Civic Engagement at Maricopa Community Colleges:
An Interview with Alberto Olivas

By Scott London

A decade ago, there wasn't a lot of talk about "civic engagement" in higher education. But today programs aimed at educating for democracy are emerging on a wide range of academic fronts. Some of them focus on diversity and access, others emphasize volunteerism and service-learning. Of those I've surveyed, one of the most interesting is based at the Maricopa Community College system in and around Phoenix, Arizona. When I met with its director, Alberto Olivas, in the fall of 2010, he told me the center began with a rather prosaic mission — to educate voters on key campaign issues. But over time it came to see its role as that of a faciliator in local problem-solving and community development. Today the Center represents one of the most innovative institutions of its kind in America.

Scott London: How would you describe Maricopa Community Colleges?

Alberto Olivas: Maricopa Community Colleges is a system of ten community colleges that serve the greater Phoenix metropolitan area in Maricopa County, which is the most densely populated county in Arizona. We like to say that we're the largest community college system in the country. We serve well over a quarter of a million students a year. All of our colleges now also provide, in addition to the traditional classes, hybrid and online and distance learning. So we actually have students all over the world. And we have quite extensive programs that serve members of the armed forces overseas. So we're a very broad general education provider. We do a lot of transfers to the three state universities. So we have many transfer programs that partner with our public university system, and with K-12 systems for dual enrollment and things of that nature. In addition to a lot of workforce development partnerships with local employers.  So, in those senses, we're a very traditional community college that has evolved and developed over time to serve the needs of the community here in Arizona.

London: What sets Maricopa apart from other community colleges?

OLIVAS: What makes us a little untraditional is that in addition to all the expected things in our mission statement — general education, transfer programs, workforce development — several years ago, our governing board adopted two additional priorities that are now embodied in our mission statement, one of which is civic responsibility. The other is global engagement. It was a real statement that our governing board took in doing that. It basically said that our community colleges exist to do more than just pump out transfer students and workers, that we're more than just credits and full-time student enrollment. We serve a purpose for the community that includes producing citizens that know something about their role in the community and have developed some skills to be able to have great awareness of community issues and know how to interact with those issues in a way that benefits the life of the community. So we see it as a responsibility that we bear as a provider of higher education in Arizona to produce students that don't just have useful work skills and valuable degrees and certificates, but that know something about how to be involved in the places they live in ways that benefit themselves as well as benefit the community. So I think that's a pretty strong philosophical statement that our governing board adopted several years ago.

London: By definition, a community college is oriented toward the needs of its community. And many if not most community colleges have civic engagement as part of their mission. How is Maricopa different?

Olivas: It may not have been entirely different initially. The change came about at a time in the early 2000s when many community colleges began to really look at their role in producing good citizens. Partly that was driven by a federal mandate in 1998. When Congress renewed the Higher Education Act, it included a stipulation that colleges and universities have to do things like help students register to vote and know about elections. So they tended to focus on voter education and voter registration activities.

London: The center which you direct, the Center for Civic Participation, was founded at that time.

Olivas: Yes, it was created largely out of a need to institutionalize a compliance effort — how do we embody the responsibility to help students register to vote and know about elections and issues and races? Since that time, over the last ten years, the Center for Civic Participation has really broadened its scope to be about more than just voter education and election outreach and to deal with many of the things that I mentioned before, like how do we educate students to be good citizens.

London: At what point did you realize that traditional compliance efforts were not enough and that you needed to widen your focus?

Olivas: It was a combination, I think, of the vision of some of our key governing board members — in particular a lady named Linda Rosenthal who served on our governing board for almost thirty years. Throughout her service, she saw many examples of how educated and engaged students could really make a lot of change in the community. Plus, I came to the community colleges from government. My first interactions with Maricopa were as someone who worked in the elections department. I worked with colleges and universities throughout the state on how to comply with these new requirements in a way that wouldn't bankrupt the colleges, in a way that was practical and still impactful. So, having worked in elections for the Secretary of State, and then after that for Governor Jane Dee Hull as a tribal liaison and as a director of the Governor's Office of Equal Opportunity, I'd seen lots of examples of how government agencies try to engage the public in policy development and how, in many cases, they don't do an effective job of that. Sometimes it's not only not effective, it's counterproductive.

London: In what way?

Olivas: Well, a lot of public agencies at the state, county, or municipal level hold town hall events, or public forums, and the problem with most of them is that the role of the public is as a recipient of information. The public is expected to participate by attending and listening and benefitting from some wonderful information that some expert, or a bunch of experts, or officials with some authority, have to impart to the public. Traditionally, in these public engagement events, the role of the public is not to be part of creating solutions and developing resources, it's to be recipients of what has already been developed for them. So, some experts will have put some work into a presentation or a proposal, and the role of the public is either to learn from that or to vote yes or no. It's not to determine what should be included in the proposal, or even what is the problem that the proposal should be fixing — because experts have already identified both the problems and the solutions, and the role of the public is to say, "yes, we'll pay for that," or "yes, we'll authorize that action," but it's not to say, "what's really the problem that we're trying to fix with land-use or with infrastructure development?"

London: When you came to Maricopa, you brought with you a lot of first-hand experience of this type of "counterproductive" engagement.

Olivas: Yes. What I mean by counterproductive is that a lot of times when cities and counties and state agencies try to do things with good intentions — to say, we want the public to be more aware of energy conservation issues, or domestic violence prevention, or teen pregnancy — they conduct these forums or these events in a way that reiterates that the role the public is that of consumers, or victims, of government action, not as authors. So we keep reteaching the public that their job is not to take action, it's to be acted upon. Governments can never do anything as effectively acting by themselves without the public as part of the solutions. Invariably, because of the way the community and the public have learned to participate in these forums, people expect there to be panels of speakers and presenters. So a lot of times people aren't really initially prepared to start talking. They are there expecting to listen to other people talk. Then, they go into the next phase of thinking about the public's role in these public development policies, which is to complain — to complain about what the government is not doing or what it is doing but shouldn't be doing.

London: Help me understand how it happened that the college system saw it as its role to do this work. Traditionally, community engagement efforts are started by nonprofits, foundations, or perhaps candidates running for office — not colleges and universities.

Olivas: Well, as I mentioned, we started out just doing workshops to explain what the ballot measures mean — what a "yes" vote means, what a "no" vote means, when you have to register to vote and how to do that. Then we started being asked by our college presidents and local organizations to be a venue for public events. We have campuses all around the county that are well-positioned to be a site where people can go. On any effort where you need to try and attract members of the community to a public event on an issue, community colleges make more sense. A lot of times in the past, people would host these things in official government offices, like the County Board of Supervisors auditorium, or the Secretary of State's offices. Most members of the public don't know where those places are. But everybody knows where the community college is, even if you've never taken a class there. Most people know what their local community college is and how to get there. And it seems available to people in a way that state university campuses oftentimes do not. Universities, for whatever reason, sometimes seem removed from the communities that they are housed in, whereas community colleges tend to enjoy a high degree of confidence, a trust, by the community members. We're trusted. We're seen as a resource. And people know how to get to us. So, starting in the late 90s and early 2000s, we started being the location where more community life events would happen. People would come to us and say, "Can we have our candidate forum here for the city council race?" Or, "Can we have our domestic violence awareness rally at your site?" Colleges tend to respond positively to that because it's in our interest to bring members of the public on to our campus, and for them to have a positive experience on our campus.

London: How did you begin hosting forums and doing public deliberation?

Olivas: We just started responding to a lot of interest that public agencies and nonprofits had, and how we could help them connect to the community. So we started doing a lot of this work. We learned from the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute a particular method for how you present an issue to be discussed by the public, and how you convene the public, and how you moderate and manage these processes in order to push the public toward discovering what common ground there is, as a way of bringing people together and taking action. So we became really active out there in the community.

London: Looking back over all the community-based projects you've done that have included some deliberative component, what are some of the standouts?

Olivas: The chancellor asked us some years ago to work with him to both educate the community better about what we do and also involve the community in thinking through how to plan for the future. It became a project called "Envisioning the 21st-Century Community College." It wasn't a National Issues Forum-style effort. In fact, a lot of the work we do kind of uses the principles of public deliberation, but in different formats. What we did in this series is put together workshops. We invited community members to come to a series of sequential events where they would learn about different aspects of our work.

What happened was that every time we did this, we discovered a few things. One was that the community generally was very underinformed about what we actually do as community colleges. We found that most people that we talked to had a very antiquated idea of what community colleges are, based on 1970s junior college kind of stereotypes — we train welders and secretaries and help people get their GED. Once they learned about all the other things we do, we found that people were very excited and very supportive of what we do. And, that they wanted to be our advocates. That was, frankly, not something we were prepared for.

London: Studies show that the public typically looks to colleges and universities to educate students and prepare them for the job market, but that there is much less support for broader civic objectives.

Olivas: I mentioned that civic responsibility was added to our mission a few years ago. But it was not defined for a long time. It was only defined by those two words — "civic responsibility." It wasn't until four years ago that we went through a process of community forums where we asked community members to help us define that. "Do you agree that civic responsibility is a priority for colleges?" Overwhelmingly, they said yes. "If you agree that's something colleges should be doing, what should that look like?" "If we have a student with well-developed civic responsibility skills, what is the evidence of that?" What should students be able to do if we've accomplished that?" So, on the basis of all that community input, we came out with three or four very specific outcomes, including that students should know how government is structured, and how government works, and what role community members play in that, and have the opportunity to engage in local community issues, on campus — all of those sorts of things.

At the conclusion of these workshops, the community members said they appreciated the opportunity to tell us where they thought we needed to be pointing for the next ten or twenty years. But, they said, "How can we help you?" "What can we do to help you accomplish these objectives?" And we really didn't have anything lined up to put them to work on. So that was a little bit of a missed opportunity. We just didn't have a menu of options for them. "Now that you're interested in community colleges, you can do X, Y, and Z." It told us there is more work to be done to make up for lost time. Because one of the things we keep learning whenever we go out to the community, we keep hearing from them that we need to tell our story better. And that we need to do a better job of informing the public about what we offer and what we do for the community. And that we would have more support and that we would have more resources potentially brought to bear to help us address some of the resource shortfalls that we're experiencing now.

London: So this process allowed the college to work with the community to set priorities while, at the same time, developing a set of measurable outcomes.

Olivas: Yes. Because our mission has in it a priority for civic responsibility with specific performance objectives — measurable outcomes — we have to show how at each of our colleges we're actually helping our students have these experiences, with specific outcomes indicated, such as learning about basic democratic processes, how government works, how members of the public participate in policy development. We have to be able to show, as part of our accreditation process, that our students are in fact having those experiences.

London: Have you encountered any institutional resistance to the kind of work you're doing in the community?

Olivas: Well, there has been a feeling by at least one or two of our governing board members that it's not the role of the college to be involved in developing civic advocacy and awareness and leadership skills, and that we should just focus on workforce development and transfer programs.

London: I'm curious about that. Why would some trustees have a problem with your civic engagement efforts if, as you say, it's a crucial part of the college's mission?

Olivas: I think they were concerned about a hidden agenda. I think these critics legitimately had a concern that our civic education and civic participation activities were really masking an effort to indoctrinate students with a certain ideology. A lot of times there is a tendency to want to go back to basics, so to speak, of plain old transfer programs and vocational training. What could go wrong with that? But once we start getting into the waters of global issues awareness-raising and civic issues discussions, how do we know that the people doing that don't have some ulterior motive or political agenda? That's really where I think a lot of the concern comes from. And I think it's a legitimate concern.

London: Do you see a connection between academic achievement and the kind of community engagement work you're doing?

Olivas: There's all this research that shows that students that are more involved in their community life and more connected to each other as community members, they do better. They perform better academically, they perform better personally, they don't take as long to complete a program and transfer. And in their careers, people who are more civically aware, responsible and active rise in their professions and careers, and are more successful than individuals that are not well-connected to their communities.

London: How does the work Maricopa is doing compare with efforts going on at institutions elsewhere in the country?

Olivas: A lot of community colleges and universities are thinking pretty intensely right now about the communities they serve, and what role they play as higher ed institutions in community life, and how they involve students in that. I think what we're doing at Maricopa is developing a lot of new techniques and raising the bar in some ways for the role that colleges can play. This work tends to be more prevalent in the four-year degree institutions and less so at the community college level. I think that because of a number of serendipitous circumstances — having a governing board that traditionally is very supportive of this work, and having wonderful faculty that really bring a lot of instructional technique, and having public partners and community agencies that seek us out — we've been able to invent and adapt ways to involve the public that are really exciting. We're frequently sought out by other colleges and community organizations for our expertise, to help them do some of this work, or think through ways to attack different needs or situations.

London: Thank you very much, Alberto.

Olivas: Thank you.

This interview was conducted at the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges, in Tempe, Arizona, on October 5, 2010. Parts of it were featured in a public radio program titled Education For Democracy.