Lessons for strengthening community-university partnerships

By David D. Hart, Bridie McGreavy, Anthony Sutton, Gabrielle V. Hillyer and Darren J. Ranco

1. David D. Hart; 2. Bridie McGreavy; 3. Anthony Sutton; 4. Gabrielle V. Hillyer; 5. Darren J. Ranco (biographies)

In an increasingly polarized world, how can partnerships between communities and universities strengthen the kinds of deliberative and democratic practices that might help address many local and global challenges? How can such partnerships improve practices that involve listening and responding across differences (the deliberative part)? How can they help find ways to make shared decisions and take joint actions, knowing that complete agreement or mutual understanding may never be possible (the democratic part)?

We have reflected on our partnerships with people from Maine communities and Wabanaki (“People of the Dawnland”) Tribal Nations in North America, especially regarding challenges faced by communities that harvest clams and other bivalve mollusks from the intertidal mudflats along the length of this region’s enormous coastline (Hart et al., 2022). Here we present some of the key lessons from that work.

Common ground?

Some challenges facing local communities are less about competing ideologies and more about pragmatic concerns such as reducing water pollution, which can make it easier for people to listen to and learn about each other in the context of community planning. Rather than assume we’ll find “common ground,” we’ve discovered how differences, and the creativity they spur, can motivate problem-solving and other kinds of connection. In essence, local partnerships may allow for a more tailored approach to working across differences, thereby generating the kinds of “small wins” that can grow the social capital needed to address even bigger challenges.

Listening for questions

In our experience, these partnerships rarely occur in formal, easily-identifiable spaces where community members participate in a project led by the university, or vice versa, with a clearly defined objective, timeline, and set of partners. Instead, our work frequently happens in places where the boundaries for when the effort started, who is involved, where and how participants meet, and even what participants are trying to achieve are not clear, singular, or easily definable. We often begin by listening to a wide range of questions, concerns and stories.

Negotiating differences

Collaboration requires ongoing negotiations of differences and extended deliberations about where to focus and how to change these efforts over time. This is long-term work that requires learning how to inhabit and cross multiple worlds to try to identify how they might connect, and also to learn how to move differently within each.

Often, instead of seeking to overcome differences, the process involves figuring out how to stay with and negotiate differences, always with an eye to addressing unintended exclusions and unequal power.


Building trust is essential – it’s the connective tissue that motivates people to show up for each other. Trust is a shorthand way of talking about a diverse set of social capacities that shape connection and foster a sense of belonging, including shared identifications, emotions, memories, experiences, and more. It’s also in the practices that shape how the community-university partnership works together at all stages of designing a study, as well as how they come together when something goes wrong. Trust is never static, and careful and curious attention can help groups track how it flows and learn how to work with it as a vital force in their communities.

Students as learners, leaders and teachers

Engaged research that centers students can be more productive for each party, destabilizing the usual power structures and activating networks. As learners, students embedded in community-driven work see how their own skills, effort, and knowledge immediately serve people and communities they have relationships with, creating and fulfilling a “science as service” mentality.

Students can also act as vital connectors, creating multiple relationships and ties between the community and the university as well as with other students. This is especially true when the students are from those communities. Community members will sometimes take a parental or caring interest in a student that is different from the kind of care they might show a professor. Such networks and experiences become part of the mental map young researchers carry forward.

Hard tellin’, not knowin’

This phrase is often repeated in Maine communities, where it means different things depending on the speaker and the situation. The phrase:

  • is a motivation for a shared search for answers, as partial or incomplete as they may be.
  • names a relationship to knowledge that makes communities open to partnerships where multiple forms of knowing can come together to enrich a collective understanding of what is happening and what is most needed. This approach to knowledge also promotes experimentation, creativity, and learning.
  • serves as a powerful reminder that academic knowledge is inevitably uncertain and incomplete, which underscores the need for researchers to approach such partnerships with humility.

Shared doing, shared learning

In our experience, finding ways to agree about something like climate change is less important than identifying tangible, material objects that can serve as the focus for shared experimentation and learning.

Toward this end, we’ve come to embrace “boundary objects,” including tools like DNA tests to determine pollution sources and community mapping, which allow collaborators to come together around a shared focus in ways that allow for differing perspectives to remain. These objects enable communities to work together to understand how other members view the world and to find ways to connect across differences. Shared mapping and writing projects, for example, allow collaboration to emerge simultaneously with an open, active, and ongoing negotiation of difference.

Building collaborative networks for the long haul

For the five of us, the experience of working with communities is a potent reminder that we are engaging in something much bigger than our individual lives and careers. This is messy work in which we stumble, fall, reflect, and—with luck and persistence—rise, regroup, and renew our efforts.

Most of our partnerships occur in network-based collaborations, with many leaders and other participants who come into and out of the partnership in various ways at different times. Where the effort begins and ends and who is responsible for what parts are continually changing.

Despite the blurriness, network-based approaches have many benefits. They create opportunities for mutual learning, promote diverse forms of leadership, and foster connections across scales, contexts, organizations, and individuals. Sometimes called third spaces, they enable more flexible, inclusive, and effective forms of decision making that help communities adapt to social and environmental change.

Concluding questions

How do our lessons resonate with your experience? How can we scale up a networked partnership way of collaborating?

Given what sometimes feels like an inexhaustible supply of wicked problems—such as pandemics, injustice, climate change, food insecurity—what would it take to mobilize a network of thousands of universities committed to working with communities to address such local and global challenges?

To find out more:

Hart, D. D., McGreavy, B., Sutton, A., Hillyer, G. B. and Ranco. D. J. (2022). Collaboration on the mudflats: How community-university partnerships can strengthen deliberative and democratic practices. Issues in Science and Technology, 39, 1: 71–76. (Online – open access): https://issues.org/collaboration-on-the-mudflats/


David D. Hart PhD is the director of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. Together with hundreds of colleagues in and beyond Maine, he is focused on helping universities become more useful societal partners in solving complex problems.

Bridie McGreavy PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism and faculty fellow in the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine, in Orono, USA. Her engaged research interests are based on partnerships with coastal shellfishing communities and draw from environmental communication and sustainability science approaches.

Anthony Sutton PhD is Passamaquoddy from Sipayik. He is an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies and Food Systems, and Faculty Fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. His work focuses on centering Wabanaki visions for the restoration of foodways and fisheries within Wabanaki homelands.

Gabrielle V. Hillyer is a PhD candidate in ecology and environmental sciences in the National Research Traineeship Conservation Science Program at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. Her research interests include engaged research within co-managed fisheries, and collaborative policy development.

Darren J. Ranco PhD is a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, Professor of Anthropology, Chair of Native American Programs, and Faculty Fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine in Orono, USA. His research focuses on the ways in which Indigenous Nations resist environmental destruction by using Indigenous science and diplomacies to protect their natural and cultural resources.

5 thoughts on “Lessons for strengthening community-university partnerships”

  1. Hi Cathy,

    We’re very grateful for your generous comments, and happy you found our post useful. We also want to thank you for making us aware of the fascinating piece by Duck and Searles.

    You also asked how we think about “solving complex problems.” First, we want to acknowledge that the wicked problems on which we’re focused have no simple solutions. Nonetheless, we included the word “solutions” in the Mitchell Center’s full name (i.e. Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions) to underscore our aspiration to do more than just study the causes of problems – we’re trying to help ameliorate them.

    In essence, we’ve tried to cultivate an organizational culture that reflects this core value. Indeed, the first thing people see when they walk into our building is this quote on the wall from Senator Mitchell (the U.S. political leader who also chaired the peace process in Northern Ireland):
    “…the ethos of the Mitchell Center’s work reflects one of my deepest beliefs: the importance of public service. The many faculty and students involved in the Mitchell Center have committed themselves to a goal larger than their individual lives: the goal of helping to build a better world starting right here in our own communities in our own state.”

    One sign of the growing commitment to this ethos is the way our faculty and students talk about the need to “keep showing up.” Even when facing stiff headwinds (e.g. when grants dry up, priorities of partners change, frustrations mount), they keep showing up because of their belief in the power of these collaborations.

    Wherever possible, the Mitchell Center tries to support this work by connecting researchers and partners, providing funding, and helping researchers gain professional recognition for their important work. But we suspect that the biggest factor influencing the personal commitment of many faculty and students is the deep desire to contribute to some greater good, and for their work to have a real-world impact.

    Humor comes in handy, too. When we received a major grant for a project to build the foundation for the Mitchell Center’s work, we realized that the project name (MainE‘s Sustainability Solutions Initiative) gave us a great excuse to wear t-shirts with the phrase “I’m MESSI!” The t-shirt not only captured the inherently uncertain and sometimes confusing nature of our work, it served as a potent reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.

    All the best,

    David, Bridie, Tony, Gabby and Darren

    • Dear David, Bridie, Tony, Gabby and Darren, Thank you all for your very fine answer which, like your blog, contains much that is admirable. To “keep showing up” is at the crux of getting things done in times of challenge, difficulty and uncertainty. It does interest me that the words we tend to use (solving, finding common ground) actually mask much more subtle and often untidy processes that you have described so well, where it is perhaps the pure commitment to the messy process that nurtures the creative energy to simply keep going. So, keep up the great work all and I love the injection of humour too – the T-shirts sound excellent. In my previous research, I came to the conclusion that arriving at a state of ‘puzzlement’ and holding on to that ‘puzzlement’ actually creates a fruitful ground for social progress in matters of complexity. Thanks again for a great blog, and best wishes to all.

  2. Thank you authors for your inspiring work and writing! In addition to this blog piece, I also read the original article and was very moved by the clarity and specificity with which you described the spirit behind this work. I was especially affected by the following statements:

    “the experience of working with communities is a potent reminder that we are engaging in something much bigger than our individual lives and careers.”

    This is something that is so challenging to keep in mind and also so true. I find that that the way we engage with our students demonstrates our commitment to this truth. How do we keep this front and center in the midst of competing pressures from the perceived need or outward expectations to “build an academic career”? I think finding a group of likeminded colleagues in the same institution and beyond may be essential in reminding ourselves of looking beyond our individual careers towards the greater good. How might we reshape education in such a way that reorders these priorities, while putting these values to work in our own careers?

    To address your closing questions in the full article:

    “what would it take to mobilize a network of thousands of universities committed to working with communities to address such local and global challenges? Of course, many other universities in the world are already engaged in community partnerships, but it’s difficult to know what lessons are being learned in different contexts. What kinds of commitments and processes would enhance network-wide learning in a global environment undergoing rapid social and environmental transformation?”

    What a vision! I would for one be all in for creating such a network, but I realize the immense amount of work it takes to do this even at one institution. Based on this article, I am inspired to first understand the lessons that colleagues have been learning through community partnerships in my own faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. For decades, this institution has been working with industry, government and communities – but it has never put a focus on understanding the processes behind why some partnerships have garnered trust and positive outcomes, while others have been less successful. I think if I can do my small part in this institution, it may be the start of slowly building up such a network as envisioned in this article by capturing the experiences of this place.

    In addition, working on topics of energy citizenship in my own research, I see many similarities in the issues that have been identified in the context of working in natural ecosystems – in particular finding common ground and learning to listen. In talking with those working in Africa on the topic of the energy transition, for example, we have learned that a movement towards renewable energy has to be aligned with providing energy access and, at the same time, also address an urgent need to manage waste in both urban and rural areas. This sometimes runs counter to the visions of solar power and other installations of renewable energy (from which many can also benefit, all dependent on the context of installation).

    This global network…should we start?

    • Hi BinBin,

      It is heartening to learn that you have experienced some of the same challenges and opportunities that we have in these efforts to develop more meaningful collaborations with communities.

      We also agree that there is much to be gained by building a more robust community of practice for such engaged research. As you’ve acknowledged, however, it won’t be easy!

      We applaud your suggestion to start close to home, by examining the processes influencing variation in the outcomes of different partnerships in which you and your colleagues have been engaged. We did this for some of our partnerships (Hart et al. 2015), but we still have a long way to go.

      Another promising strategy is to build synergies with efforts by innovative philanthropic organizations to strengthen the use of evidence in the development of practices and policies for addressing a wide range of complex societal challenges (e.g. Bednarek and Tseng 2022). Some of these organizations have organized a global, cross-sectoral forum to connect researchers, practitioners, funders and others across different policy sectors (e.g. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/about/events/2022/transforming-evidence-network-holds-inaugural-conference).

      All the best,

      David, Bridie, Tony, Gabby and Darren


      Hart, D. D., Bell, K. P., Lindenfeld, L. A., Jain, S., Johnson, T. R., Ranco, D., & McGill, B. (2015). Strengthening the role of universities in addressing sustainability challenges: The Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions as an institutional experiment. Ecology and Society, 20(2).

      Bednarek, A., & Tseng, V. (2022). A global movement for engaged research. Issues in Science and Technology, 38(3), 53-56.

  3. Thank you all for this excellent, inspiring and powerful blog. I have also read the full article and have underlined many of what I would call the ‘classic sentences’ within it. I particularly like your deliberations around the phrase “hard tellin,’ not knowin'”. You make many important points around non-linear progress, developing the capacity for collective action, achievements which are less easy to define, trust as the connective tissue that motivates people to show up for each other, coming to a different understanding of the role of knowledge, creating a ‘science as service’ mentality and so on. In terms of opportunities for mutual learning, you may be interested in this paper by Roger Duck and Jane Searles, who reframe boundaries as opportunities for mutual learning: https://www.systemspractice.org/resources/designing-freedom-together

    Within the piece, you have reflected upon how the process of finding metaphorical common ground actually requires ongoing negotiations of differences and extended deliberations, requiring a form of adaptability around where to focus and how to change efforts over time. In other words, perhaps, it is those very differences that are energy-creating through deliberately cultivating a safe arena to hold on to a form of creative tension, rather than setting out to ‘overcome’ those differences. I wonder if you could similarly reflect upon expectations around the notion of ‘solving complex problems’, and what actually happens in practice over the many years of experience at the Mitchell Center?


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