Guest Opinion: Civic engagement must be a top priority for UI

The lack of focused efforts on community involvement and outreach may hurt the UI’s effectiveness in the state of Iowa.


Nick Rohlman

Icicles form on the Old Capitol on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

I came to the University of Iowa because I loved how embedded the school is within the Iowa City community. As a born and bred Iowan, I liked the idea of staying close to home and attending a public university dedicated to improving the lives of Iowans such as myself. But nearly two-and-a-half years into my undergraduate education, I worry that the school I attend is not reaching its full potential for giving back to the community I love.

The UI is a Research-1 institution and massive employer, contributing $6 billion annually to the Iowa economy and providing one in 30 jobs statewide. This is not insignificant. Undeniably, the state is better because of our school. But lately, it seems the UI is focused solely on cutting budgets and eliminating programs not netting a profit.

This need not be the case. Disinvestment in community-oriented programs may have an adverse effect and end up costing more in the long run.

The UI has just announced the closure of the Office of Outreach and Engagement, an entity which provided up to 4,000 students the opportunity to participate in more than 100 applied service projects. It also housed the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities grant program, which brought economic development and planning tools to localities across the state.

While the closure is said to come in a way that expands overall outreach by transitioning responsibility to the colleges and deans, I fear that having no centralized location or specified funding to continue service learning or experiential opportunities will leave community outreach and engagement efforts on the back-burner.

Disinvestment in community-oriented programs may have an adverse effect and end up costing more in the long run.

And this isn’t the only example of such efforts by the administration to pivot from community service to save money — remember the battle for the Labor Center? Failure to prioritize centers and offices focused on service and engagement harms not only Iowans who benefit from the programs across the state, but also students wishing to learn and grow through experiential learning, and the university’s statewide reputation. Civic engagement makes for excellent public relations.

By serving Iowa communities, the UI gets its name and mission out across the state. It attracts funding from state legislators and attention from high schoolers making decisions about where to come for school. With a looming enrollment cliff, the administration must prioritize departments and offices that maximize statewide impact and attractiveness to future Hawkeyes in order to keep up with future budget shortfalls.

The UI must be a place where each student is instilled with the principle of civic engagement and encouraged to actively participate and serve in the communities in which we reside. As the work of community outreach and engagement transitions to the colleges, the administration and Path Forward committee must be transparent and relentless in the promotion of this work as vital to our university’s mission.

The UI is indispensable to this state I love, and its full potential for civic engagement should be recognized and prioritized.

— Jocelyn Roof, UI junior