CATALYST V21N3s - The Twilight Future of a Function

Volume XXI, Number 3
Summer 1991

Arthur M. Cohen
ERIC Clearinghouse for Junior Colleges

Originally published Fall 1972, III(2).

Community services in the community college is a puzzlement to many people. What does the term mean? What is the community to be served? And by whom and in what ways? Community services directors may have ready answers to these questions, but it should come as no surprise that their perception of the community and the types of service to be provided are not widely shared either within or outside the college. Community services-- even more so than counseling services--enjoys the dubious distinction of being the community college function least coherently defined, least likely to have finite goals, least amenable to assessment of effect.

It is strange that this should still be so because the importance of community services has been well-articulated: Bogue suggested it in 1950, lengthy articles and monographs have since been written about it, and allusion to it is made every time the functions of the community college are detailed. Tangible support also has been provided: the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges has initiated and obtained funding for projects to develop community services nationally; and a sizable percent of the publicly supported colleges has appointed community services directors.

Why, then, should community services still be an ambiguous concept? Harlacher's 1969 statement is a good place to begin an analysis of the question. In The Community Dimension of the Community College, he described community services and gave examples of programs in various areas of the country. He wrote that the community college was receptive to the idea of community services because it is "a relatively new segment of American education,...unencrusted with tradition, unfettered by a rigid history, eager for adventure." Because of "its uniqueness, freedom from tradition, and dynamic qualities" he felt the community college, as opposed to the four-year institution, could establish valuable community services activities. Lavish in his praise, Harlacher saw the college as "disinterested in terms of the community power structure" with "no profit motive..., no axe to grind.... It is the unified force that casts aside red tape, apathy, jealousies, and asks what the community problems are and how 'all of us together solve them.'" There is nothing unusual about such advocacy; each of the many functions included under the rubric of the community college has its fervid proponents. One might expect community services to have its corps of supporters. However, a close reading of the claims made on behalf of community services reveals several clues to the misunderstanding.

For one thing, there is a gulf between the supporters' rhetoric and the perceptions held by college planners and leaders. Most community colleges are just not that receptive to genuine community services. Oh, a forward looking president here, an imaginative community services director there; but, except for a few isolated cases, the "community dimension of the community college" is narrow, inchoate, away from the mainstream of college operations.

In their sober moments the advocates of community services recognize the gap between current programs and the ideal. Even Harlacher acknowledges that community services is somewhat less than equal to the transfer, occupational, and counseling and guidance functions. But he sees obstacles to the development of that function only as stumbling blocks that will be overcome as soon as administrators and faculty members "accept" community services as a major function. In 1969 his optimism led him to predict that "The community college will increasingly utilize its catalytic capabilities to assist its community in the solution of basic educational, economic, political, and social problems." But he could point to only a few scattered examples: colleges offering advisory services to small businesses, organizing community councils, and conducting one- shot community surveys. Little has changed in the intervening years.

A second reason for the slow development of community services is related to the definition of the term, "community." Community means commonality, shared experience, a convergent viewpoint. However, in most areas, the community college constituency falls far short of the definition. As Speigel put it in an unpublished paper, we cannot consider "the community" as a unitary concept. "Depending on education, race, income, age, ideology, etc., we tend to ... identify with and fiercely protect 'our own kind.' We move in an urban world composed of multiple 'communities of interest.'"

Community services programs could flourish if community groups demanded services more systematic than the short courses and spectator events they usually get. It is doubtful they will, however, because of the lack of sense of community existing among the people who stand to benefit, ideally, from those programs.

The concept of "community" breaks down within the colleges as well. Harlacher says, "...the community services program offers the logical vehicle for joining the college to the life of its district or service area." He speaks of "college" and "district" as though they were living entities when, in fact, they are comprised of people--people whose diversities are much more pronounced than their similarities. There is little common meaning, and few shared beliefs within the colleges. There is not even an episodic approach to community wherein groups coalesce, degenerate, and reform around successive interests and issues.

The community college is less a community than it is an institution, a term that suggests self-perpetuation but not cohesive goals. On rare occasions a sense of community can be discerned within a college--such as on the first day of school when a certain esprit is in the air or during accreditation or if the college is under attack from the outside. Otherwise, it is an aggregation of people with their own inconsistent definitions of what the college is about. ("Community college" may be a misnomer; the institution might be more aptly named "commuter college"--a place where administrators, instructors, counselors, and students come, interact together within defined roles, and depart, each to his own private ventures.)

The closest approximation to a community of interest in such a college centers on the instructional program--the courses, the teaching techniques. This is the pervasive college function that dominates the thinking of the staff with all else--community services in particular-- relegated to a peripheral position. Writers on the community college perpetuate the attitude: Monroe, for example, warns, "In serving the community, the community college needs to guard against the danger of dissipating its resources by trying to perform so many different services for the community that it may not be able to perform its primary task of providing the students with quality education." Perhaps this is as it should be--the college is foremost an institution where instruction must be paramount--but it leaves the community services director who has his own vision of more deliberate community aims out in the cold.

One more reason why the community services function has not reached parity with instruction--nor even with student guidance--should be cited here: although the importance of community services has been noted, the philosophical basis on which it can stand has not been well articulated. When community services proponents state their case, they conjure a group of people--an institution--immediately attentive to its constituency. Social theorists have long dreamed of the instantly responsible institution, the agency that would stand ready to identify human needs and build a full complement of services to satisfy them. But to which needs should the institution respond and with what kinds of services? Anything that anyone might possibly want? Here is where interpretations break down and a need for coherent rationale appears. For when goals are infinite, an equally unlimited number of forms may be built to contain them.

The colleges' primary task (i.e., the instructional program) and the college as a responsive institution occasionally come to an embarrassing collision because of this lack of defined aims. The report of a recent study conducted by the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges alludes to the current poor status of community services, noting, "Community representatives, perhaps, need to generate stronger pressures for social and economic programs if they expect to bring attention to these issues during the coming decade." Yet when disparate community groups approach the college with narrow aims of their own--when some commonality is finally exhibited--they are frequently seen as intrusive forces interfering with the primary mission of the college. The institution is powerless to respond consistently or to serve them adequately because it has no coherent plan to cover conflicting demands, no philosophical base against which they can be measured.

While they lack a philosophy, community services advocates do have a modus operandi--they accept all comers. Anything that the college offers other than its traditional courses and programs is considered a community service-- hardly a solid foundation on which to build a co-equal function. Accordingly, in practice, community services activities vary greatly from one institution to another depending on many considerations including (but not limited to) the size of the institution and the region it serves, the perceptions and aggressiveness of the community services director, and the sense of identity and vociferousness of community groups.

Consider first the community college in an isolated area, the only institution of higher education in its town. It may well have the only art exhibits, the only musical events. These types of community services are often limited- - especially in situations where the college administrators feel they are doing the community a great service if they sponsor a winning football team. But there is usually a theater arts teacher who puts on a play to which the townspeople are invited, or a choral director whose music classes never fail to give public recitals. The college also frequently provides housing for community groups that wish to hold meetings, acting as a civic center and as a catalyst for civic pride.

In the city, however, the competition for spectators is great. Here community services should take a different form because the college cannot presume to provide the only cultural experiences. Museums, galleries, and civic events of various types and under alternative sponsorship preclude the college's playing a unique or even a dominant role. The theater arts department may still put on its plays but, except where the department is exceptionally strong, the audience will be comprised of friends of the college and families of the players. And the choristers may well play to an internal audience alone. Although exceptions occur-- colleges where the recreational or cultural offerings exceed those available elsewhere in the community--the shape of these activities is necessarily affected by the caliber of the competition.

In these examples, I have deliberately omitted the short courses, noncredit seminars, and the like that are typically cited within the rubric of community services because these are educational services. They differ from the standard course fare only in that they arise ad hoc and accordingly do not claim space in the college catalog or on student transcripts. Otherwise, they are much like the "transfer," "vocational," and other curricula (i.e., they have teachers and students acting within defined roles in a typical school setting).

Cultural and recreational activities, then, in addition to educational services--this is the stuff of which community services is made. However, the practical interpretation falls far short of the ideal and, if the vector is followed, one sees only more spectator events, more short courses over the horizon--hardly the community college as a total service directed toward community uplift- -unless one has great faith in the value of the current trend. The community services director who wants to establish specific objectives that reach beyond the usual cultural, recreational, and educational services has little recourse within the college or the community. The objectives of the community services program will reflect the interpretation that college leaders perceive. If they wish but to allow members of the broader community to attend college-sponsored events and receive disconnected educational services, then the numbers who participate are the measure of success. These are process goals. Whether or not they lead to tangible product in the sense of community enhancement is beyond the scope of the community services director to ascertain.

However, by identifying its constituencies more carefully and acting more directly on their behalf the community college can free itself-- and the broad community- -from the limited benefits of mere successful processing. The alternative definition of community services would find the director primarily involved in setting objectives that deal with tangible effects. These would be on the order of the college's assisting various community groups to achieve particular ends; of grappling with the difficult problems related to reducing pollution levels, for example, by gathering and providing useable data.

Navajo Community College (Arizona) is an example of a college that more closely approximates this ideal than any other school at present. A large number of specially funded programs comprise the state community services effort at Navajo. These include adult basic education, in-service training for individuals to work on tribal boards and committees, agricultural education for farm groups, a livestock and range improvement program, and services that seek employment for qualified Navajos within the college and elsewhere.

Established by the Navajo Tribal Council with the specific intent of creating an agency for community uplift, the whole college was designed as a community service. It serves as a symbol of Navajo identity. In addition, it is expected to be an agency for preserving and transmitting the Navajo heritage and for helping the people develop the economic resources of their land. Accordingly, it is not unusual for the college to attempt to employ only Navajos on its construction activities and in its instructional program (i.e., college policy provides for replacement of non-Navajo employees in all positions whenever qualified Navajos are available). And, whenever possible, projects that assist community groups are incorporated in the regular curriculum.

Several atypical factors made it possible to establish Navajo Community College with an emphasis on community services. For one thing, the college was created by and for a distinct community. The Navajos are bound by ethnicity, language, and the sense of being a persecuted minority; they are not merely an aggregation of people with little in common save the accident of geography. A second force that keeps the college focused on community services activities is that it was created especially for this purpose. The idea of community service is written throughout the operating procedures of the college. The community services department acts as a holding company for government-funded programs; it does not have responsibility for the undifferentiated cultural and recreational activities associated with typical community services programs.

The forces that propel a college toward homogeneity with other colleges of its type may eventually push Navajo Community College toward a neutral transfer curriculum. But at least initially, and in principle, the college is a community service institution serving a well-defined community in particular ways. Not incidentally it should be noted that Navajo Community College is very heavily subsidized with one of the highest per capita budgets of any college in the nation. Unfortunately, not all community colleges are quite so gifted. And there are some who might argue that the atypical factors contributing to the success of the Navajo project cancel its validity as an example of what complete community services are. However, granted that Navajo is somewhat far from home, it is not so in products but in premise.

If a more typical college were to offer an integrated set of community services based on a definitive rationale, what form might it take? Many types of services are being offered--dozens were cataloged in Harlacher's book--but a unified approach would demand that they be orchestrated so that the entire college becomes a community service. To elaborate: the college often serves as a ready reference library. College staff members provide certain types of information but rarely do they set themselves up to deal with crucial issues relating to the community itself. To do so would demand a distinct image of the college as an agency that regularly surveys the community on a number of important issues. It would require the social science instructors' seeing an educational value in the routine collection of voter information by their students; the life sciences instructors' revising their courses to include the students' assessment of levels of pollution in the community's air and water; the physical science teachers' sending their classes to determine patterns of erosion; the architectural drawing students' drafting plans for renovation of historical buildings in the area--the type of service detailed in M. J. Cohen's imaginative "College of the Whole Earth" outlined in a typical paper published in the ERIC Clearinghouse for Junior Colleges in 1971.

The faculty members would have to recognize that these types of community-related activities were at least as educationally useful as the textbook and lecture; would have to perceive them as the heart of the learning process, not as an adjunct. Above all, it would take a community services director who could coordinate the activities so that they became a primary source for input to community problem solving. Quite a job--but what an opportunity to merge community services with the instructional program!

The chance for such a merger appears slim. Even if community services directors wished to pursue such coordinated efforts, other members of the college community rarely share their vision. The recent AACJC survey offers evidence of this. On a nationwide basis, presidents were asked how they ranked the goals of the community college. The 90 respondents put the general goal, "Respond to needs of local community" 4th; but when it came to specific community-oriented goals they invariably placed these near the bottom of their list. For example, "Help solve social economic or political problems in the immediate geographical area," was ranked 23rd, and, "Help formulate programs in public policy areas (e.g., pollution control)" 24th, in a list of 26! The faculty members polled in the same survey did no better. They ranked "Respond to needs of local community" 3rd but put the more specific community services goal 11th of 12 in their list. And the students ranked the specific formulation of programs in public policy areas 11th of 12 (at least the students were more consistent: they put the general statement "Respond to local needs of community" 8th in their listing). To people within the colleges, "Community needs" is apparently a nice thing to be committed to as long as it carries no commitment.

Faced then with an institution that frequently is little more than a conglomeration of self- interested administrators defending their own programs, faculty members whose perceived mission is to offer courses and advice only, and students whose primary concern is to accept what is offered, the community services director is not in position to influence policy through power or persuasion. His administrative colleagues typically fail to comprehend his broader aims; the instructors and counselors may ignore him totally; and the students are most likely unaware of his existence. His college's fiscal and personnel resources will not stretch to accommodate another co-equal function. The community he would serve is fractionated with most of its elements anticipating at best traditional educative services for their tax dollars. And, unkindest cut of all, his national spokesmen advocate little more than uncoordinated program aggrandizement, tending in the main to ignore critical analysis, definitive objectives, and philosophical appraisal of that which they are promoting.

The time when community services reaches a position of parity with instruction and student guidance is, in fact, a long way off. Perhaps it is a dream impossible to attain within the present structure of the community college, an institution with its roots deep in the soil of the public schools. The colleges themselves will grow in size, in large measure reenacting the history of the secondary schools. Accordingly, their own sense of community--limited even now- -will diminish along with any deliberate effort to render services other than cutdown versions of traditional courses. They will probably consider their community services mission fulfilled if they offer a variety of educational services and a few traditional cultural and recreational activities.

By adhering to the current form community services will maintain a permanent place as an adjunct to the core of instructional and guidance services. There is some precedent for this twilight status--general education, for example, has been on the periphery for years. Little else seems likely for community services; there are too many forces militating against planned growth and movement toward a central position.

Copyright 1992 by the National Council on Community Services & Continuing Education. Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for sale

by Sarah Ryan