Q&A: Stanford’s engagement with the community
The leaders of Stanford’s Office of Community Engagement, Megan Swezey Fogarty and Preeti Hehmeyer, discuss the vision for the new office, the university’s engagement with its neighbors and the office’s initial work.
When Megan Swezey Fogarty was appointed Stanford’s first associate vice president for community engagement on March 1, she could not have foreseen how local, national and global events would shape the work of her new office.
However, despite those early challenges, and in many ways motivated by them, Fogarty and her team have quickly established the new Office of Community Engagement (OCE) as part of the Office of External Relations to further connect Stanford with the communities it touches.
OCE was first established by President Tessier-Lavigne as part of the Long-Range Vision process, in response to the identified need for more purposeful and organized engagement between Stanford and external communities. From all corners of campus and several faculty-led discovery and design teams, there was a recognition that while a lot of organic engagement already exists, there needed to be more institutional coordination. There also were consistent recommendations that Stanford should lean into mutual issues it faces alongside the broader region.
Fogarty recently hired Preeti Hehmeyer, previously the associate director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, as assistant vice president for community engagement. Together, they will direct OCE’s engagement efforts, develop the office’s strategic plan and continue building a team focused on partnering with faculty and other Stanford community members.
The two discussed the path forward for OCE and their plans for helping the university forge deeper ties with Stanford’s neighbors and other communities located farther from campus.
OCE was established during what has been an eventful and challenging period. How have those events affected your vision for how OCE can strengthen Stanford’s connection with communities in the surrounding area and around the world?
Megan Swezey Fogarty: I never could have anticipated all that would happen in my first nine months on the job. The COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter demonstrations for racial equity and justice, wildfires, a divisive national election and more have brought into greater relief the mutual challenges we face with our region and world.
This moment presents Stanford with an exceptional opportunity to position itself as a strategic and dedicated partner to regional leaders as we begin to navigate a post-pandemic world, and to lay the foundation for longer-term engagement that reconnects Stanford’s teaching and research mission with our region, nation and world while also demonstrating the university’s commitment to the communities that we touch.
What are your key objectives for OCE?
Preeti Hehmeyer: Our focus is to create a more purposeful and organized engagement between Stanford and the external communities with which the university interacts. To achieve that, we are engaging faculty, staff, students and postdocs, and leveraging the expertise and resources of dozens of diverse campus engagement hubs to strengthen and advance collaboration with external communities. The current focus is on addressing mutual challenges around affordability, education, health and sustainability.
Fogarty: We’ve identified four main approaches for achieving our objectives: 1) showcase discovery and expertise on timely topics; 2) engage faculty and other university affiliates to set the tone for greater collaboration; 3) capture and mobilize that innovative Stanford spirit on seemingly intractable issues by helping empower campus engagement hubs to work with community partners; and 4) continually identify strategic opportunities to help address challenges while also focusing on achieving positive results.
What have you heard from internal and external stakeholders?
Fogarty: During the spring and summer, I went on a virtual listening tour, talking with over 120 stakeholders on and off campus – both supporters of Stanford and those who have been critical of the university.
Nearly every stakeholder opened the conversation expressing enthusiasm for a heightened focus by the institution on engagement. They saw the advent of this office as a manifestation of commitment by current Stanford leadership. Stakeholders also suggested many ways that Stanford can reach out, partner and help solve problems, and by doing so also help change perceptions about the institution.
Four main themes emerged from these discussions:
- People look to great institutions for assurance and, in the case of a global research university, innovation. This is especially true during periods of increased chaos and doubt. A great example of this is the expertise and discovery provided by Stanford Medicine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. People respect Stanford’s ingenuity, and the public hungers to collaborate on solutions.
- Impressions are informed by an infinite number of small decisions. If we can find more ways to get to “yes” when it comes to sharing our available academic resources and expertise, it can have a big impact.
- Stanford needs to be out in the regional community more. There used to be a very natural civic connection between Stanford and our region. The university was so intertwined with the surrounding communities that no one had to work hard at it. Our faculty and staff had a greater presence in local government and civic organizations. Now we need to be more intentional to encourage our campus community to make civic connections. To facilitate that, we are working with University Human Resources and an Employee Engagement Task Force to explore how we might further the many ways our employees volunteer in the region.
- Finally, an insider vs. outsider theme emerged, and the perception of a “moat” that separates Stanford from the community. There is an eagerness to redesign some of the traditions that have historically brought the community and Stanford together. For some, Stanford also has a reputation as a black hole for requests, so we are setting up a “concierge” element in OCE as a way to be high-touch connectors.
With so many opportunities for new and deeper community engagement, what are you focusing on first?
Fogarty: It’s been a busy period simultaneously standing up a new office and diving into hands-on community engagement, all while navigating the pandemic. For example, our office played a role in community relations around the campus zones program necessitated by state public health requirements for higher education.
Much of our early work has focused on identifying and compiling existing areas of engagement. We recently launched a new website to serve as a community doorway to the university and offer ways to connect, mostly virtually for now. In the spring, I started mapping engagement hubs on campus and quickly identified more than 70 across all seven schools, in addition to DAPER, Stanford Arts, the Hoover Institution and more. These hubs of activity are the offices, centers, institutes and other outreach and engagement activities that regularly connect with outside communities as part of education, research, cultural and recreation activities. In partnership with a number of offices on campus, the Future Bay Initiative in Stanford Earth is supervising a group of students to create an illustrative open-sourced engagement database.
OCE is building on the Stanford for You theme by curating campus resources for the community. In partnership with Continuing Studies, External Relations will launch a public program in February called Discover Stanford for You. OCE is also in the process of creating a unique advisory council of internal and external stakeholders and completing a nonprofit landscape analysis with a focus on inclusion.
Hehmeyer: In addition to the operational work Megan described, there are a couple of early activities that model the ways we want to engage with our region on areas of mutual interest. One example is President Tessier-Lavigne’s service on the 100-day Silicon Valley Recovery Roundtable with 59 CEOs, leaders and thinkers from across regionally based industries. The group, convened by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, produced a report with actionable recommendations for how to innovate to build the foundation for creating a “new normal” in Silicon Valley as we emerge from the pandemic. OCE supported leadership’s engagement. As a part of the university’s engagement, Stanford Impact Labs and the Stanford d.school framed convenings and the workstream structure.
Another example of our engagement was with a group of local jurisdictions as they worked to help their communities respond to a variety of current issues. City managers from six cities were confronted with major decisions stemming from the current set of shared challenges around public health and racial justice. OCE worked with the Bill Lane Center to showcase how Stanford expertise could quickly and effectively be made available to local officials. Stanford researchers delivered case studies and best practices on key questions around policing – focused on community oversight, use of data and culture change.
One focus of my role will be to help build on these efforts by deepening connections between Stanford engagement hubs and a set of regional efforts.
Fogarty: This is an important moment for Stanford to be reminded of the profound interconnectedness of the university and the region and world. We are very excited to help build upon these relationships with key stakeholders and organizations, and we look forward to working with faculty, staff, students and postdocs on the ambitious aims of the Stanford vision. The common denominator here for all of us is community.