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Commission emphasizes primary role and breadth of public service in the University's mission

By Ida Lee Wootten

Gene Block and Rebecca Kneedler
Peggy Harrison
Rebecca Kneedler, chair of the Virginia 2020 Commission on Public Service and Outreach, and Gene Block, vice president for research and public service

Public service is as central to a public university's mission as libraries and students, says Rebecca Kneedler, chair of the Virginia 2020 Public Service and Outreach Planning Commission.

Her conviction mirrors the definition of public service that the commission has embraced: Public service is the application of scholarly knowledge and professional expertise to the economic, health, civic and educational needs of the public.

Commission members have been surprised by the variety, magnitude, history and expertise in public service at U.Va., Kneedler said. They have found examples of distinguished scholars and teachers in every school who make outstanding contributions to public service.

"Sharing our expertise is part of our responsibility as a public institution of higher education and a good neighbor," said Gene D. Block, vice president for research and public service.

A central thrust of the commission is seeking ways to foster and coordinate public service and outreach across departments and schools to find strategies that support what people are doing. "We want to create opportunities for synergy," said Kneedler, who is associate dean for academic affairs in the Curry School of Education.

To advance that objective, the commission has identified three central goals and needs. First, it wants to broaden awareness

Book Buddies Program
Stephanie Gross
When U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley visited U.Va. in April, he took a field trip to Johnson Elementary School to meet with students, staff and volunteers who participate in the U.Va. Curry School of Education Book Buddies Program.

of U.Va.'s outreach programs, in an effort to encourage increased use of services and stronger partnerships across schools and disciplines.

Second, the commission is seeking to remove internal University barriers to service. Those barriers include administrative structures as well as reporting and budgetary lines. They also include changing attitudes to view service as an academic tool that can be used to enhance research and teaching.

A third need the commission sees is building recognition and support for public service, especially those efforts performed within the commonwealth and in partnership with other Virginia institutions.

"We want public service not to be a secondary, 'Ćalso-ran' at the University. We want it seen as part of the primary mission and responsibility of the University," Kneedler said.

To make these goals reality, the commission has several efforts under way. It has studied benchmark institutions, such as Duke, Michigan and Penn; and through surveys, interviews, literature reviews and conference visits, it has identified key characteristics of public service at U.Va.

"The No. 1 finding has been that U.Va. compares well to institutions far better known for meeting public needs. However, the volume, variety and impact of these projects are not well known to us or the public,≤ said Kneedler, who noted that U.Va. lacks a University-wide communication structure to convey such efforts to the community.

To help know and recognize the breadth of public service conducted through U.Va., Laura Hawthorne, the University's first coordinator of public service, is compiling an inventory. To date, it includes more than 300 projects, services and resources. "Areas of particular strength have emerged, such as health care, service to local governments, civic involvement and education, particularly to K-12 students and teachers," said Hawthorne, one of Block's staff members.

Although Hawthorne is still collecting information on outreach efforts, preliminary figures show that U.Va. provides service to more than a million people annually. Direct service is being provided to people in every county of Virginia.

To help promote awareness of these services, Hawthorne is developing a web site describing programs and resources available to the public. Slated to be launched in the spring, the web site is being organized under the slogan, "Knowledge and service for the common good."

To explore a range of public service issues, the commission has five working groups: University-wide strategic planning, public relations and communication, administrative organizations and structure, volunteer services and faculty rewards and recognition. Although each group addresses specific issues, all are united in answering such common questions as "What is U.Va.'s responsibility to the public?" and "What are the needs of the various public constituents?"

The groups' reports will contribute to the commission's efforts to establish University-wide themes and priorities as a framework for funding initiatives and implementation strategies for outreach. In the spring, the commission plans to meet with citizens, alumni, students, legislators, Board of Visitors members and other groups to modify and refine the recommendations.


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