David Harker joined Ithaca College in late 2016 as the director of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). He holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from Boston College, and his research focuses on ways in which individuals take action and engage with their communities around social issues. Prior to taking the position at IC, he had served as director of the Collaborative for Community Engagement at Colorado College.
Harker took some time to answer questions about his hopes for the recently renamed center.
Did you come into this role with a set of priorities for your first year?
My early priority was just to meet with the different constituencies, both on campus and in the community. I met with the Center for Faculty Excellence to discuss how we can collaborate on workshops for faculty or programming that will highlight the CCE as a resource for doing service learning. I talked with the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs about how we can connect with the community service programs that Don Austin is doing a lot of great work with. The Honors Program, Park Scholars, MLK Scholars, and Exploratory Program are just a few examples of the offices or programs on campus where I see great opportunities for civic engagement to plug into and deepen community-based experiences. I’ve been doing the same with community partners. I want to see what organizations we are working with, what the issues are that they’re working on—and how they are doing it—and what the opportunities might be to expand.
There are some great committed core faculty who have been connected with the civic engagement office in the past, and there are a lot of other faculty who are doing community-engaged work that in one way or another has gone uncaptured or hasn’t previously connected with this office. And I think that there’s another group of faculty who would be interested in doing more community-based work if they knew there were more resources available, that we can help support their logistics, help support that work. I’m sure there are some gaps, where there are issues that students and faculty really care about but that we’re not working on yet. Maybe there’s a course that would love to have a service-learning component to it but they don’t know how to start. My first thought is always to collaborate rather than to just start our own programming. I think there are a lot of ways that we can connect and add our piece in with the great work going on.
What gets you excited to come into the office every day?
This is an opportunity that combines a lot of the things that I’m passionate about. My academic background is in sociology, and I’ve always been interested in interdisciplinary work, such as education, political science, and philosophy. I’m interested in how people engage in issues that they care about. I see my work in the Center for Civic Engagement as supporting students, faculty, and staff—supporting the Ithaca College community’s efforts to get engaged in issues that they really care about, issues that are connected to their classroom work or their research, in whatever ways that we can. I like doing good work in the community that makes a difference, in whatever form that might be, and I think that by doing this together we can move the needle on some really important issues.
What are the biggest challenges to making those things happen?
There tend to be a lot of moving pieces. It’s trying to find those projects and partnerships that make sense for both sides, because it really does have to be reciprocal for the work to be done well; both sides have to have some sort of mutual benefit. So you can’t come in with too many things that are prepackaged, you can’t try to force an idea on either side, you have to figure out something that really works, and that takes some creativity, flexibility, and a lot of communication. There is no “one size fits all” approach. You have to be willing to talk about what’s working and what isn’t. So there are a lot of variables in play and that always creates some challenges, but even more so it creates a lot of great opportunities if both sides are willing to work on it.
How do you know whether your work has been successful? What metrics do you use?
It depends on what you’re trying to measure. Faculty will have one thing that they’re interested in measuring, and that’s usually about learning objectives and outcomes. Did this engagement experience help students connect concepts to a real-world experience? You can assess those through reflections or writing or surveys. Students may not have the same type of learning objectives that their professors have, but personally or professionally, did they find it useful toward what they’re trying to get to in their own goals and their own pathways? With community partners, you will probably have a slightly different thing. What were their goals with a course, with a group of students, with a project, and what sorts of things did we contribute to their goals and their missions? For our office and for IC as a whole, a measure of success is whether we are increasing the number of courses that are doing this work; whether students and faculty are content and happy with this work and how we support it.
What would you say is the most significant thing you have learned since arriving?
I have been pleasantly surprised by how well this work has been supported at IC. The renaming from Office of Civic Engagement to Center for Civic Engagement is really intentional because it is thinking about how we can be more than an office. We want to be the hub for this kind of work, and the switch to being a center broadens that scope, building off the great work that’s already been done. I’ve been heartened by the fact that civic engagement seems integral to the mission of the college. It was part of the IC 20/20 plan. Everyone I’ve talked to around campus says that experiential learning and engaged learning—academically based programs that are closely tied to community and hoping to have a community impact—are really at the heart of Ithaca College and are what students, faculty, and the administration want.
I’m really excited about the opportunity not just to have a civic engagement program, but to be a leader in this work. If you can put together an experience where students will learn better and connect more with the material, faculty will have great learning outcomes and see really energized students, and community partners can get some meaningful work done to advance their mission—who wouldn’t be behind that? I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t interested in that.