January 9, 2009
With the adoption of its second integrated plan last May, the University of Saskatchewan began in earnest the process of becoming an ‘engaged university,' a phrase used in the title of the plan itself and in many other circumstances.
The term ‘engaged' is a relatively new one at the U of S. According to the integrated plan's conclusion, the watchwords for the engaged university "will be innovation through connection, participation and collaboration." But what does it mean for employees to be ‘engaged' in the life of the institution? That is a question Provost Brett Fairbairn tackled in a recent interview with On Campus News.
While it may sound like a buzz word, engaged is supported by an extensive body of scholarship specifically related to the post-secondary sector, said Fairbairn. In the broadest terms, "to be engaged is to have a sense of common purpose. You know that what you're doing makes a difference to someone else" in the interconnected, dynamic system of a university. "You know you have it (engagement) when people know they have an impact on others, and are aware of it in a conscious, deliberate way."
Fairbairn takes an example from the plan itself, which names collaboration between non-academic and academic units across campus as a priority. An engaged university understands that what academic units do has an affect on administrative units, and vice versa, he said. The key is to avoid negative impacts and accentuate positive ones.
The result, he said, is people happy with the work they are doing, "but job satisfaction doesn't come from being perfect at your job in a vacuum. You have to know what you're contributing, and know what others are contributing. It's a concept that would apply to many workplaces."
For Fairbairn, being an engaged university means establishing and nurturing mutually beneficial partnerships around the institution's core activities – teaching and research, learning and discovery. "What we then get is more learning opportunities or research ideas" as well as support for the institution's core mission. "Hooking up an electrical box in a new building becomes part of being engaged in the work of the university" because those buildings help advance the institution's activities.
At the other end of the scale, to not be engaged is like a being a wheel that has come off an axle, he said. "It doesn't mean you're not doing anything because the wheel is still rolling along, but it's not connected to anything or making a difference."
Fairbairn believes it will take time for everyone at the U of S to get used to the word engaged, and to the concept of working in what he described as "a culture of innovation and a culture of participation.
"Engagement is not just a word. It sounds fuzzy when you talk about it in the abstract … (but) it's pinned to a definition in the (integrated) plan. And across campus, good communication is critical to connecting the pieces for employees, for conveying information, for conveying signals that help people understand how their job is connected to the work of other people."