October 20, 1997
Volume 50, No. 9
Crucial to defining Emory's role in the community is determining to what extent the University is already involved, and that's a lot of what Betty Willis has been doing for almost a year.
Willis, director of community affairs, is heading up a project to build a comprehensive database of all of Emory's public service efforts. Under construction for almost a year, the nearly completed database will offer information about hundreds of projects in which Emory faculty, staff or students are involved.
"All of these activities were going on under our noses, and no one knew," Willis said of the gold mine of community service projects the database research uncovered. "To our surprise, people throughout the University-who could have been collaborating on a lot of projects-were unaware of what their colleagues were doing."
"I am delighted in learning of the numerous and exciting projects being conducted by the Emory community," President Bill Chace said. "Our role and responsibility is to make the University available as a resource and to provide easy access to information."
The project began shortly after a meeting last winter at the Houston Mill House in which Chace sought to begin a discussion of what Emory should or should not be doing to benefit the community in which it exists. Charged with establishing Emory's existing involvement, Willis first tried to canvas the campus electronically, using e-mail to solicit information from people.
The response to this effort was lower than she'd hoped, so Willis put together a short survey to distribute through campus mail, complete with a cover letter from Chace to spur things along. Out of about 3,500 surveys, she got nearly a 30 percent return.
"And, of course, almost all of those 1,000 responses needed clarification because they were very incomplete," Willis said. "It required a lot of time and resources to follow up each and every one of those projects, many of which have since changed."
Now the project is nearing completion, and Willis feels the final result will be very useful, both internally and to groups that can benefit from Emory's assistance. Ultimately, the database will be accessible from the community services website, but Willis suspects there is more community involvement within the University yet to surface. She hopes the initial website will encourage others to come forward to share what they are doing.
Once the site is up, users will be able to do searches and locate projects by issue (AIDS, homelessness, drug abuse, etc.), by Emory school or entity, by name or by community organization. Information about specific projects will consist of a contact name, a short description of the work, any affiliated outside organizations, a phone number and an address at which to reach the participants. The website will serve as a clearinghouse, or at least the start of one, to help match up needs in the community with know-how and resources at Emory.
Another benefit of the database is that it helps dispel the notion that the University does not care about its environment and that Emory needs to connect more with the community.
"We had a second meeting which President Chace convened at Houston Mill House, of just community leaders in Atlanta, people like [Hands On Atlanta director] Michelle Nunn, to ask them how they felt Emory was perceived in the community and what we should be doing," Willis said.
"Interestingly, a great many of the ideas and suggestions they had for us to do, we were already doing. But we want to [call attention to that] in such a way that we're not tooting our horns, simply saying, 'Look, we are an incredible resource; we have expertise here that you can use to address any number of problems and opportunities in the community.'"
Indeed, Willis would like to see the "clearinghouse" develop into a full-fledged community service center that would facilitate University involvement, arrange mutually beneficial programs between Emory and the community and perform other services. A group of faculty in the political science department has drafted a proposal for such a center, and others could turn up from elsewhere in the University.
"Because we're seeing how many people at Emory are involved in the community, it's the right time to talk about how we can best coordinate our efforts between the departments, the University and the city," said Bobbi Patterson, a visiting assistant professor in the religion department who assisted in the proposal. "The database is awakening us to how much is going on, but it's not a coordinated or a coherent partnership with Atlanta. Now it's time to sit down and think that through."
Emory officials should get a better idea of what such a center may encompass through the "Best Practices" conference being organized by Willis and others on campus, including Frank Alexander in the law school. Representatives of similar centers and programs in colleges across the country will convene on campus for a short conference this winter.
"It'll be an all-day brainstorming session," Willis said. "Hopefully it will whet everyone's appetite as to what a community partnership center here at Emory could be and do. The whole idea is to make it easier for us to collaborate and partner within Emory as well as the outside community."
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