For the past half century or more, community and junior colleges have considered community service to be an indispensable component of their mission. Indeed, two-year colleges have been more eager than any other part of the American educational spectrum to perform a liaison function among and amidst the diverse agencies and entities of their local settings. This broad community education function has been advocated and praised by such well-known advocates of the community college as Ervin Harlacher and Edmund Gleazer, who referred to it as "the community dimension" and the "community nexus" role of the college, respectively.
The opportunity for community colleges to act as community information and activity "brokers" has become all the more feasible because of today's electronic communication tools. Personal computers, linked with each other and with electric information "bulletin boards," can be used to connect people and groups whose knowledge of one another's activities may previously have been cultivated on a largely hit-or-miss basis. Now, I believe, is the time for community colleges to seize the occasion for using these and other contemporary tools to meet one particular challenge of community service--namely, the problem of disseminating staff development information across organizational boundaries in communities. Let me illustrate what I'm referring to.
Consider a hypothetical scenario in the middle-sized city of Standardelphia. In January of a given year, several employees at Standardelphia Manufacturing Company decide that they would like to reduce their job stress. They go through proper channels with their supervisors and receive approval for a core of workers to look for an authority in the area who can be hired to come in and do a workshop on the topic. In March, the Director of In-Service Education at Standardelphia General Hospital hears from a group of staff nurses in the facility that they could use a good stress reduction program. The Director begins looking for an authority who can be hired to come in and do a workshop on the topic. In April, the Personnel Subcommittee of Standardelphia City Council, the executive committee of the Standardelphia Board of Education, the Congregational Council at Standardelphia Baptist Church, the Standardelphia District Office of the Boy Scouts of America, and the Support Staff Association at Standardelphia College independently come to the conclusion that their membership could use a good stress reduction program. The chairperson of each group authorizes a core of people to look for an authority who can be hired to come in and do a workshop on the topic. By June, every management consulting firm, licensed counselor, and psychiatrist in Standardelphia has received six phone calls requesting a workshop on stress reduction. Bookings are established for July, August, September, October, and February of the following year for fees totaling $2,225.
Admittedly, the story I've just portrayed is fanciful and far-fetched. It illuminates, however, several facts that may provide food for thought for community services and continuing education professionals in community colleges. Beyond the commonplace lesson that stress affects people in every sort of work environment, a second lesson is implied by the story of Standardelphia. This lesson, which is seldom taken into consideration by members of a community as they go about their civic affairs, is that citizens in every workplace share certain generic training and professional development needs. In addition to the foregoing example of stress reduction, a brief list of topics related to such generic needs might include the following items: legal features of the work environment, meaning and implications of government regulations (e.g., ADA, affirmative action, sexual harassment, etc.), performance evaluation, supervisor/subordinate relationships, assertiveness and confrontation skills, the place of technology in the workplace of the future, on-the-job communication skills (e.g., listening, speaking, and writing), personal financial planning (investments, retirement preparations, etc.) employee benefits, and wellness issues.
A third lesson of the story, and one that I believe suggests the possibility of an innovative new role for American community colleges, is that entire communities could benefit substantially if they communicated better with each other about the staff development activities of their business enterprises, governmental agencies, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations. Not only might most groups in the community save themselves considerable hassle and duplication of effort through such improved communication, but they could be far more efficient and cost-effective in providing fundamental services to their members.
How might this heightened communication be brought about? The community services and continuing education arm of a community college could take the lead in establishing a community-wide clearinghouse of staff development information. For a reasonable annual fee, the community college could collect a description of the year's staff development schedule of every interested group in its surrounding area. Thereafter, the college could publish and disseminate a comprehensive calendar of community-wide staff development news and events in hard copy form and preferably also via local electronic bulletin boards. The calendar would be formatted in such a way as to make it easy to locate a particular event by date, topic, sponsor, presenter, location, cost, and any other pertinent variables.
As a public service, the college could distribute this staff development calendar free of charge to any group or individual in the area who requested it. By virtue of paying their annual fee, however, each participating business or other community group could be offered a discount for its employees to attend any events that carried an admission charge of some sort. Such a staff development clearinghouse, based in a community college, could permit several groups to schedule and take part in staff development events together. As a result, people in disparate parts of the community who might never otherwise meet could compare notes with one another, share ideas, and forge new linkages with potential value to the community as a whole.
Community colleges whose leaders decide to create and manage staff development clearinghouses along the lines I've described here could thereby further substantiate and strengthen their position as catalysts for community development and enrichment. Taking such an action would, I believe, fit most appropriately into the tradition that community colleges have cultivated for themselves as community-based colleges and as active, innovative centers of knowledge and information for whole communities.