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Creating Community in a Complex University


Published in Continuing Higher Education Review, Vol. 62, 1998, pp. 82-87. 

Copyright 1998, Thomas M. Hatfield.

A LARGE UNIVERSITY IS EASILY FRAGMENTED BY departmental boundaries and hierarchical structures. One might assume that common interests in learning and inquiry would counterbalance the tendency toward fragmentation. However, powerful differences as well as the sheer size and dynamism of a complex university can drive people apart, leaving them with a sense of disaffection and alienation from each other and from the university as a whole.

Strong eddies of contentious interests swirl through the university environment. Some of the divisive differences are disparities of wealth and perceived status between disciplines; breaches among faculty, staff, and students; and the increasing social diversity of campus life characterized at times by skirmishes over multiculturalism, gender rivalries, and racial suspicions. Added to these differences are the proliferation of specialized departments (both academic and administrative), the necessity for many rules, and the centrifugal force produced by the immense creativity and intellectual energy peculiar to a university. Special efforts may he required to overcome the forces of separateness in a university environment.

People create their own little pockets of community within colleges, departments, or among groups with similar interests—sports enthusiasts, political and religious partisans, students living in a certain dorm or in an off campus housing compound, environmental activists, or students from other nations. The possibilities for subdividing the whole of the university are endless.

Although pockets of community may be the building blocks for a larger community, for many people in the university the result of such splitting is a loss of important sentiments—the shared senses of wholeness, of caring, of acceptance, and of mutual support that defines community for them. In both the short term and the long term, the university pays a heavy price for failing to engender a sense of loyalty among those who enter its gates.

The concept of community is not precise, but the German scholar Ferdinand Toennies clarified it in the 1880s by contrasting it with society. Toennies saw society as relationships formed by individuals for reasons of self-interest or material improvement—such as their need for security or the acquisition of power or wealth—rather than by a desire to enhance the well-being of everyone. By comparison, Toennies stated that in community, individuals are treated as ends in themselves and are brought into mutual relationships of belonging and support rather than of exploitation and estrangement (as cited in Macionis, 1997). In a nutshell, community is warm and friendly; society is dry and cold.

There is no doubt that most people want a sense of belonging, an affiliation with institutions that buffer them against the harsher realities of the larger society and integrate them to the broader dimensions of human experience. For example, a Gallup Poll seeking to uncover the "Six Spiritual Needs in America Today" revealed that the "need to have a sense of community and deeper relationships" ranked second only to the "need to believe that life has a meaning and purpose." Wherever I go, at home or abroad, I hear people talk about their hunger for community. When asked what community means to them, their frequent responses are: "caring," "supporting," "sharing," "sense of family," "feeling good about the organization (or place) and my role in it," "being together on a journey," and "inclusive" (Gallup, 1990).

From these descriptions it is clear that community is not something that can be made. Fortunately, an environment may be created that encourages it, an atmosphere that supports it. Community is something that happens. We need to know how and why community happens because making it happen is a major task of Americans at the beginning of the new millennium. Moreover, it is not enough to bring about community. Our goal must be to achieve the wholeness of community without smothering diversity. The community of the future, with its increasing number of subgroups converging on the United States from around the world, depends on learning the skills of mediation and collaboration. These skills enable them to unite with the whole, thus creating community, without losing their distinctive identity.

Within our homeland, some important institutions that provided community in the past have broken down or lost their influence. Worry about the decline of the family pervades the literature of our country. The public school system and higher education have been under attack for several decades. Physical security is the predominant concern of neighborhoods. The church does not always provide the kind of centrality to the neighborhood that it once did. Labor unions have dissolved. In the past, many people have found meaning within corporations, but in downsizing they have treated individuals as expendable and thereby depleted much of the confidence they once held. The decline of these important sources of community is one reason why continuing educators would be advised to study and understand community. Our nation needs people who know how to create conditions that intentionally provoke community. Some institutions in decline can be enhanced or reconstructed to provide community, while additional institutions must he intentionally developed as sources of community.

Much can he done to enhance a university as a source of community for all, especially for its most important constituency, students. Students learn from the context of their university experience as well as from its academic departments. Without an adequate, enriching experience in ethnic and cultural interactions, a student may leave a university, head filled with information on any subject we might name, and be unprepared to adapt and harmonize in another area with differing cultures. A university that provides an environment of caring and acceptance is more likely to send forth graduates prepared to support and appreciate others for who they are. In such a university environment, students are more likely to ask the fundamental questions of who they are and how they develop as independent persons, and, at the same time, how they become responsive to the legitimate needs of others.

The University of Texas at Austin enjoys the dubious distinction of enrolling more degree-seeking students—almost 50,000—than any university in the United States. When the faculty and staff are added to students, about 70,000 people gather each day in an area of less than one square mile. As an organization, UT Austin has characteristics that make it vulnerable to complaints of impersonality, aloofness, and indifference to individuals. For several years we have been trying to transcend the negatives of size and departmentalization to create the conditions for a genuine community to flourish at all levels, embracing students, staff, and faculty. Some of the effort has focused on visible symbolic actions and events that leave participants with lasting memories of campus venues, with common stories to tell, and with strong memories of group accomplishments usually related to service.

An important early step was the development of a new campus master plan that was intended to make the campus a "people place," where the intellectual enterprise would be part of students' socialization. We wanted the university to be a setting where people would want to come, where person-to-person interaction would he facilitated, a place so appealing that it would stand against the inclination of would-be social isolationists to pursue their studies in complete separation from others.

Surrounding neighborhoods were included in the campus planning process. We wanted to assure that residential areas around the university were desirable places to live and that residents were supportive of the university. University planners met with each neighborhood association. At the beginning of the neighborhoods-campus dialogue, we expected the discussions to focus on the location of major gateways into the university but quickly the predominant topic became cars—how to prevent excessive numbers spilling over from the university into residential areas. In consequence, the university developed more on-campus parking garages and new parking lots that were dispersed beyond nearby neighborhoods and are serviced by shuttle buses to the campus. The combination is not perfect, but everyone agrees that traffic flow and congestion are much better than in the past.

A goal of the new configurations of space and buildings on campus was to engender a sense of identity with the place and with one’s fellows. While the master plan is long term, immediate attention was given to campus signage, the location of benches and chairs, and landscaping. Signs were created in soft earth tones that conveyed essential information plus the subtle message that we are all part of a singular whole. More chairs and benches were placed in attractive locations, both indoor and outdoor, about the campus. The president called for volunteers from the faculty and staff to help students move into dormitories, thus conveying that we are united in helping others in the university community. About this time I heard someone say, "It’s okay to love your students as though they were your own." This captured an emerging attitude that I sensed across the campus.

Within the university, many efforts were made to bring a greater feeling of humanity to the institution. One effort, termed "UT Cares," focused on comforting colleagues in times of bereavement and trauma. Reports of deep personal distress flow from departments via electronic mail to UT Cares, which is, in effect, a chaplaincy for the university community. UT Cares is an attempt to relate more holistically to all individuals in the university community. With UT Cares, we are rallying to others in distress, trying to cover the potential voids in people’s lives that can lead to further detriments, both at home and in the workplace.

Many annual events were created around the theme of creating community. Several pertained to the families and children of individuals in the university community and included:

  • Take Your Child to Work.
  • Orange Santa (collections of food and gifts for needy people).
  • Longhorn Halloween (for children from nearby neighborhoods as well as those of faculty, staff, and students).
  • Longhorn School Bus (bringing elementary school children to campus).

In addition, "child friendly" policies were initiated for employees dealing with parent/teacher conference time, school holidays, flex time and telecommuting, among others.

The need for community is one of the major challenges of our time. The forces that preclude or shatter community are potentially stronger and more disruptive than in the past. These forces are exacerbated by modern communications technology that enables people to live and pursue livelihoods in isolation. Scholarly people have always been tempted to confine themselves to a small group with similar interests. Others are tempted to limit their concerns to the workplace or to the neighborhood or to their families and to let the world go on its own way. In truth, each of us will live a better life if we act holistically for the welfare of individuals in each community of which we are a member. University continuing educators who learn the skills of creating environments that facilitate community can make significant contributions to the betterment of society in the twenty-first century. No more important opportunity may exist than in their own universities.


Gallup, Jr., G. H., (1990, December). Six Basic Spiritual Needs of Americans. Speech made at a meeting of the Theological Students Fellowship, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ. Macionis, J. (1997). Society: The Basics. (4th ed.) (p.379). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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