University in Society: Organising for Engagement in Ireland.
PhD thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth.
In this thesis I look at the implications of replicating the organising practices
utilized in the creation of the model of civic engagement at Occidental College in Los
Angeles at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM). I do this through a case
study of NUIM and its role in enhancing democracy in the region and in the Republic of
Ireland. I place my study in the larger context of the current global discourse regarding the
mission of higher education in society. Furthermore, my research is underpinned by
theories and practices from the field of civic engagement.
Civic engagement usually refers to partnerships between higher education
institutions and their surrounding communities, with the purpose of enhancing university
education while contributing to improving the community. This definition of civic
engagement in academia is supported by Zlotkowski (1998), McIlrath and Mac Labhrainn
(2007), Jacoby (2003), and Ehrlich (2000). While the civic engagement model created at
Occidental aimed at establishing reciprocal and mutual beneficial partnerships between
the College and the civic, non-for-profit sector, my case study at NUIM also includes
partnerships with the government and corporate sectors. Many authors refer to
engagement between the university, government, and corporations as triple helix. Such
authors include Etzkowitz et, al. (2000) and Hagen (2002). Others advocate for
engagement that includes higher education, the civic, government, and corporate sectors.
To illustrate this latter model I offer three examples of universities from the US, Ireland,
and the UK.
The model created at Occidental College was based on community organising
practices, and my PhD research was based on Participatory Action Research (PAR).
While designing my research approach I discovered that there are strong similarities
between the philosophy and practice of PAR and community organising. Using in-depth,
narrative interviews with my research participants I also discovered that this type of
interview is very similar to conducting one-to-one, relational meetings, a strong
foundation of my training and work as a community organiser. Thus, my study allowed
me to establish clear similarities between community organising and PAR. This was significant given that both my work at Occidental and my PhD research originate in my
lifetime community organising work in Mexico and in the US.
Moved by an interest in a deeper understanding of the origins of my interest in
creating societal change and in connection with the focus of my PhD, in this thesis I
engage in critical reflection about my personal and professional journey. Through this
critical reflection I explore stories of my family in Mexico, including one about my father
organising to acquire land, along with his fellow agricultural workers, when I was only
four. This type of critical reflection, according to Mezirow (1990) can profoundly change
the way we understand our world, other people and ourselves, and it can lead to actions to
change society. This process of reflection did result in a deeper understanding of my work
throughout my adult life, and it gave me a new level of emancipation personally and
Although most of my interviews took place with academics and administrators at
NUIM, I also interviewed a small sample of academics, corporate executives, government
and civic leaders at the national level. All interviews focused on the question of the role of
higher education in society, and they included stories of participants' views and
experiences in civic engagement as well as stories of the model created at Occidental. The
findings from the interviews showed that there is a diverse range of answers to the
question of the role of higher education in solving society's problems, particularly in
regards to enhancing democratic values and practices. An interesting discovery was to
hear some participants outside of academia who are opposes to the notion that higher
education could take such role in society. From interviews with M NUIM participants I
discovered a significant interest in exploring the question of NUIM's role in enhancing
Irish democracy, and in creating a model of civic engagement for the university.
The world recession that started in 2008 has caused many social, political, and
economic challenges for Ireland and this is the context in which my research took place,
and in which civic engagement is evolving. While recognising the multiple problems
currently plaguing Ireland some participants also expressed that these challenges, along
with the current re-examination of the mission of higher education, offer an opportunity
for higher education to play a leading role in enhancing Irish society.
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