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Place-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education: A Strategy to Transform Universities and Communities

Erica K. Yamamura and Kent Koth
Published by Routledge in 2018

College as a Public Good: Making the Case through Community Engagement

Karin Fischer
Published by Chronicle of Higher Education in 2023

In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities

Davarian L. Baldwin
Published by Bold Type Books in 2021

Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets

David J. Staley and Dominic D. J. Endicott
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2021

Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time

Seth Kaplan
Published by Little Brown Spark in 2023

If we’re going to do this,” DeAmon Harges told me, “we’re going to have to become friends.” The condition set me back on my heels. Of course, I wasn’t opposed to getting to know this Indianapolis-based nonprofit leader, rapidly becoming a national figure in community development conversations. But though I was far from reluctant to become friends, I didn’t see the relevance of friendship for the co-research project I was proposing. Isn’t friendship merely interpersonal? Might it be too insular for questions about institutions and community development? What does friendship have to do with questions of power and equity?

DeAmon’s short answer to those questions, over the course of our co-researching, has been that wherever there are institutions, there are also friendships. These friendships often go unmentioned at the boardroom table, but they are thoroughly influential nonetheless. In our collaborative work, I have sometimes overlooked the role of these relationships and have appreciated his commitment (as he has put it once in a TEDx Talk) to make the invisible visible across institutional life. For him, that often means recognizing the economics of friendship as social capital.

  • The term social points to communitarian possibilities in friendship; it points to relationships that exceed quid pro quo.1
  • The word capital points to the economic practicality of friendship, to its access to reciprocal exchange, to a shared project of some sort or another. To be friends is to do something with someone.2

But I have also come to think that friendship corrects for an institutional bias towards grandeur. Institutions like to put forward big visions for their place in the world. This tendency, as old as Babel, is also as contemporary as the Christian college brochure promising to turn undergraduates into world-changers. But by creating a tug away from the grandly global towards the humbly local, friendship can check for institutional grandiosity. To befriend and to be befriended is to submit to the pull of being together, or at least the wish to be together. Putting those two ideas together—economics and emplacement—helps friendship gauge the interactions of institutions and communities. Which bring this essay to its central topic: recent books on universities and place-based engagement.

The first thing to say about such books is that they can be hard to find these days. Because my initially proposed booklist focused on titles mostly published pre-pandemic, this journal’s book review editor asked, gently, if I might not search out a few more recent titles. I was eventually able to scare up a few more such books. But the shortness of the list raises questions. Has remote learning during the pandemic made academicians inattentive to place? Have other intensifications of digital technology (e.g., ubiquitous wearable tech) destabilized our experience of the local? Has the precarity of the demographic cliff compelled universities to cast their eyes to global regions far from campus? In any case, it is within the milieu of such questions that this essay takes a close look at five books about collegiate engagement with adjacent communities.

Yamamura and Koth’s Place-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education is a good place to start, if only because it offers a wide-angle lens on the issues that arise when universities try to engage their communities equitably. I read this book with colleagues during the summer of 2023 in a disparate group of faculty, staff, fundraisers, service-learning personnel, students, and a vice president. This book proved a good way to move us into important questions about academe and adjacent communities. We found ourselves asking:

  • What’s a good starting point for nonlinear and iterative development work?
  • Should our university’s president be in this reading group?
  • How much staff and money will be needed to roll out a program?
  • Should we ask donors for a million bucks or ten million or fifteen?
  • What role does our university’s Christian identity play in potential partnerships?
  • And, hang on, who else within our own university community might already be doing neighborhood-development work? To its credit, Yamamura and Koth’s book exhibits a direct practicality and never gives itself over to breathy apothegms. The book instead offers issues to consider, questions to weigh, examples to illustrate.

But the book’s style does evince a persistent blandness. Richard Lanham used to say that good writing always makes clear “who’s kicking who.” But this book’s prose tends to obscure, or at least to defer, who’s responsible for what:

The field of community engagement in higher education as a whole is led and staffed mostly by White people. Opportunities for staff members, especially White staff members, to better understand issues of race and equity are limited. In addition, in some circles there is resistance to exploring these issues at all. (130)

Note two sentences with passive-voiced constructions followed by a third sentence framed in a there-is construction. In a conversation about institutional racism, doesn’t it become morally urgent to make it a little clearer who’s kicking who?

At first, I thought the book’s somewhat impersonal register was a relatively unimportant element, little more than something to gripe about in a book group. But as I worked through the book’s chapters in a circle of colleagues and friends, I found a sharp contrast between the style of the book and the style of our conversations. People discussed the book in emotionally laced ways, sometimes in short, hesitant, pained questions, other times in charismatically charged monologues, followed by apologies like, “Sorry, I get worked up about this stuff.” There was, in short, an affective divide between the way the book talked about place-based university engagement and the way we talked about it while trying to do it. That gap made me wish to urge Yamamura and Koth to say what they had to say, as the theatre people say, once more with feeling. The stakes of the style came through even more clearly in conversation with Mark Latta, an academic turned social entrepreneur whom I consulted while writing this essay. He notes that community development often involves “the production of feelings.” Institutions, Mark likes to say, don’t feel anything; but they do make people feel things—mad, hopeful, grieved. That made me wish for writing about institutions that was similarly emotionally alert.

Even so, this book is fully worth consulting. They explain the ground conditions that have raised place-based engagement to a concern of importance to universities, despite their long history of insularity within their communities. For one thing, many colleges and universities are desperate to increase revenue, especially in states where government funding is on the decline. For another, the academy’s clientele is changing: students from increasingly diverse social and economic standpoints are demanding widely varied course modalities. For these reasons and others, the academy finds itself buffeted by contrary, sometimes anti-intellectual or anti-institutional headwinds. In the early 2020s, colleges and universities have sunk to new lows in their societal standing. Little wonder, then, that so many academic leaders are asking how they might befriend their communities. Self-preservative or not, these place-based ventures, Yamamura and Koth believe, can bring substantive goods both to colleges and to their places. To that end, the authors share case studies from Drexel University, Loyola University Maryland, San Diego State University, Seattle University, and the University of San Diego. Readers of this journal will quickly note that three of the five selected institutions have faith-based missions, though none of the case studies includes non-White or rural colleges. Although this means neglecting historically Black colleges as well as small, nondenominational institutions like Berea College, Yamamura and Koth decided to focus on academic place-based projects that have “achieved a point of maturation” (29).

But how does a college administrator get started towards that maturation in development projects that move in so many directions at once? Yamamura and Koth recommend a developmental model proceeding from what they call the Exploration Phase to the Development Phase to the Sustaining Phase (51–101). This model moves from careful listening and creative planning to start-up-styled iterations to the cultivation of partnerships. The ethical commitment of this book’s research is to emphasize reciprocity between the university and the community. Accordingly, they discuss not only the academic side of things, but the dynamics of community life. It is easy to treat “the community” as a monolith, but Yamamura and Koth differentiate among diverse groups of community partners from national organizations to nonprofits to faith-based schools to politicians to philanthropic foundations.

I have reviewed this book’s discussion at length, because in many ways it anticipates and exemplifies similar expositions and analyses in the other books under review. The authors provide a clear sense of the scale of the tasks a college takes up when engaging its neighbors. But I still wish they had discussed at greater length the kinds of feelings that such engagement circulates. Feelings matter in communities, because feelings gather and empower as well as divide and rigidify. But in any case, feelings are always doing something, and they are often doing this something not just interpersonally but collectively as well.3 I wonder if the emotional intelligence of the book would have sharpened if Yamamura and Koth had done more interviews with constituents who were not university or community leaders. Tracking more stories from ordinary residents might have involved the authors, and us readers as well, in more of the economic and emplaced networks that animate or debilitate such projects. I say debilitate, because one recurring concern of our little book club pertained to the feelings of people on our campus but outside our group. Even professors and students uninvolved in the university’s community engagement might diminish its effectiveness through reticence or disaffection.

This essay turns now to a small but promisingly entitled volume College as a Public Good, which came out in 2023 as a Chronicle of Higher Education report. It is an eye-pleasing volume to thumb through, and one that rewards deeper reading as well. Author Karin Fischer writes with journalistically swift prose and threads her discussion through plenty of photos and smartly designed layouts. (Caveat emptor: at 64 pages, the book may be refreshingly concise, but it also sells for a forbidding $179.) College as a Public Good addresses the same crisis that Yamamura and Koth have noted: declining public opinion regarding colleges and universities. In 2020, nearly 70% of Americans thought universities were contributing positively to society; in 2022, that number had dropped to 55%. The declining popularity of academe is significantly political, Fischer notes: some conservative lawmakers, eager to benefit from culture warring, have vilified colleges and universities as too woke. But it is not simply the “diploma divide” in a sharply polarized society that concerns Fischer. Universities are also giving moderate and liberal voters sticker shock. To add to the difficulty, “many Americans worry about whether a college degree is sufficient preparation to land a good job” (9).

Fischer’s approach to these difficulties focuses on policy and structure as ways to broach predicaments within and around the academy. I wanted to be persuaded by her argument that, by dint of deft community engagement, universities can change the public narrative about themselves. “Public opinion on higher education today is badly fractured. But while the gap between colleges and members of the public may seem wide, colleges have the opportunity to reach out—on their blocks, in their neighborhoods, in their cities, in their states, in their regions” (61). Of course, she is quick to add, this engagement has to be done ethically. “Efforts to improve neighborhoods must benefit all residents and not worsen inequities. Colleges must also be careful not to overpromise—while they can do much good, they cannot replace the social safety net offered by a broad array of government agencies and nonprofit groups” (61).

But what gave me pause in passages like this is how the book zeroes in on the agency of the university. Granted, university-centeredness is partially a function of the Chronicle’s target audience of academics. But it is striking nonetheless to see each chapter in this book driven by a sort of heroic-philanthropic view of colleges as “Stewards of the Public Trust,” “Educational Partners,” “Financial Drivers,” and “Community Partners.” Davarian Baldwin’s book on these and similar subjects—the volume reviewed next in this essay—makes clear that, whatever else colleges and universities need to hear, they probably do not need to be told to see themselves as dominant players in their communities. Although I found Fischer’s title aspirational, I came away from the report wishing to shift the concept of “public good” from the colleges themselves to what happens between colleges and their communities. That space between and among urges the metaphor of friendship, once again.

Davarian Baldwin’s book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, replete with shrewd observations and engrossing conversations, exhibits the vigor and tone of a New Yorker investigative piece. Like the books just reviewed, Baldwin recognizes that academe is in trouble, but he argues that this trouble is mostly of their own making. Here is the story his data and analysis relate: urban universities have cultivated a darkly self-interested presence in too many American cities. Although they have the reputation of being positive social agents who serve the public good, their actions are exploitative and discriminatory. Baldwin is determined to track down their malfeasances. The most conspicuous sins center on displacement of residents, but for Baldwin, such gentrification is merely the beginning of university-perpetrated ills, which also include employing and mistreating service workers, and using private police to intimidate Black and Brown residents. “Higher education exerts an increasingly powerful hold over our cities and those who struggle to survive in its shadows,” (5) writes Baldwin, adding later, “And the lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color that stand in the immediate path of campus expansion, while in deep need of new investments, are left the most vulnerable” (6). Baldwin concedes that universities hold the potential to be good and equitable partners. “But a central question remains: what are the costs when colleges and universities exercise significant power over a city’s financial resources, policing priorities, labor relations, and land values?” (9).

Baldwin’s discussion of these costs initially raises two concerns for me. The first pertains to the adequacy of his book’s critical and qualitative methodology for its multifaceted subject matter. The second pertains to the book’s deconstructive or reconstructive posture in its argument.

I pay attention to this book’s methodology, not simply because that’s what academics do, but also because, in my research with DeAmon, I have found investigation into institutional and community partnerships to involve dizzyingly varied kinds of knowledge: real estate, institutional sociology, market economics, colonialist history, and various theologies. As a historian, an urbanist, and a cultural critic, though, Baldwin is well-equipped to address the cross-methodological challenges of the book’s investigations. He is also an assiduous investigator, having conducted over a hundred interviews for this project. Correcting for a shortcoming in Yamamura and Koth’s book, Baldwin not only talks with institutional leaders, but he also walks through university-adjacent neighborhoods, talking with residents, chatting with business owners, getting acquainted with students. He has a knack for anecdote. He also has an eye for the import of ledgers and tax policy.

As for the book’s critical posture: Baldwin is overwhelmingly disappointed with the urban university’s re-colonizing projects, which he nicknames “the University.” His analysis of Trinity College (Hartford), the University of Chicago, Columbia, New York University, and Arizona State University reminded me of the critique of corporate social responsibility put forward in Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All, which offers a takedown of corporate altruism on the grounds that these institutions are far too self-protective.4 Similarly, Baldwin’s critique of universities makes the case that, if they actually wished to offer public goods to their cities, they would adopt better hiring processes, practice more restraint in community policing, and contribute to municipal revenue.

Still, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower is not as darkly critical as its cover might suggest. (The book’s front image features a medieval-styled university turret that looks capable of housing an evil wizard.) To Baldwin’s credit, his epilogue discusses a positive case study in which he seems almost surprised by the hopefulness of the University of Winnipeg’s engagement with its urban ecology. He is impressed, for example, that the university doesn’t simply hire “one of North America’s university food service behemoths, such as Aramark, Sodexo, or Chartwells” and instead works with a humble brand, “Diversity Foods,” where the food is “made from scratch and 65 percent of the supplies come from small family operations” (200). Baldwin continues in this hopeful vein for some time, highlighting the various benefits that this enlightened university brings to its city. This conclusion does not enumerate best practices along the lines followed by other authors in this review. But although the book largely sticks to its lane—long-form narrative investigation—the epilogue does offer a brief burst of bold-font pointers derived from Baldwin’s Smart Cities Lab, a research center which he directs in the Center for Urban and Global Studies at Trinity College. Recommendations include making payments instead of taxes to cities, divesting from predacious industries, and hosting groups focused on issues such as zoning policy.

There is a lot to admire in this book’s razoring through institutional self-interestedness. Still, Baldwin’s ambitious inquiry raises questions for me about how well a researcher can enter into the wild undergrowth of an urban ecology and grasp the web of relationships that constitutes a community and its partnerships. Baldwin works through his interviews with a powerful critical consciousness, but I wonder what relational factors this critical lens might miss. It is not a question to which I have an easy answer, perhaps because I myself am accustomed to the relative detachment of the academic ethos. Put in service to scholarly analysis and argument, that critical approach often has to pare away extraneous material and reveal some critical point. But what if that extraneity is essential to the living, breathing, feeling experience of people within these institutions and these communities? What if, in short, Baldwin has spotted infrastructural abuse while missing the affective dynamics of friendship. I raise this question not simply to criticize Baldwin’s methodology, which is well-suited to the institutionalism he critiques, but rather to identify once again, and from a different angle, what institutions themselves so regularly miss: the emotional and situated lives of human beings befriending and befriended. I suspect that Baldwin’s critique misses some of those dynamics, though that may be less the fault of his approach than the fault of the institutions he is investigating.5

Baldwin might justly observe that the affective investments of friendship do not provide a very tight unit of analysis. What are we even talking about when we talk about friendship? So permit this essay, briefly, to come at its subject from a more literary angle. Alan Jacobs’s discussion of friendship and place in the poetry of W. H. Auden notes the poet’s migrancy from Great Britain to the United States.6 But wherever Auden’s peregrinations led, he always sought to cultivate circles of friends. In contrast with his youthful utopian hopes that large-scale political movements might heal the human condition, his turn towards small gatherings of friends was, Jacobs argues, a humble but saving move towards the local. Auden’s communitarianism, however, was instructively different than that of another poet and essayist, Wendell Berry. Whereas Berry emphasized the remembrance and recovery of lost friendships in particular places, Auden treated human relationships and community as improvisable. “It is the creation of new community that Auden is concerned with . . . not the restoration of the old. ”7

Jacobs’s discussion of Auden and Berry makes me think that Baldwin’s book is on Team Berry: he is concerned with the ways that institutions efface local memory and rewrite local histories. But this next book, Staley and Endicott’s Knowledge Towns, adopts Team Auden by improvising friendly affiliations between towns and gowns. For these authors, as for Auden, migration from place to place can support fresh forms of relationality. No doubt, Berry would remind these authors that they spend too much time discussing migration’s hopeful possibilities and too little time noting the dark and difficult histories that necessitate migration in the first place. In any case, I find the tension between Auden and Berry a useful one for thinking through Staley and Endicott’s discussion of institutions, communities, and places.

The book opens with a discussion of life and work in the knowledge economy of the early 2020s. “In modern societies, knowledge work becomes flexible, remote, and measurable. Families can thus more easily move to the location that best suits them” (17). The upshot of this COVID-induced and technologically enabled shift is that towns are going to need to learn to attract talented professionals. The authors then shift to discussion of needed changes for the academy, which they envision as a “knowledge enterprise.” The authors discuss already fortunate relationships between cities and colleges but note that, all too often, these arrangements leave the universities unchanged. But if a college is to con- tribute to the magnetism and revival of small towns, it will need to change its usual operations to become something of “an intellectual and epistemological ‘utility’ for the town, a service as necessary for a livable place as emergency services, clean water, and competent government” (82). The book then moves to a lively discussion of various ways that small towns and colleges could interact for mutual benefit. Whereas academic books often wait till the end of their analysis to offer a smattering of creative suggestions for making things better, this book offered provocative ideas seemingly every other page. Staley and Endicott are buoyant writers and thinkers, whose hopefulness is grounded in practicable ideas like sustainable saline agriculture, microcolleges, and creatively subsidized transit networks. The fourth chapter of this book moves from small regional partnerships to large institutional and urban projects, demonstrating Knowledge Town’s admirable range. Happily for administrators of small colleges such as those I have taught in all my life, these authors never despise the day of small things: “Every hamlet, village, town city neighborhood, or city district can consider whether they have something to teach the world, whether there is a founding group with the energy to get something started, and how their place can best support the formation of a knowledge enterprise” (151).

Big-idea books like this one thrive or fail by their case studies. Some books present their case studies as evidence that their ideas will work. Others present their case studies as exemplars of how their ideas might work.8 Staley and Endicott offer an imaginative alternative to these approaches with what they call “archetypes” for how towns and gowns might be well-matched (122–163).9 The archetypes comprise multiple situations: where, for example, a lapsing town might partner with a strong university or where both the village and the college require transformation. These paradigms offer suggestive combinations for universities and municipalities alike.

This book reminded me of other place-attentive discourses under way in the United States, especially by center-left pundits like Ezra Klein and Matthew Iglesias who urge their fellow progressives to get better at building things rather than simply critiquing things. Similarly, Staley and Endicott do not spend a great deal of time critiquing power abuse but focus instead on innovating their way out of municipal and university predicaments. Other books in this essay spend quite a lot of time emphasizing what is after all a rather simple moral point, that colleges should listen carefully to their communities instead of assuming saviorist action. In contrast, Staley and Endicott build on an ethic of mutuality to offer inspiriting and generative ideas. They do more than critique what they see as bad institutional forms; they propose new forms entirely.

At times, their commitment to innovation may feel implausible, especially to academic leaders in smaller colleges. For example, I sat down to talk about this book with my colleague, Mark Bjelland, a geographer who pays a lot of attention to urban renewal in the knowledge economy. When I asked him about colleges-as-knowledge-enterprises, he noted there seem to be two kinds of problems that colleges might address in their communities: apple problems and gun problems. Take a farm town in Minnesota undergoing the effects of a warming climate. How might they grow fruit resistant to disease and yet amenable to local temperatures? The University of Minnesota has historically proven adept at innovating breeds of apples that respond well to local climate conditions. That’s where we got the Honeycrisp apple and, more recently, the Kudos variety. But if universities are great for apple problems, they are less effective with gun problems, which tend to be complexly sourced and diffusely networked. When Staley and Endicott urge universities to transform into knowledge enterprises, their successful transformation may depend on how wickedly complex the problems are in adjacent communities.

The final book in this review essay may look, at first glance, unpromising to college administrators. Of the five books reviewed here, Seth Kaplan’s Fragile Neighborhoods is the volume with the least explicit discussion of universities. But the book will reward the attention of college presidents, service-learning directors, and community partnership coordinators with the sheer richness of its social ontology. It is, for one thing, a book that takes friendship seriously. That might sound strange in a thinker accustomed to thinking on as global a scale as Kaplan. But as an expert on “fragile states,” he notes that political instability, institutional jankiness, and economic stagnancy affect not only large-scale projects like nation states, but also small-scale enterprises like a neighborhood. While Kaplan is reluctant to say that American politics are fragile (which may surprise many readers in an election year), he is quick to point out indicators that American society is fragile. “Our families and communities suffer from social problems that shock the rest of the world, and ought to shock us: family disintegration, homelessness, school shootings, racial animosity, skyrocketing rates of loneliness and depression, and deaths of despair—alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide” (x). But as one chapter’s epigram puts it—using a maxim from Mauricio Miller—”Being friendless is the deepest form of poverty.” It is the book’s weave of friendship and place that I think offers the most insight to universities wishing to engage their communities better and more wisely.

Kaplan’s discussion begins by parsing a stubborn binary in social change theory. In intelligent but low-calorie prose (there are no wasted sentences in this book), he notes that some changemakers approach community development top-down, using government policy, while others approach it bottom-up, empowering individuals. “A more effective way to repair and revitalize fragile places is to work horizontally across the landscape to strengthen the interconnected web of institutions and relationships locale by locale while finding ways for each locale to work with others better” (17). Focusing on the neighborhood allows Kaplan’s “sideways” approach to weave the relational—the neighborhood is a little society—and the geographical—the neighborhood is a physical place.

This lateral approach to social change could make it hard to pursue, much less to measure, progress. I can imagine university administrators and program directors asking, “Where do we begin?” Kaplan’s response would be to “start by targeting a key driver . . . something so foundational as to have a cascading impact,” and then to work outwards “to target multiple drivers” and in this way to make the system more coherent and more resilient (58). Fragile Neighborhoods discusses five such key drivers: community, education, family, church, and housing. Every chapter discusses a different nonprofit organization focused on the restoration of these five institutions. As the “Key Lessons” recommendation boxes at the end of each chapter show, his discussion creates a productive oscillation between the social and the physical locale.

One element of this book sure to be beneficial for other academic types like me is the extensive reading list Kaplan maintains. As I jotted title after title on my Must Read list on the book’s flyleaf, I sensed a kind of enthusiastic friendliness at the heart of Kaplan’s prolific citations. Although Kaplan’s focus on fragility feels uniquely contributive in conversations about community development, he makes clear how very befriended his writing is by other authors like Yuval Levin, Grace Olmstead, Tim Soerens, not to mention those stalwart Roberts, Putnam and Sampson. The book started to feel to me like a block party of community engagement gurus. At the same time, the book omits some key guests: Kaplan needs to do more interviews with community residents and ordinary citizens.

Service-learning coordinators and community partner programmers will want to pay close attention to the final unit of this book, working carefully through each of Kaplan’s ten lessons from the book’s discussion sections. Perhaps that “lesson” language sounds pedantic or prosaic. Although Fragile Neighborhoods sometimes resorts to bromides like “Empower volunteers and build on strengths,” the book more often evinces a knack for pointed specificity. For instance, he advises readers to develop “early-warning systems” to track the ups and downs of community wellbeing. It’s the kind of specific advice, carried with a vivid metaphor, that shows Kaplan’s systemic practicality. It’s also the kind of advice that universities and colleges are well positioned to carry out: imagine a social work research course that every semester draws a new group of students, teaches them community based participatory research, and takes what they have learned to the neighborhood just beyond the university front gates. That sounds like one version of the perpetual radar Kaplan envisions.

Leaders in faith-based institutions will particularly appreciate how deftly Kaplan talks about religiosity in community development work. Easily my favorite passage in the book was his narrative in the final chapter, “Rethinking the American Dream,” which relates his family’s experience of Jewish community in their own neighborhood. He talks at some length about sabbath-keeping: “By restricting our movement (no driving or public transportation) and activities (no cooking or shopping; no television, radio, or internet) one day a week (plus major holidays), our observance grounds us in our neighborhood, distancing us from the larger society while bringing us closer to each other” (185). He notes that in his extensive international travel he encounters similar Jewish communities everywhere. Such encounters provide him “opportunities to break bread with people you have never met before and may never meet again” (186). Kaplan’s discussion of shabbat makes me wonder how college communities might cultivate the work of community engagement not simply by scheduling service days but creating street festivals every month for rest and worship and play within the community. By making space for friendship in and around their own campuses, colleges could better engage the dynamics of encounter and place that make for resilience and flourishing. In comparison with the careful ethical discussions of other books in this review, as well as the fierce and angry critique of still other books, Kaplan encourages us to think about how decolonizing our relationship with communities nearby begins with the serious joy of neighboring.

Reviewing these books raises the question for me of where faith-based academic institutions should see themselves in the multidirectional processes of community engagement and development. Are they philanthropists? Are they ivory towers whose walls need to be opened to the neighborhoods? Are they small-town utilities? Are they neighborhood quarterbacks? With the guidance of the books reviewed here, these tropes each have something to teach the religious academy. But to return to where this essay began, I think DeAmon’s offer of friendship affords perhaps the most resourceful imagery.

When he first proposed that doing community-based research would entail becoming friends, I thought he was talking about just the two of us. But to become DeAmon’s friend has also meant being drawn into an ever-expanding network of affiliation that I think Victoria White would describe as “holy friendship.” In her telling, such fellowship inevitably draws participants not into tete a tetes merely, but into community with God. “A holy friendship consists of more than a pair of friends. God is at the center of it; thus, it is set apart, privileged, and protected. A holy friendship is different from an ordinary friendship because it is held in God’s love and part of God’s bigger, ongoing story in the world.”10 Obviously, faith-based colleges can’t literally befriend their adjacent communities, any more than a zip code could. But holy friendship does offer what Raymond Williams would call a “structure of feeling” to guide such engagements.11

A quick story illustrates the dynamics of friendship’s affective structure. In the fall of 2023, DeAmon came to Grand Rapids to help me conduct a learning session with a dozen or so citizens of color. Although we had prepared elaborately for the event, when he and I sat down at the table with the interviewees, he leaned over to whisper that something seemed off. Later, he told me that part of what felt wrong to him was a momentary shift in our own collaboration. It felt as if my partnership with him had slipped from being “Craig my friend” to being “Craig from Calvin.” My institutional identity, in other words, made him uneasy that he would be seen not as a co-researcher but as a voucher for my university.

But instead of withdrawing from me or from our shared project, DeAmon did two things that night that I’ve not seen him do before, one reaching upward, the other reaching outward. First, he opened the interview by giving prayerful thanks for the food we were enjoying during the conversation. We’d never opened an interview with prayer, out of respect, I think, for the diverse standpoints of our interviewees. But I think DeAmon leveraged the religious capital of Calvin’s obviously Christian identity and simply and unquestioningly prayed. And then, as we moved through the focus group questions, as people shared their stories of institutional racism, as the laughter spread and the anger started to be palpable, he slung an arm over my shoulder, drawing the one White person in the room toward him and towards the fellowship of those gathered. This, too, was an affective move, a reaching-outward to draw in the other.

We didn’t talk about either the prayer or the embrace afterwards, as we sat in my kitchen debriefing. But I’ve come to think that both actions made visible the affective structure, the vertical and horizontal scope, of holy friendship. His prayer acknowledged the constrained place that institutions have within layers of involvement with God and with neighborhoods. His embrace enacted the generous and expansive affiliation that was already going on before either I or my institution had shown up, so to speak, to the party. I’m sure the authors reviewed in this essay could tell stories about similarly surprising and life-giving interactions in place-based engagement, perhaps accounting for them with the explanatory frameworks of liberal democracy or critical theory. But reading these books has given me hope for the unique positioning of the faith-based university to bear witness to fresh possibilities for holy friendship in the many neighborhoods of God.

Cite this article
Craig E. Mattson, “The University and Community Engagement: Recent Approaches”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 53:3 , 89-101


  1. Stephen Webb has discussed the nexus of exchange and excess in ways that inform my thinking about friendship here. See The Gifting God: A Trinitarian Ethics of Excess (New York, NY: Oxford, 1996).
  2. David Matzco McCarthy details the project-focus of friendship in The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004).
  3. This review essay’s engagement with the agency of collective feelings is indebted to Celest Condit’s study of emotion in Angry Public Rhetorics: Global Relations and Emotion in the Wake of 9/11 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018).
  4. Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).
  5. I could not have arrived at this insight apart from an extensive, late-night conversation with Mark Latta, another friend of DeAmon’s and an employee at the Learning Tree. I need to credit Mark, if only because his own experience of leaving academe to work in community development work has, I think, enabled him to help academics like me to see the depersonalizing, disaffecting nature of institutions, as well as of the ideological critiques that unmask those abuses.
  6. Alan Jacobs, What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden’s Poetry (Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 1998).
  7. Jacobs, What Became of Wystan, 66.
  8. I am grateful to the social entrepreneur, organizational consultant, and PhD farmer Mark Sampson for this helpful distinction between exemplarity and evidentiality in case studies.
  9. The romantic imagery is suggestive. This book feels at times like an extended meet-cute, in which alluring towns and clever gowns encounter one another as unlikely rom-com partners. They resolve their differences, overcome various obstacles, and establish, one hopes, lasting relationships.
  10. Victoria Atkinson White, Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships That Sustain Pastors and Leaders (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022), 17.
  11. Williams discusses this concept in his volume Culture and Society 1780–1950, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1983).

Craig E. Mattson

Craig E. Mattson is the Arthur DeKruyter Chair in Faith and Communication in the Department of Communication at Calvin University.