Community Engagement: A Vital Part of CIVICA’s Initiatives

Serving society is one of the founding principles of CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences, of which Central European University (CEU) is a member. The EU-funded alliance’s mission statement highlights the need to “address current and emerging challenges” and “give the next generations of Europeans the knowledge and tools to understand and influence an increasingly complex world.”

Community engagement is an important part of any university’s relationship-building activities, and CIVICA is no different. Civic initiatives are overseen by a project group (Work Package 7 or simply WP7), comprising representatives from all eight institutions and led by CEU. CEU’s Dean of Students Chrys Margaritidis spoke to us about the role he envisions for WP7, the initiatives that WP7 plans to launch and why community engagement is vital.
When speaking with Margaritidis, he is quick to express CEU’s delight at being a part of CIVICA and emphasises that the alliance takes inter-university cooperation to a new level. In terms of mission, Margaritidis draws attention to CIVICA’s ambition to serve European societies. “Creating, collecting and storing knowledge is a critical way for universities to serve society,” he notes.

Margaritidis continued by underscoring the cooperative nature between universities and communities: “But another way [of serving society] is by listening to people. The idea is to connect with society, understand what people need, then inform the process of knowledge production, while simultaneously ensuring that people are aware of what work is being undertaken at the university. Universities are not just ivory towers, but should be involved and serve their community and society.”

CEU will build on its own catalogue of experiences and expand these programmes across the CIVICA alliance. Asked how a university determines what areas it should focus on, Margaritidis responds that CEU has always considered civic engagement a crucial part of university life, which is why the Community Engagement Office he oversees was founded. “The idea is to go out to the Hungarian community and listen to what they need. It’s a two-way street.” To highlight how certain events were developed in response to specific requests by the local community, he talks about CEU’s own Borderless Knowledge Lecture Series.

The Borderless Knowledge Lecture Series involves a mixed panel of subject specialists - featuring both internal and external experts - discussing important topics that affect the local community. The key to the series’ success is that the events are designed to be accessible to non-experts. The series was developed in response to public interest in the research conducted at the university, and in understanding unfolding events. Current plans are to launch a German-language version in Austria, CEU’s second home: as Margaritidis observes, the talks “should be in the local language so that you can connect with and involve members of your local community. You can’t expect everyone to know English.”

CIVICA’s WP7 plans to take this concept and expand it into a “Tours d’Europe” series of events. Following agreed guidelines, each university will develop and host its own lecture format, in the local language, in which experts can share their knowledge with local communities, address their needs, and highlight what universities have to offer. All the events will be digitized with an English-language translation and made available to a global audience. The Tours d’Europe is meant to inform the general public about the research taking place at their local university – and around Europe. Margaritidis stresses that the aim is “to make world-leading scholarship and knowledge accessible to a wider audience without dumbing it down.”

Topics will derive from CIVICA’s four focus areas: Societies in Transition and Crises of Earth; Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century; Europe Revisited; and Data Driven Technologies for the Social Sciences. It was clear that WP7 should include the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on these issues, especially on democracy. As Margaritidis notes, “We have to be responsive to what is happening in the world. We cannot talk about data science and then fail to take into account the ongoing pandemic and that our own data scientists are contributing in many different ways to tackling it.”

In addition to the “Tours d’Europe” series, WP7 plans to reach out to high schools in disadvantaged areas and/or disadvantaged students. The driving force behind this is to expose more first-generation students to higher education by helping them gain more knowledge and skills while in high school, to “get them to think about attending university”. High school students will get to visit a university campus, where hopefully they can discover previously unconsidered career and life paths.

A third initiative with a similar goal is to reach out to minorities, be they local minorities or refugees. Highlighting how this is all part of an exchange, Margaritidis adds: “Engagement has to exist in both directions. We cannot simply tell them about what the university does, we need to invite them in so that they can see for themselves, so that they can see how they can themselves relate to the university,” Margaritidis maintains. “That’s very important and it has to be an inclusive process that will involve faculty, staff and students from each university”. Openness is a key element of how WP7 plans its activities.

The project unfolds over the next two years, with the first activities implemented in early 2021.

In closing, Margaritidis reiterates his and CEU’s commitment to CIVICA and adds that he is greatly excited by the opportunity to work with sister universities with a similar focus, located all over Europe. “This transfer of know-how and experience is exceptionally beneficial for everyone,” he concludes. “We hope we can use that experience to benefit our local communities, universities and indeed Europe as a whole.”

This interview was originally published on the website of CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences.