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Swearer Center strategic plan incites conflict

Plan criticized by students for lack of transparency, burden on community, failure to address feedback

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
This article is part of the series A Shifting Swearer

Updated at April 13 1:30 a.m. 

This story is the second in a three-part series about the ongoing evolution of the Swearer Center for Public Service and its philosophy in relationship to the Providence community.

When the Swearer Center for Public Service drafted and implemented its strategic plan in spring 2016, students who worked closely with the center criticized the process of the plan’s creation for its lack of transparency and disregard for the needs of the community.

“The way changes were communicated to community fellows … (was) pretty disruptive and disrespectful,” said Cathy, a student who requested anonymity because she risks jeopardizing her current position at the center. Cathy is one of several Swearer Center community fellows — students who work closely with a single partner organization, usually over multiple years and sometimes receiving stipends.

When Swearer Center Director and Associate Dean of the College for Engaged Scholarship Mathew Johnson stepped up in January 2016, the University charged him with strengthening the center’s mission and making it a national leader in service, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel, whose office oversees the Swearer Center. As his major initiative, Johnson’s 10-year plan includes significant growth of programs linking service to academics, the introduction of the new Bonner Community Fellows program  and a restructuring of community partnerships.

In the wake of community concerns about a history of sometimes disrespectful student behavior, the strategic plan orients the center’s philosophy around the belief that students engaged in service can learn from the community, Mandel said.

A philosophical shift

Swearer officials wrote the plan’s first draft in December 2015 while Johnson was a consultant to the University and, following administrative evaluation, released it for public comment January 2016, Johnson said. The plan was finalized in March. The strategic plan emphasizes a reciprocal learning relationship between students and members of the Providence community, in contrast to a model of direct service, Mandel said.

Take a food bank, for example. With direct service, students volunteer their time or donate to the food bank. A critical and reciprocal approach asks students to address the systemic issues behind hunger, said Betsy Shimberg, the center’s director of student development.

“Even the most well-intentioned students benefit from training and reflection” on their attitudes toward service, Shimberg said. Shimberg hosts trainings for students, including recent workshops for the center’s “Civic Engagement Series,” a pilot program developed as a result of the strategic plan.

The Swearer Center was “too comfortable in what (it was) doing before” and not as deliberate about evaluating their relationships with their community partners,  said Naomi, a student working at the center who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from her coworkers.

Direct service often lacks the mutual relationship that community service can provide, said Kai Salem ’18. “Students need to understand and acknowledge community expertise, rather than just the expertise of the academy.”

A key piece of the strategic plan, the memorandum of understanding — a contract now required for all community partners — defines rules and responsibilities between the center and each individual partner organization.

The memo requires partner organizations to acknowledge their expertise in the particular field of service students are providing.

“We in the Swearer Center are not issue-area experts,” and “students should be supervised by those who are,” Johnson said.

Defining this responsibility is the best “ethical practice,” he said. Additionally, the memo gives community partners a formal way to challenge the center and student actions should they violate the contract.

The memo also increases community partners’ financial burden when they demand a service the center cannot provide for free, Johnson said.

The Swearer Center previously explored creating memorandums of understanding with partners a few years ago, said Joe Battaglia, director of curriculum and instruction at the Met High School in Providence. “It got so messy that they just essentially gave up on” the idea. The previously proposed contract gave away most of the rights of the community partner, and the Met’s lawyers recommended that the school never sign the contract, he said.

Swearer struggles with transparency

When community fellows first saw the final draft of the plan, they expressed concern about the Swearer Center’s lack of communication regarding the future status of certain community partnerships, such as English for Speakers of Other Languages, Partnerships for Adult Learning and Writer’s Group, among others, Cathy said.  The center then cut community fellow positions across programs including Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, Outdoor Leadership Environmental Education Program and the Swearer Classroom Program, she said.

The cuts occurred as the center prepared for an influx of Bonner fellows. Bonner fellows would eventually take over the work of current community fellows, with the intent that the increased workload and burden on current community fellows would exist only for a year-long transition period, according to several community fellows.

The community fellows discussed their concerns about their program cuts and evolving community relationships with Johnson and Shimberg spring 2016, but the plan’s changes occurred anyway, Cathy and Naomi said.

Johnson acknowledged the truth behind some of students’ qualms with the failure to fully incorporate student voices.

Though the plan did not include all student suggestions, their input still shaped the center’s decisions, Johnson said in response to Cathy and Naomi’s criticisms.

Additionally, “sometimes what students want contradicts best practices in the field,” he said, giving the example of students who objected to increases in required training.

To gather student feedback, Johnson established the Student Advisory Committee upon his arrival. Comprised of students who participate in a variety of Swearer programs — including but not limited to Bonner fellows, community fellows and students in the Engaged Scholars Program ­— the committee discusses student issues and raises concerns to Johnson. The full committee meets at least once a month for about two hours, while the five subcommittees meet between full body meetings, said Benjamin Miller-Gootnick ’17.5, a SAC member.

Lauren Maunus ’19, a SAC member for two semesters, left because the committee was “just a lot of talking” and failed to make a direct impact — “a shared sense among many of the students” on the committee.

Refugee Tutoring Program leaves Swearer Center

Many of the most frustrated student-run programs have given up fighting the changes or are currently seeking alternative options, Cathy said.

Under the new strategic plan, the Swearer Center reconsidered its relationships with partners such as BRYTE, Johnson said. The Swearer Center no longer intends to sponsor direct service programs as it lacks the capacity to handle the programs’ potential ethics, liability and finances, he said.

The Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment program decided to leave the Swearer Center when it realized its concerns were irreconcilable with the center’s decision to not sponsor direct-service programs like BRYTE.

As of 2016, BRYTE was the center’s largest community partnership program, with six community fellows who each worked with 21 to 23 tutor-student pairs that met three hours a week at in-home tutoring sessions, said Max, a student who formerly worked at the Swearer Center.

“It would have been unethical to continue sponsoring (BRYTE),” Johnson said. He added that the center does not have the necessary expertise to train and manage students tutoring refugees in their homes, and behaving as if it did would have violated “best practices” in public service.

When community fellows raised concerns about leaving refugee students bereft of a program they had come to depend on, the Swearer Center proposed creating an after-school program with the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, Max said.

The BRYTE community fellows rejected the plan because it failed to consider that many refugee students could not attend an after-school tutoring program due to familial and work constraints, he added.

Instead, the program found a new home and sponsor in the Alpert Medical School. The Med School partners with the Refugee Health Clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Max said. BRYTE’s move to the Med School is logical and beneficial as the presence of doctors who specialize in refugee health care and the assistance of a former University human development professor ensure that BRYTE students follow best practices in the field, he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that BRYTE’s six community fellows each worked with 24 tutor-student pairs. In fact, they worked with 21 to 23 tutor-student pairs. A previous version of this article also stated that the tutor-student pairs meet weekly. In fact, they meet three hours a week. A previous version of this article also stated that the proposed after-school program with the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island would be in-classroom. In fact, a general after-school program was proposed without a specified location. A previous version of this article misstated that the human development professor helping BRYTE was a University professor. In fact, they are a former University professor. The Herald regrets the errors.

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