“The Oscars of Civic Engagement”: Sewanee receives Carnegie Classification

By Madison Sellers
Staff Writer

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has recognized the University of the South for outstanding commitment to the community with its 2020 Community Engagement Classification. With a total of 119 institutions classified, Sewanee is one of only 18 U.S. liberal arts colleges to receive this designation in 2020. 

According to its website, the Carnegie Classification has been “the leading framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in U.S. higher education for the past four and a half decades.” It is a designation that indicates remarkable institutional commitment to community engagement.

“The Carnegie Foundation has acknowledged Sewanee’s excellent alignment among campus mission, culture, leadership, and resources, and its deep commitment to community engagement,” said Vice-Chancellor John McCardell.

Since its establishment in 2015, the Office of Civic Engagement, or the OCE, has grown and become a key part of the University. “Most schools that have applied for this have been doing this for at least a decade, if not more, and often are not accepted after the first application” said Jim Peterman, Director of the OCE. “One of the things that Carnegie is interested in is to determine if our work with communities and community organizations fits the principles of being both reciprocal and mutually advantageous,” he added.

He went on to say that Sewanee’s “wide range of robust partnerships with community organizations,” which includes both local and global organizations, is the main reason for the recognition. Five years is a very short amount of time to develop and build on these kinds of relationships, so gaining this classification is a major accomplishment. 

“You couldn’t develop programs just to apply for this,” said Nicky Hamilton, the Director of Community Development. “You need to be pervasive in the work that you’re doing. It’s not something where you just say, ‘Oh, we’re going to apply for Carnegie! We need to develop these programs.’ The programs were already in place, we were just trying to strengthen them.”

The University’s mission statement is to “prepare students for lives of service and achievement,” and the OCE’s mission statement goes a step further, saying its mission is “to cultivate knowledge, resources, and relationships to advance the economic, social, and environmental wellbeing of our communities.” The letter of recognition from Carnegie acknowledges this, saying that Sewanee’s application “documented excellent alignment among campus mission, culture, leadership, resources, and practices that support dynamic and noteworthy community engagement.” 

“That’s why I say it’s not just about this office,” said Peterman, “It’s about the mission, it’s about the leadership of the University. It’s about the University’s commitment of resources to do this kind of work, and the things that we actually do with those resources. That’s what they were looking for.” The classification recognizes the work of the entire University; the OCE is simply the tool through which the work is done. 

The classification shows that the Carnegie Foundation believes Sewanee to have the highest standards of community engagement in higher education institutions. “We got an Oscar basically! It’s like the Oscars of civic engagement,” added Hamilton. “You can tell somebody that we have a really great program, and they can believe you or not… But this is like a rubber stamp from a national organization to validate that we do good work, and we’re doing it well.” 

The University is classified from now until 2026. To be recertified, Sewanee will need to provide evidence that community engagement has become deeper, more pervasive, and better integrated and sustained on campus. 

“The development of the office and this Carnegie Classification are milestones as we look back in the history of the institution,” said Dixon Myers, the OCE’s Associate Director of Outreach Trips. “This is a marketable time that says we are not just an ivory tower. What you’re seeing right now is a milestone in the work that places Sewanee not only as that ivory institution but an anchor institution in the community.”