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Exploratory Group Report: Public and Community Relations
Presented by John P. Thomas, Convener
Spring 2000

Background

Early in its deliberations, the Commission on Public Service and Outreach determined that one element of its work plan would include reaching out and interacting with external constituencies. In addition to learning what was understood about public service inside the university, the commission wanted to hear from community leaders about their perspectives on public service at U.Va. An exploratory group on public relations was charged with defining and implementing the listening task.

The Process

The exploratory group decided to concentrate its work on developing and testing an interview process with citizens in the Charlottesville/ Albemarle area. This listening model could then be expanded to solicit input from leaders throughout the Commonwealth as part of the commission’s recommendations.

During late winter and early spring of 2000, the group developed a list of potential interviewees who represented each aspect of the community—businesses, non-profit organizations, schools, local government. All persons who were asked to be interviewed agreed to do so.

Two- and three-member teams from the commission interviewed 28 leaders. Each session lasted approximately one hour and was guided by a set of eight questions (see attachment 1). The questions were designed to gain information about various aspects of outreach programs at U.Va.: quality, availability, accessibility, capacity, information, definition, and gaps. Interview teams hoped to elicit experiences, perspectives, feelings, and suggestions regarding U.Va.’s public service programs. Each interview team submitted a report of the interview, which were then aggregated for analysis, with the understanding that all responses were confidential.

The interviews have been instructive and provided a valuable addition to the commission’s deliberations. The process resulted in a two-way learning process—citizens shared their experiences, perspectives, and suggestions about public service, while interview teams provided information about U.Va.’s current programs and future plans. As a result, 28 leaders in the Charlottesville/Albemarle community are now better informed about the activities and contributions of the university.

Lessons Learned

The commission’s definition of public service, included in the initial letter of invitation from President Casteen, was universally accepted and endorsed by those persons being interviewed. Those interviewed seemed to agree that such services are a logical ingredient in the mission of a public university.

As would be expected those persons interviewed shared experiences which varied according to their respective community roles and personal connections to the University. It is important to note that everyone could identify at least one instance of having been the recipient of a public service. Many persons could cite a number of events. Most citations were positive and many were glowing in praise. Asked to rate the service quality on a scale of one to seven, (seven being best), none were rated lower than a five while most were in the six and seven range.

Many persons found it difficult to articulate the difference between the University performing public services and taking actions that would be expected of a corporate "good citizen." (Examples of such citizenship include real estate decisions—housing, research parks, buildings—transportation, parking, employee wages, and individual employees providing leadership in community activities). Interview teams tried to distinguish between the two during the interviews, but it is important to note for future communications that "public service" or "outreach" can easily be confused with other activities and must be defined clearly when soliciting input from the community.

In this latter category, "corporate citizen," U.Va. is seen as an overwhelming influence on the community. Generally this is a positive observation but most interviewees could cite examples of where it had been otherwise. Descriptions usually included an explanation of understanding of why there were negative results. Also, there was generally a sense that the impact was inadvertent. There was an assumption that if University leaders were more attentive, the situation could have been avoided. This expression was sometimes followed with the thought that the University is so large and mission-driven that it does not take the time to listen or communicate with the community.

The above finding is important in that, to the extent that these negative events are on the mind of local leaders, they can impede a more positive reception for public service offerings.

Suggestions for additional public service offerings, and they are myriad, reveal three interesting and important beliefs on the part of those interviewed. First, if the University chooses to offer a service it will be done extremely well. Second, the University has the resources, intellectual and financial, to offer whatever services it chooses. Third, U.Va. should play an important public service role in the community.

At the same time, each person was able to identify a lack of access to what is assumed to be a significant variety of public service opportunities. When asked to identify gaps in services, most persons felt they did not have sufficient knowledge about what is currently offered. The lack of access to information about U.Va. public service opportunities results in leaders, who often serve as key information sources for the community, being unable to articulate the degree to which the University is a service provider.

Community leaders want to know, in a comprehensive way, what we provide, what we do not offer, and how they and the public can access the programs as well as the appropriate University employees. (Outreach Virginia should be a significant part of the solution to this problem).

Regardless of institutional mechanisms that currently exist, these community leaders rely primarily on personal contact for knowledge of and access to the university. The most frequently cited avenues into public service programs are John Casteen, Leonard Sandridge, Dolly Prenzel, and Louise Dudley. In addition, four entities were frequently mentioned for providing public services, the Health Sciences Center ("the hospital"), the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service ("Cooper Center"), the School of Continuing and Professional Studies ("Continuing Education"), and Madison House. That these entities were identified so readily lends credence to the concept that more communication about the array of public services provided would be well-received by the community. Each of these entities relies extensively on community awareness and publicity for the success of their programs.

Community Thank You

The commission owes a special thank you to each of the community leaders who took the time and thought to add to our learning. Commission recommendations have been informed and enhanced significantly by what the subgroup learned from these leaders.

Exploratory Group Members

Louise Dudley
Doris Glick
Dee Irwin
David Kalergis
Anne Oplinger
Mark Reisler
John Thomas
Additional Interviewers
Jeff Blank
Virginia Collins
Carolyn Engelhard
Laura Hawthorne
Jim Kennan
Iva Morris
Clo Phillips
Dolly Prenzel
Penny Rue

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