Exploratory Group Report: Public and Community Relations
Presented by John P. Thomas, Convener
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 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 commissions recommendations.
During late winter and early spring of 2000, the group developed a list of potential
interviewees who represented each aspect of the communitybusinesses, 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
commissions deliberations. The process resulted in a two-way learning
processcitizens 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.
The commissions 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
decisionshousing, research parks, buildingstransportation, 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
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
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
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