was the tone that had been set—one that recognized that all voices needed to be heard for Widener to achieve its potential.

The new mission, which stated that the university would “connect the curricula to societal issues through civic engagement” and “contribute to the vitality and well-being of the communities we serve,” moved Widener into a leadership role in the national dialogue on civic and community engagement. Over the next decade, by maintaining the discipline to implement its new mission and vision, Widener gained a national reputation for its work in Chester. For example, the planning process itself resulted in a pilot project for the Middle States Commission, leading to a revision of its options for institutional reaccreditation.

The change in academic focus for Widener was more than a laudable step toward clearer academic goals and civic sensibilities—it was also a way to help students develop the kind of capabilities major employers were looking for in our graduates. For example, the 2015 Hart Research Report, prepared for AAC&U, demonstrated that 96 percent of employers surveyed “thought that students should have experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.” It turns out that our new focus not only helps build stronger communities but also provides our students with essential skills for the twenty-first-century workplace.

An example of an academic initiative developed by the university to promote the new mission was the creation of the Academic Service-Learning Faculty Development Program, which provides faculty with resources, release time, and a monthly opportunity to work with other faculty from across disciplines to develop community-based learning courses. During the first ten years of this program, more than seventy-five courses were developed. However, as the program gained momentum, faculty and students found it difficult to develop meaningful community-based learning because of the lack of sustainable community partnerships with organizations that shared similar goals and had capacity for collaboration.

As faculty worked across disciplines, they often found greater synergies with colleagues from other schools than in their own departments. This led to two new initiatives. The first was the development of an advanced faculty workshop to enable engaged faculty to continue to collaborate. To address the issue of sustainable community partners, the university redoubled its commitment to community development through the creation of an office of civic engagement and of civic scholarships for students assigned to nonprofits to build capacity in Chester. Monthly meetings between community members and university officials were also established. With more engagement in Chester and the development of greater capacity among community organizations, the university was better able to identify sustainable, democratic partnerships, and students developed valuable skills that helped them to bring about change and build alliances, all critical to what they would need in the workplace.

Committing to Civic Engagement and Democratic Partnerships

When the university launched its largest campaign in history, civic engagement was a central theme. One new endowment fund, geared toward helping faculty see themselves as civic educators and students as engaged citizens, is a great example of how philanthropy helped advance this work. The Borislow Community-Engaged Faculty Research Fellowship is awarded annually to faculty who link scholarship to Chester-based engagement through democratic partnerships. This award enables faculty recipients to pursue a collaboratively designed research project with a Chester community partner that involves our students in community-based research. Last year, the fellowship supported the work of faculty and students in the evaluation of a local afterschool and summer camp program and a community assessment of a local neighborhood. The data for both research projects will be used for program development and planning grants by local community organizations to build capacity. This type of experience for our students is invaluable because they are engaging in precisely the type of activities that employers say is important for the workplace. In essence, they are creating portfolios for employers that demonstrate how they defined a problem, researched it, and took action to address it.

The board also revamped its approach to governance by adding a student and introducing more opportunities for board members to engage with faculty and students on a regular basis. Town hall meetings are now held twice a semester to keep people informed, and also we host quarterly coffee hours to bring the campus and local community together, and faculty from across disciplines are invited to meet with the president and provost in small interdisciplinary groups. As trust between different internal constituents started to grow, we discovered new ways to work in a more democratic fashion, including more meetings between faculty and administration to set financial and academic priorities.

By 2010, the Association of Governing Boards recognized the transparent nature of the governance structure at Widener by including the university in its publication Leading Change: How Boards and Presidents Build Exceptional Institutions. In the book, fifteen colleges and universities were identified as exemplars of university board best practices, and Widener was specifically recognized for how a president and the board can collaborate through shared governance with faculty to bring about significant institutional change.

As trust and belief in the university’s mission grew, faculty and staff were more open to developing closer ties to the local community. Early in my tenure, I had developed a local community advisory board made up of local community leaders who shared their concerns and provided advice on how Widener could be more engaged. Over the years, the focus of the group evolved from an advisory group to an action committee and helped move Widener from a service model to deeper democratic engagements.

The movement to deeper democratic engagement evolved as the university developed more trust with community partners, who then addressed significant issues together in a more democratic fashion. For years, Widener’s approach to issues was reactive and self-serving, only intervening in the community when there was a direct impact on the university. Over time that attitude changed, and several sustainable partnerships sponsored by Widener and select community partners have emerged. Examples include the Widener Partnership Charter School, the Widener Small Business Development Center, the Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic, the Widener Community Nursing Clinic, and the Widener Center for Violence Prevention. These community initiatives were started when a cross-disciplinary team of Widener faculty and students engaged in dialogue about their work in the community, which led to discussions with local partners with similar interests. For example, the Widener Partnership Charter School, which today serves more than 450 low-income children in Chester, was created through a multidisciplinary team of faculty who worked with local activists to develop a new holistic approach to elementary education. Being witness to and a participant in the implementation of the work of these coalitions also helped our students learn lessons in how to innovate and think outside the box, which was one of the highest priorities named as key to workplace success by 95 percent of the employers in the 2015 Hart Research survey.

As our desire to create democratic partnerships grew, we also collaborated with other colleges and universities. The Delaware County College Access Center, which annually serves more than 1,000 local high school students, is a joint partnership with Cheyney University, Delaware County Community College, Neumann University, Penn State Brandywine, Swarthmore College, Widener, and other local partners. This initiative, along with a nonprofit organization called the Chester Higher Education Council, started when I asked five other college presidents to create a partnership to pool our resources to address the educational needs of Chester residents.


Widener’s journey over the past decade to create deeper and more democratic partnerships within Chester provided our students with the best possible learning environments, encouraged our faculty to see themselves as civic educators, and empowered the community with a voice to find real solutions to pressing societal issues. Developing these reciprocal, generative partnerships also turned out to be one of the most effective ways to prepare our students for today’s competitive job markets.



Hart Research Associates. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

James Harris, is president at the University of San Diego, and president emeritus at Widener University


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