Engagement and Service



Criterion 5: As called for by its mission, the organization identifies its constituents and serves them in ways both value.

The reaccreditation criterion on engagement, outreach, and service reflects the growing interest in engagement in higher education as expressed, for example, in the emergence of service-learning as an approach to teaching, the advance of community-based research approaches, and publications that assess and recommend ways that faculty and universities can become more engaged. It also reflects the ethical view that, especially in light of considerable federal and state resources received, universities owe a great deal to society and that our work should significantly benefit the wider citizenry.

This introduction provides a conceptual framework for service and engagement activities at the University of Michigan, a definition of what the University means by these terms, brief summaries of the types of such activities and the people and organizations the University serves through them, a conceptual diagram of constituencies, and descriptions of the basic forms of service and engagement activities that University faculty, students, and staff undertake.


The University typically defines engagement and service as activities in the context of partnerships that meet certain criteria. These activities do not include all interactions with those outside the University, nor do they include all the ways the University’s actions might serve those outside the University. The criteria are:

  • Connection with non-University people and organizations. Engagement and service involve the interaction of University students, faculty, and staff with people and organizations outside the University.
  • Mutual benefit. The faculty, staff, or students and the community partners all gain from the engagement. They learn from each other, build capacity, and/or advance work consistent with their missions.
  • Proximate outcomes. The benefits of engagement and service derive from the direct interactions of University students, faculty, and staff with people outside the University. These benefits occur in a relatively short-term period, although often in different time periods for different participants. For example, students and faculty members working on a new commercial venture may learn a great deal in a short time, but the non-University partner may not realize commercial results for up to a decade or more.
  • Intentionality. The intention of engagement and service is to produce mutual benefits in a reasonably short time.

We also identify the kinds of interactions that that this working definition of engagement and service does not include:

  • The incidental impact of University activities outside the realm of engagement and service. Many of the University’s activities have a significant impact on people and entities outside the University—but not as a result of deliberate engagement and service. For example, when students rent housing in the community or when the University constructs new buildings, these activities stimulate and benefit the local economy. But such activities don’t fit the definition of engagement.
  • Diffuse, indirect or long-term effects. For example, as a result of their education students contribute to the health of our democratic society. But this diffuse and long-term benefit doesn’t mean that all the University’s educational activities constitute engagement and service.
  • One-way interaction. When individuals have a passive role in University activities, such as attending sporting events, the University doesn’t consider this type of activity to be engagement.
  • Service to a professional organization. Work with a professional organization (society, foundation, funding agency, etc.) may help to create infrastructure that supports engagement and service, but is not by itself engagement and service.

Through its service and engagement activities, the University provides a wide variety of educational opportunities (e.g., online courses, continuing education, lecture series, workshops, conferences, symposia, online information, interactive websites, training, and portable educational resources), research, student internships, exhibitions and performances, financial assistance, consultation and advice, brown bag lunches, guided tours, community forums, political forums, efforts tailored to individual needs, networking, and a wide variety of public events, among others.

In engaging in this wide variety of activities, the University serves and learns from students; citizens and communities of the state of Michigan, the nation, and the world; specific populations of people (e.g., the underserved, the elderly, migrant workers, the homebound, and prisoners); childcare centers; students in K-12 schools and community colleges; government agencies; business and industry; non-profit agencies; foundations; philanthropic organizations; legislatures; health care providers; and faith-based organizations, among others.

Taking into account the definition of engagement and service provided above, the types of benefits that can accrue to the University and to its faculty, students, and staff through such activity include the ability to attract prospective students, to enrich our teaching and advance our research, to address issues of social justice, to stimulate economic activity, to enhance democracy, or to achieve a range of other possible goals.

Engagement can include many kinds of activities and involve numerous constituencies. Faculty members and graduate students may partner with those outside the University in research and creative work. Students may collaborate with those outside the University through student organizations. Faculty members and students engage with those outside the University through courses that involve service-learning, and through practica and other hands-on experiences. Faculty, staff, and students create programs with organizations that involve young people who could become University students in the future. Faculty, staff, and students may also engage with alumni through research projects and through partnerships involving student learning in settings that advance alumni goals. The chart below provides a conceptual diagram of the ways in which engagement partners interact with each other.


Conceptual Diagram of Constituencies in Engagement and Service.

The process of planning an engagement activity involves strategic planning about who the partners are and what mutual goals they might achieve. It also involves discussion and negotiation to establish relationships for engagement activities. Following implementation, the partners reflect on and assess the activity or activities to determine how to make engagement activities more effective in the future.

Types of Engagement and Service Activities

Brief descriptions of the major types of engagement and service activities that faculty, students, and staff engage in at the University of Michigan are provided below.

Academic Service-Learning

In nearly every college and school, faculty members offer courses where students can engage in service. However, since no systematic way exists to track this activity, estimates of levels of activity are approximate. Based on a survey of activities by the Ginsberg Center, at least 180 course sections per year, in which ~3,500 students enroll, involve service-learning. Thirty-four percent of spring 2008 graduating seniors reported that they had taken a service-learning course in at least one semester as an undergraduate, which means that the activity involved as many as 1,700 students of this graduating cohort (2008 Graduating Senior Survey).

Service-learning courses take various forms, such as undergraduate courses in which students meet to discuss and reflect on their experiences. In Project Outreach, offered by the psychology department, students engage in work to help communities meet their needs. Working in small groups led by an undergraduate, students explore careers and significant social issues, while graduate students and the faculty member guide the group through the learning cycle and work to make the experience both educational and enjoyable.

Other service-learning courses feature small classes that require such assignments as final course projects involving work that benefits designated organizations, writing reflective papers about the project, or focusing the entire semester’s work around a community partner’s project that enables students to gain skills and knowledge in a particular area.

Service-learning courses are also important in graduate and professional programs, where they provide students with opportunities to practice their professions while producing work that is important to community partners. This work can include multi-term team projects that lead to a final report, or clinical courses in which students get hands-on experience through simulations and other experiences.

Internships, Practica, and Placements

Many graduate and professional programs and some undergraduate programs require internships or other kinds of work in settings that relate to students’ studies. The School of Social Work, for example, estimates that their students provide tens of thousands of hours of service to hundreds of nonprofit organizations in the region, while the graduate students gain experiences that enable them to integrate classroom learning and social work practice. The Master of Public Policy program at the Ford School requires policy-related internships that allow students to apply knowledge and skills acquired through the first year of coursework to significant problems in the public, private, or non-profit sectors, and to areas of students’ professional interests.

Student Engagement and Service Outside the Classroom

A large share of University students participate in engagement and service activities through both student organizations and connections outside the University. Based on a recent survey by the Ginsberg Center, about 15,000 students in any given academic year participate in about 100 student organizations whose major activity is service.

For undergraduates at the University of Michigan, engagement and service are important aspects of their lives. Many arrive at the University with considerable prior experiences in this area. Eighty-three percent of graduating seniors said they were involved in significant service activities during their undergraduate years when they responded to a survey in spring 2008. Sixty-eight percent reported that they had participated in service through the University outside of classes. Forty-seven percent said they had been involved in service through an organization not associated with the University, and 31 percent had undertaken service independently. Percentages of involved students in the largest undergraduate college (LSA) were even greater.

Students in graduate and professional schools similarly engage in service outside the classroom, but no survey has gathered information on this, and student organizations do not distinguish graduate students from undergraduates. An example of this kind of activity is BLUELab, where students work on engineering solutions to needs in the developing world, using appropriate technologies. Another is the Quito Project, founded by an undergraduate anthropology major, which sends medical, social work, dentistry, education, and nursing students to a community in Ecuado, to deliver a range of services related to their professional fields, where they also learn about the circumstances facing people who live in poverty in a developing country.

Engagement with Future Students

Several University units work with middle and high school students who might not otherwise attend college or enter certain fields. These programs establish relationships that help these students to gain a strong enough background to become students at the University of Michigan. The College of Engineering, for example, runs an extensive and coordinated program of this type. Staff, students, and faculty work with people in the Ypsilanti Public Schools to provide a range of academic support activities.\

Community-Based Participatory Research

In several fields, notably public health, nursing and social work, community-based participatory research is an important way of building bodies of knowledge and producing community benefits. Faculty members work with community partners to identify topics for research, address issues of concern to community partners, develop the research design, carry out the investigation, analyze results, and disseminate findings. For example, the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center has operated since 1995 as a partnership of three University schools, the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, eight community-based organizations, and the Henry Ford Health System to conduct community-based participatory research on factors contributing to urban health outcomes and to design interventions to eliminate health disparities.

Research That Grows Out of Engagement

In teaching service-learning courses and in responding to requests for information and advice from people outside the University, faculty members in many fields see the need for research that benefits others and that fills gaps in their disciplines’ or professions’ bodies of knowledge or creative work. However, community partners do not necessarily see advantages in working on research with faculty members, often because the research would take a broader perspective than they need, or it might not address their immediate concerns. Thus, numerous faculty members work with those outside the University to bring research to community-identified challenges, although they do not undertake research together. A share of the activities undertaken through the National Poverty Center, the Urban and Regional Research Collaborative, and the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy are examples of this type of research.

Bringing Research Discoveries to Bear on Societal Issues

Research findings with implications for society often need considerable development and translation before they can be applied. Faculty, staff, and students associated with the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Ross School of Business, for example, work to bring discoveries in engineering, medicine, and other fields to commercialization, which can lead to new companies, employment, and economic growth. Students learn about business creation as they work to identify promising ideas, make investments, and create new companies with entrepreneurs.

What We Hear From Our Students

In the 2008 Survey of Graduating Seniors, more than 80% of the Class of 2008 reported significant community service and outreach experiences (and more than 90% of students in LSA). Over two-thirds of the respondents participated in a service project sponsored by a University club or organization, while nearly half participated in a service activity that was sponsored by an organization not affiliated with the University. A third had completed service learning for academic credit through a University course. More than 40 % of the students who participated in service activities through the University and its affiliated organizations had done so for most terms or every term (see below).

Source and frequency of service experiences (n=1192).

Of the activities that students described, tutoring or teaching was the most common, usually involving area schoolchildren. Fundraising, such as that undertaken in the Dance Marathon or Relay for Life, was the second most common. Mentoring and coaching included leading youth sports teams, aiding in science projects, or working with youth. Student responses to the survey also provided a window into the types of causes that their activities served. Community service that benefitted those with physical problems like illness or limited mobility comprised almost a quarter of the total, mostly reflecting the opportunities presented by University hospitals, and established links to various University service organizations. Children and teens were another target group for outreach and service activities, with nearly one in five projects aimed at youth (see below).

Causes served by community service (n=1192).

A comparison of survey responses from the two alumni cohorts show how community service and outreach at the University Michigan have increased over the last decade (see 2009 Alumni survey report). Alumni who graduated around ten years ago were less likely to report community service activities (at 69%) than the younger group in that cohort (at 75%), which is in turn less than 2008 graduating seniors (83%). The high rate of participation among our students appears to continue after they receive their undergraduate degrees. Alumni were asked about their participation after graduation, and 80% of respondents reported engaging in community service since that time (figure below). Over 7% participated in various kinds of full-time service positions, such as Peace Corps, Teach for America, or AmeriCorps, a tradition that remains very strong among today’s graduates.

Have you done any volunteer and community service work since getting your undergraduate degree? (n=2833)

In this section, we will address the four core components in three parts: (1) capacity and commitment, (2) a sample of University service and engagement initiatives and programs, and (3) determining the value of and learning from service and engagement activities.