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The University, Volunteerism and the Public Good

The University, Volunteerism and the Public Good

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A strong believer in volunteerism, Dean Gervan Fearon is showing how in today’s universities, faculty members and students gain from active community engagement.

A strong believer in volunteerism, Dean Gervan Fearon is showing how in today’s universities, faculty members and students gain from active community engagement.

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he contemporary university has evolved from the construct of its
 historical predecessor whose orientation towards teaching and learning as well asresearch was in pursuit of the truth
separate from public good or interest. Today’s
universities are fundamentally contributing to the public good through volunteerism. This volunteerism may go relatively unknown to most and does not go unrivaled. I therefore write in defence of the university, volunteerism and the public good. Action towards public good is aimed at contributing to the betterment of individuals withinsociety and, more generally, to the social progress of humanity. The public good implies adirect linkage between actions (teaching and learning as well as research) and implicationsfor the human condition. For teaching and learning, the university might be considered to be engaged in the transmission of our current understanding and knowledge about thenature of things within our world. Our understanding and knowledge need not be connectedto the public good and, correspondingly, volunteerism may have no role. Yet, it must beassumed that the students we teach at universities as well as the principles and values they learn will be used in their leadership and decision-making roles as engaged citizens in the future.For instance, students at Ryerson University (and other universities) are encouraged to getinvolved in experiential education programs that allow them to volunteer in community 
development initiatives, such as those in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, allowing
them to apply their knowledge as well as develop critical-thinking skills that challenge our
theories and understanding. In this way, our knowledge is extended by our students’
community engagement and volunteerism. Authors such as Boyer (1996) and Barker (2004)term this knowledge extension as the scholarship of engagement.The contemporary university can serve as a platform for decisions that can embody 
 volunteerism. This can be seen in how a university’s decision to construct a building, with
the help of volunteers, will have a direct impact on the architecture and community 
development in its vicinity. For example, Ryerson University’s decision to revitalize the
former Maple Leaf Gardens resulted in a building, which lay closed for some 10 years, beingtransformed into a centre for athletics and sports benefitting students and the widercommunity (now called the Mattamy Athletic Centre). Many Ryerson student associationsand leaders volunteered their efforts to advocate for the passage of the student levy to
finance the university’s contributions to this revitalization initiative.
The initiative served as a catalyst for innovation through the engagement of the privatesector, namely Loblaws, in a joint venture that would also involve the federal government becoming the third funding partner in the $60 million project. The volunteerism of Ryersonstudents attracted other partners in a manner that few other actions could have motivated.In this respect, volunteerism represents an outflow of capacity and efforts as well as theattraction of partners in pursuit of the public good and interest.The examples provided thus far pertain to actions directly involving university students.University faculty members possess knowledge and expertise that can contribute to thepublic good and also develop their knowledge and understanding through volunteerism.These reasons motivate me to volunteer on the Board of the Ontario Trillium Foundation.This is not unique to me, as I believe volunteers on many boards and not-for-profitorganizations have similar motivations.University faculty members are also involved in pure research and it is in this arena that therole of the university in pursuit of the public good through volunteerism is often challenged/rivalled. But should it be? Pure research is concerned with expanding our knowledge andunderstanding about the nature of things. Hence, the view that researchers can trace therelationship between knowledge and its ultimate implication to society is, at best, naive.Nonetheless, the pursuit of knowledge cannot itself be conducted with the assumption thatthe social implications and impacts of research on the human condition warrant no consideration.For instance, the Tuskegee venereal disease study of 1932 to 1972 involved the pursuit of knowledge without the treatment of, or disclosure to, the individuals being studied forknowledge and understanding of the long-term effects of syphilis. The Tuskegee study is well-known in literature and its implications underscore the need to consider the societal benefits and impacts of university-based research when seeking approval and funding. As aresult, volunteers are often crucial to university committees to assist in defining andsafeguarding the public good and interest. In this respect, volunteerism is conducive toproviding an inflow of knowledge and understanding to the University that facilitates animproved linkage between university based research and the public good.The University is focused on the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Volunteerism isaimed at leveraging capacity, effort, and partnerships. Together, universities and volunteerism provide great opportunities to contribute to the public good.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
Dean of The G. Raymond ChangSchool of Contnuing Educaton

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