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  • Conflicted Communities, Contested Campuses:A Cross-Case Comparison of Community Engagement at Two African Universities in Conflict Contexts

Higher education institutions around the world are sites of contestation. Armed groups have targeted universities in efforts to divert valuable resources, destabilize communities, and suppress dissent. Moreover, conflict has engendered poor relations with community members that should be characterized by collaboration between the institution and the local community. Using qualitative case study methods, this work explores the experiences of community engagement at two universities in sub-Saharan Africa in two [End Page 61] post-conflict nations, Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire, in order to understand higher education's role in the community and the campus-community connection in building peaceful academic places.


community engagement, higher education, Africa, conflict, place-making

Historically, higher education scholars and practitioners have overlooked higher education systems in under-resourced contexts, focusing instead on their brethren in Europe and North America (Daniel, Kanwar, & UvalićTrumbić, 2006); the discourse in the field, consequently, often seems unconscious of the influence of universities in places like East Asia, South America, and Africa on global higher education phenomenon. Changes to previously codified concepts such as governance, quality, and mission have emanated from these regions, challenging the very philosophical roots of higher education (Shin & Harman, 2009) and pervasive notions of academic dependency in periphery countries (Johnson & Hirt, 2014). These changes have contributed to increasingly authentic capacity-building partnerships between institutions (Nakabugo, Barrett, McEvoy, & Munck, 2010), more profound university investments in sustainable development (Ramos et al., 2015), and innovative policy reform aimed at addressing persistent social problems through higher education (Atuahene, 2013). Indeed, research in the Global South has led to new ways in which to both view and build the agency of universities in the development process, upending the prevailing dependency/deficit perspective regarding universities in developing contexts (Johnson, 2013a; Kruss, McGrath, Petersen, & Gastrow, 2015).

Yet despite the now axiomatic higher education-development connection (McCowan & Schendel, 2016), universities, both public and private, have come under attack, particularly in the Global South. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) reported that between 2005 and 2015 educational institutions in over 26 countries were affected by armed conflict, often resulting in students and staff being injured or killed and buildings being damaged or destroyed (2015). In 2013, Boko Haram fighters entered the campus of Adamawa State Polytechnic in Nigeria and murdered 100 students. In 2015, students at Garissa University in Northeastern Kenya were lined up and executed on campus by al-Shabab militants. These are but a few examples of educational institutions being targeted by armed groups in efforts to divert valuable resources, destabilize communities, and suppress dissent (O'Malley, 2011; GCPEA, 2015); subsequently, educational institutions and their stakeholders (faculty, students, staff) are now seen as appropriate targets in conflict contexts (O'Malley, 2011; Reimers & Chung, 2010).

The change in educational institutions' sacred status during conflict has had devastating consequences for nations as the development resulting from [End Page 62] education has been commonly seen as a precursor to peace. A decrease in educational investment prior to and during conflict contributes to increased instability and the likelihood of continued poverty (Lai & Thyne, 2007). Rice (2006) refers to this as the "doom spiral" in which poverty breeds increased threat. Conversely, Bird, Higgins, and McKay (2010) note, "education supports resilience during and post-conflict, protecting children and their families from declines into poverty throughout their lives and limiting the potential for chronic and intergenerationally transmitted poverty" (p. 1194). Education is critical to security, prosperity, and peace; universities play a significant role in promoting these efforts through research, teaching, and service (Johnson, 2013b).

One of the myriad ways the university functions in its role as development apparatus is through community engagement, an embedded aspect of the public service mission of the modern university, consistent at institutions around the world. This relationship is often characterized by collaboration between the institution and the local community, the mutual exchange of resources and knowledge transfer to address social issues, and civic responsibility (Moore, 2014). "Engagement implies strenuous, thoughtful, and argumentative interaction with the non-university world" (Association of Commonwealth Universities, 2002, as cited in Watson, 2007, p. 3). However, these interactions may be challenged when the university spaces and its surrounds are in peril. Which beg the questions: what is the nature of community engagement in conflict contexts? How are campus-community relations created and/or repaired in order to transform the conditions for future conflict? Using qualitative case study methods, this work explores the experiences of community engagement at two public institutions in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in two post-conflict nations, Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire, in order to reflect the complexity of conflict, higher education's role in the community, and the campus-community connection in building peace.


Universities in Africa experience some special challenges that set them apart from the greater body of literature on international higher education and will thus be briefly addressed here in order to contextualize the phenomenon at the heart of this article. The following section will also explore the connection between institutional mission and community engagement broadly, the role of the African university in community engagement, and some critiques of community engagement, and it sketches a framework by which the institutions' interactions with the community in conflict and post-conflict contexts may be explored. [End Page 63]

Higher Education in Africa

Postsecondary educational forms vary across Africa and are by no means monolithic; important contextual factors impact the way that higher education is enacted, how it is governed, and whom it serves within the 54 nations of Africa (Collins, 2013). Typically, differences are attributed to language of instruction and the legacy of colonization–French, English, Portuguese, and Arabic (Assié-Lumumba, 2007) - creating artificial geographies unrelated to in situ realities (Maathai, 2009) and furthering dependent relations on the metropole (Brock-Utne, 1995). There is a thorough history of the modern university in Africa related to colonialism, Apartheid, and inequitable economic development (Ajayi, Goma, & Johnson, 1996) and abundant literature that catalogues the subsequent "crisis" in higher education (e.g., Assié-Lumumba, 2007; Atteh, 1996; Saint, 1992; Salmi, 1992; Sawyerr, 2004; Teferra & Altbach, 2004) not to be belabored here. The African university sector has been further marginalized by inappropriate education policies accompanying aid conditions put forth by international financial institutions (Keating, 2012; Obamba, 2013). The circumstances under which higher education has evolved on the continent have resulted in diminished governmental support, challenged capacity, deteriorating facilities, suppressed academic freedom, elitism, gender inequality, politicized campuses, and brain drain impacting the overall ability of the university to contribute to a global knowledge economy (Aina, 2010; Teferra & Altbach, 2004).

Despite ever-present challenges (both discursively and on the ground), perhaps African higher education is best characterized by a complementary narrative that asserts "the African University is to be defined not merely by its historical continuity with the African past, but even more by its commitment to the renaissance of Africa" (Ajayi et al., 1996, p. 27). Many postsecondary institutions, particularly in South Africa, have engaged with (through much internal and international debate) critical, Africanized approaches to education in response to cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity; decolonization; and engagement with localized indigenous knowledge systems (Cross, 2004; Msila & Gumbo, 2016; Winberg, 2006), but not in isolation of global education forms (Crossman, 2004). This notion of contextualization has been increasingly connected to the mission of higher education and its contribution to development (Fongwa & Wangenge-Ouma, 2015; Johnson & Hirt, 2014), despite, at times, contentious relations with the government (Assié-Lumumba & Lumumba-Kasongo, 2011). The mission of the university emphasizes the local nature of higher education and its "place-bound identity, locality" underscoring that "universities are embedded in communities, cities and nation" (Marginson, 2012, p. 8) and that a critical development effort of the contemporary African university is engagement with the community within which it resides (Mbah, 2016). [End Page 64]

Community Engagement, Globally

Community engagement, as part of the mission of the public university, functions as a conduit by which the university increases the capacity of the community to address social and economic challenges (Weerts, 2014). Community engagement is commonly known as "the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities … for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity" (Driscoll, 2008, p. 39). Engagement may be situated as an educational goal of the university, as an implied outcome of instruction and research, and/or as integral to the higher education enterprise within a broader social context (Bernardo, Butcher, & Howard, 2012). Comparative efforts at understanding community engagement across national contexts have determined that many commonalities exist regarding the forms in which collaboration takes place: volunteer service, community service, applied research, community development, and consideration of institutional polices that impact the well-being of the community (Watson, Hollister, Stroud, & Babcock, 2011).

Engagement must also be characterized by relevance to and the significance of local communities to the institution. Benneworth, Charles, Hodgeson, and Humphreys (2013) suggest a taxonomy for engagement intensity that "may vary from superficial public relations to engagement representing a critical perspective for rooting the university in the world" (p. 87). Stephenson (2011) expounds upon this notion of critical perspectives by asserting that leadership of community engagement must be undertaken self-consciously that dignifies and honors those engaged (p. 107). This engagement can be formal or informal and must be co-constructed through networked intimacy and sustainable bridging between the university and the community (Jacob, Sutin, Wiedman, & Yeager, 2015).

Fundamentally, engagement may be conceived of as a relationship between the university and community that is characterized by effective communication, interdependency, consistency, consensus, affirmation, and integrity (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002). Another accepted component of this relationship is trust between stakeholders and a balance of power (Buys & Bursnall, 2007). However, as Moore (2014) notes, not all relationships between the campus and community are productive nor "achieve the mutuality and reciprocity emphasized by" common definitions of the concept of engagement (p. 4). Conflict within/between the community and university may undermine trust or highlight a lack of engagement that places the university at risk, particularly on campuses that may have an inconsistent relationship with the local community. [End Page 65]

Community Engagement in Africa

African institutions evolved as agents of development, integral to the transformation of society: "The African university must be committed to active participation in social transformation, economic modernization, and the training and upgrading of the total human resources of the nation, not just of a small elite" (Yesufu, 1973, p. 41). Later, this participation became referred to as the "developmental university" ideal of higher education (Court, 1980), and as such the university should "seek ways of involving itself with its surrounding community and of providing services to groups outside the university" (p. 661). Yet institutions, post-independence, exhibited a tension between their service role and recreating the institutions of their colonizers, thusly limiting their contribution to development (Assié-Lumumba, 2007). Saint, in a 1992 World Bank report, noted that the practical application of the service mission of the African university was to generate developmentally relevant research and to provide to community service. Thusly, community engagement in African higher education became entrenched in the development discourse and promoted/projected by development agencies and international financial institutions (Pienaar-Steyn, 2012).

Community engagement is often seen as the sine qua non of development, often leading to the terms being used interchangeably in the literature on African universities (and elsewhere). For example, there has been some consideration of the Millennium Development Goals (now known as the Sustainable Development Goals) as a guiding mechanism for community engagement in universities (Pienaar-Steyn, 2012), but it has yet to result in concrete policy steerage. Institutions have made efforts, however, to inculcate sustainable development principles into their practices and engagement with the community but are often limited by human resource capacity, faculty turnover, and poor infrastructure (Serem & Kara, 2015). Fongwa and Wangenge-Ouma (2015) suggest that the university functions best as a "growth pole," or a place that draws economic development: business attraction, job creation, municipal revenue collection, and human capital formation; yet their analysis noted limited agency on the part of the institution in these efforts. Drawing upon the notion of Ubuntu (solidarity, humanity in Xhosa and Zulu), Mbah (2016) asserts a co-generative relationship of community engagement as development in Africa, yet his case study evidence shows that despite an active presence in the community through service learning, the hierarchical and centralized nature of the university and an unequal power dynamic left community members feeling inferior. Notwithstanding attempts by universities to contextualize their development endeavors associated with institutional mission, there appears to be limited perceived penetration into the needs of the community. [End Page 66]

Critiques of Community Engagement

The concept of community engagement is not without problems. Singh (2004) exhorts universities to be critical of approaches to community engagement:

If engagement is about negotiating a broad set of choices and directions for the university, it can only be within the context of a view that does not see the futures of the university as already fixed within a levelling globalisation 'teleology', notwithstanding the overt and covert ways in which globalisation imperatives pressurise and homogenise higher education.

(p. 7)

Essentially, whose version of engagement should universities attend? This also speaks to movements in Africa to broaden the scope of engagement to include increased collaboration with the so-called productive sector. The Association of African Universities, in an effort to acknowledge and strengthen the weak linkages between universities and industry, have focused university outreach on "stakeholder relations" in order to address complex problems like graduate employability and sustainable development (2014). While the argument is much more subtle and complex than what is suggested here, such discursive interventions, like "stakeholder relations" and activities that imply university commodification, often come with the neoliberal catechism attached to globalization, however unwittingly, which may position and homogenize the university as a business.

Beyond the broader conceptual issues with community engagement, the on the ground enactment of its associated principles may be complicated by power imbalances and distrust. "[U]niversity campuses are contested locations in terms of how they shape the production of knowledge, students' lifecourse trajectories and politics and power relations" (Hopkins, 2011, p. 158). Often universities are seen as an arm of the government, with whom many local communities, groups, and organizations have complex histories riddled with conflict, imprisonment, displacement, or disenfranchisement (Johnson & Hoba, 2015). Within this context, community engagement may be viewed with skepticism as "the official, well-resourced, powerful and mission governed organization usually takes the lead in the community engagement process" (Makkawi, 2013, p. 91). This skepticism is indicative of the pervasive notion that the university somehow exists separately from the community within which it is located, commonly treated as town-gown relations in the Western literature, but also known by such descriptors that set the university apart, like the "ivory tower" or the "castle in the swamp" (Watson, 2007). [End Page 67]

Community, Campus, and Conflict

Regardless of perceptions of isolation, universities are firmly embedded within local communities and often suffer the same problems. In 2014, over 25 armed conflicts were endemic to the African continent (Pettersson & Wallensteen, 2015). As result, many universities were damaged and/or destroyed by military, non-military, and international actors (GCPEA, 2015). In the Democratic Republic of Congo, local police shot students during a protest over insecurity on campus (GCPEA, 2014). In Nigeria, ethno-religious violence in the Angwan Rogo sector of Jos spilled onto the University of Jos campus, resulting in the deaths of university staff and students (Human Rights Watch, 2001). In Kenya, "[b]ecause universities are located in geographical areas dominated by specific ethnic communities, professors perceived to belong to different communities other than the dominant ones saw their homes burned and were evicted or forced to flee" during the 2007/2008 election violence (Otieno, 2008, p. 24). In all the above cases, community relations fueled conflict–a community with which the university was inherently intertwined–thus making violence on campus inevitable.

Despite this targeting, the university can play a role in addressing community problems and building peace. In order to establish an environment ready for the creation of modus vivendi, or peaceful co-existence, two considerations should be addressed: creating structures that enhance capacity and democracy and enhancing trust post-conflict (Duffy, 2009). The university is a unique position to address these considerations due to its presence and role in the community. Universities may transform the conditions for conflict through the creation of policies and practices that cultivate cooperation among stakeholders and systemize response mechanisms to conflict (Johnson, 2013b). Agyemfra (2004) noted that it is the responsibility of African universities to build a culture of peace through its mission: by researching conflict, introducing peace studies curricula, developing stakeholder expertise, and networking with other African institutions. This work seeks to explore the nature of campus-community relations in times of conflict, the efforts undertaken by the university to address the conditions for violence, and how the relationship can be cultivated toward peace. Civic engagement, worldwide, is understood as the practical expression of the service mission of the university, yet researchers and practitioners alike know very little about how the "third mission" (Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumbley, 2009) functions in a community confronted by conflict.


As this work reports findings from two sub-Saharan universities in different countries, Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire, it is important to establish some [End Page 68] commensurability, or equivalence, between the cases. The most important factor that the cases share is the type of conflict each suffered: election violence. According to Collier and Vicente (2012), election violence is pervasive in sub-Saharan Africa, because there are rarely constraints on politicians' behavior within this context, as "strong ethnic allegiances create a greater incentive to undertake violent intimidation" (p. 146). Such is the case for both elections that provide the contexts for this research; both countries are ethnically heterogeneous and culturally diverse, where politics may serve as a disguise for ethno-religious differences. During the 2007-2008 highly contested presidential election in Kenya, a former British colony, 1,500 people were killed and 600,000 displaced. In 2010–2011, violence erupted in Côte d'Ivoire, a former French colony, when the former president refused to step down from office, resulting in a military offensive by the opposition candidate and over 3,000 deaths. In both cases, presidential candidates and sitting presidents await war crimes tribunals at The Hague.

Next, each case focuses on public institutions: Western Kenya University (WKU) and the University of Côte d'Ivoire (UCI) (pseudonyms to protect participant identities). WKU serves close to 25,000 students and UCI over 50,000. Each university is ranked as one of the best in the country. Each country has experienced considerable Western influence on their educational systems due to public sector restructuring commonly associated with aid conditionality (Okolie, 2003). Quist (2001) frames this as neocolonialism in Côte d'Ivoire, while Wangege-Ouma (2008) cites neoliberal globalization as the homogenizing force. These interconnected influences have resulted in a reliance on user fees (i.e., tuition), away from free public education, and a decrease in public expenditure on higher education overall. Despite this, as lower middle-income countries, Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire spend between 15% and 25% of their education budget on higher education, respectively, and allocate roughly the same amount on an individual student (World Bank, 2010). This allocation, however, has not kept pace with the number of students in both countries (World Bank, 2010). In both contexts, students must pass a national exam to gain admissions to and subsidization of post-secondary education, which typically favors more elite students (Kouassi, 2014; Yakaboski & Nolan, 2011).

This is not to suggest, however, that there are not important differences between the institutions that may have implications for understanding present day phenomena: colonial contexts, history of civil conflict, and the history and purpose of higher education. UCI is a large urban university and WKU is similar to a land-grant institution in the United States. The language of instruction at universities in Côte d'Ivoire is French and English in Kenya, colonial languages. Ivorian higher education is currently undergoing significant reforms related to the license-master-doctorate (LMD) [End Page 69] movement (toward the international standards and ostensibly improved quality) in Francophone West Africa, resulting in disruption to the university system, whereas Kenya has a relatively stable higher education system. However, consistent with the traditions of comparative education, this is a work of comparison and is exploratory in nature, seeking to understand the phenomenon of engagement in two contexts that have experienced similar forms of conflict in order to understand the nature of community engagement–not statistical generalization.


The overall purpose of this qualitative, cross-case analysis was a part of a larger study that sought to explore the agency of public higher education institutions in building peace and promoting development in post-conflict contexts. This particular work, however, was guided by three questions: 1) What was the nature of the relationship between the campus and community prior to the conflict; 2) What changes did the university make to transform its relations with the community; and 3) How might community engagement function as a heuristic for peace in (post)conflict contexts? These questions were broad enough to enable a breadth in the research findings. As the units of analysis, the universities and their functions embedded within a conflict context, a cross-case analysis was deemed appropriate in that increased sample size provides a greater confidence of certainty around findings and "support a broader pattern of conclusions" (Yin, 2012, p. 17). The case study approach was grounded in a fundamentally interpretivist pragmatic approach to research that sought to understand the phenomenon of interest from participants' perspectives, in light of broader discourse, using methods that were appropriate to the field.


A case, according to Yin (2012) "is generally a bounded entity, but the boundary between the case and its contextual condition–in both spatial and temporal dimensions–may be blurred" and is defined by its significance (p. 6). Therefore, the cases themselves were sampled according to a revelatory paradigm that sought cases that have heretofore been unexamined or inaccessible to investigation (Fletcher & Plakoyiannaki, 2010). The cases were bounded by organizational type, that of a large, public university, and conflict context and conditions. To this end, I sought cases that exhibited extreme phenomenon not previously researched in order to produce meaningful findings that have implications for practice in African higher education.

The within-case sampling was purposeful in nature, consistent with a case study application (Fletcher & Plakoyiannaki, 2010). In this study, participants and organizational artifacts were sampled based on both criterion [End Page 70] and snowball approaches to data collection. The participant pool included ministry officials (n=4), faculty (n=16), staff (n=6), administrators (n=11), and students (n=13), with a total of 50 participants. Seventeen participants were identified from WKU and 33 from UCI (each number is representative of the possible participant pool and the size of the institutions). Thirty-six participants were men and 13 were women, consistent with the gender imbalance in higher education in sub-Saharan Africa (Aina, 2010; Mama, 2003). The average length of service by university employees was 15 years.

Initially, participants were identified using criterion sampling, meaning that I sought individuals who demonstrated a certain set of characteristics (Patton, 1990), such as decision-making authority, knowledge of institutional policy, and/or involvement in university activities. Then, in the tradition of snowball sampling, each participant was asked to recommend another informant who could provide additional insight into our discussions (as a result of their direct experience with the protocol). The end result was a total of 50 participants who experienced the conflict at the university, could speak to the nature of the relationship with the community, and were knowledgeable about university policies and programs.

This same sampling approach was applied to the collection of organizational artifacts. These artifacts were first collected via the universities' websites and physical spaces that displayed such items. Participants were also asked to provide documents that would further elucidate the nature of phenomenon. This resulted in over 120 individual pieces of datum, in the forms of reports, books, emails, letters, news reports, photos, spreadsheets, program descriptions, and requisition orders.

Data Collection

Fieldwork was conducted in Kenya in August 2013 and in Côte d'Ivoire in December 2013–June 2014. A variety of methods were employed to capture the complexity of the institutional environment within which the university service mission was located. The first of these methods was that of the responsive interview with university staff and administrators, meaning that the interview protocol was semi-structured in nature and allowed for follow-up questions and probes for clarification and depth (Rubin & Rubin, 2012). Questions included requests for background on the conflict, information on decision-making at the university, explication of university policies and practices generated by the conflict, and recommendations. Interviews at UCI took place in French and English with a translator present and interviews at WKU were conducted in English with a native Kiswahili speaker present. French and Kiswahili speakers transcribed the interviews in order to capture nuance and context-dependent connotations.

Extensive fieldnotes were taken during the data collection process that contextualized study data and provided further insight into the on-the- [End Page 71] ground reality of the phenomenon under investigation. A common case study method, fieldnotes represent "a permanent record of events, interviews, interpretations, and ideas [that] allows researchers to be clear about what they think they know" (Gambold, 2010, p. 397). Fieldnotes captured observations during fieldwork and physical objects denoted by participants during their interviews, such as damaged buildings, new fences or barriers, and security checkpoints on campus. These notes functioned as an early form of data analysis as initial impressions regarding the case were documented, questions posed, and assumptions examined and later used in the more formal analysis of the case study data (Yin, 2012).

Finally, organizational artifact collection rounded out the methods in order to get a sense of organizational rhetoric and values. In this case these artifacts were used to "corroborate and augment evidence from other sources" (Yin, 2003, p. 87). These were collected systematically, both from participants and from my own efforts in the field. Fieldwork ended when data saturation was achieved across data collection methods; saturation was based upon: cohesiveness of the sample, conceptual sensitivity, and prolonged experience in the field (Saumure & Given, 2008).

Data Analysis

Data analysis employed coding within and between cases. The formal analysis began with process coding that turned participant experiences into action since the study focused on relationships, transformation, and changes within both cases, meaning each case and its data were analyzed separately first. This entailed coding that took concepts present in the single case data and transformed them into gerunds, referred to as process coding, creating a sense of action in the data (Saldaña, 2009). The next phase of analysis took place between cases in the form of pattern coding across the corpus of data, seeking patterns in the analysis, and grouped data into meta-codes, which took the form of thematic propositions (Saldaña, 2009). Findings were then posed in the form of a synthesis of naturalistic generalizations about the two cases and compared to one another to support broader conclusions across the cases (Yin, 2012). Generalizations in this sense are not statistical, but analytic in that relationships within and between sets of concepts were established that may be used to understand future incidents (Yin, 2012).


As with any qualitative work, considerations regarding the "researcher as instrument" must be clearly explicated in order to establish the trustworthiness of the inquiry (Denzin, 2004). First and foremost, this research was undertaken from an etic perspective. I am a female faculty member from the United States and do not embody the ethnic and linguistic characteristics of the participants in this study. To attend to the interpretive challenges associated [End Page 72] with this, I employed translators and research assistants from the case institutions. Translators were faculty members at the universities and the research assistants were enrolled in graduate programs at UCI and WKU; all were familiar with the contextual factors impacting the phenomena under investigation in the research setting. Furthermore, as the primary researcher, I engaged in reflexive bracketing to hold my cultural, theoretical, and conceptual suppositions in abeyance, meaning I acknowledged my biases and constantly questioned my interpretations (Gearing, 2004). Despite these efforts, in no way do I represent the truth of my participants' experiences, but instead I attempt to portray their experiences with verisimilitude and clarity, grounding the findings in a diversity of perspectives and data sources (Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2014).


The research elicited the following findings: the nature of relations, establishing academic values, and the creation and enactment of problematic policies. In each case, community relations were strained prior to and during the conflict. Yet the conflict allowed the university to clarify its academic identity and role in the community while programs and policies were put into place to address the nature of the relationship between the university and the community. In both cases, some of the conditions for violence were altered and a type of peace emerged. In the following section, case study data is used to both illuminate the findings and to make the analysis open to public scrutiny (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002).

Strained Relations

Prior to the start of the conflicts in both contexts, UCI and WKU had strained relationships with the communities within which each institution was situated. Each case was permeated by the impression of neglect–that the university had neglected relations and had allowed grievances to multiply that eventually led to the institutions being besieged during the election violence. Of this, a WKU director of an institute stated,

[T]he university was … for a long time the university … remained very isolationist you know … not engaged with the community and actually the university became a target in 2007, the university became a target, and the government had to station soldiers in the campus to protect those members of staff who were there and other things.

This sentiment, that of isolation prior to the 2007/2008 election violence, was consistent across the perspectives of university administration. A faculty member at WKU continued, "and they thought the university has no business [End Page 73] being here if it is not assisting," meaning that it should be destroyed. A former high-level administrator at WKU elaborated,

It wasn't at that time, you see when there is no rule of law the relationship is not there really because everybody was trying to … you know take something from somebody you would find the community coming in and they want to … I don't want to use the word destroy … the whatever was there but there was no rule of, there is no, (silence) the system was actually disintegrating. So it is difficult even to see the relationship because there was no seeing the institution as an institution, it's like a problem you know … an institution that is not assisting them.

Essentially, during the violence, the community did not see the university as something worth protecting because instead they saw an organization that should belong to them, but wasn't aiding them and addressing their needs. A faculty member reported,

The community members told us about–said they were angry … There were all kinds of discontent [toward] the university. 'There is nothing we benefit' [said community members]. 'We only get waste products–the sewerage and condoms.'

Interestingly, these grievances were framed most often as ones of employment at WKU, particularly that employment opportunities were not being distributed to the local ethnic group in a way consistent with their beliefs regarding resource ownership.

This is a university; it is a universal institution and if you do not allow other people to come this place will be converted into a military camp. 'Would you want that?' The people said, 'No we want our university to stay.' Because the people around were saying, 'No we don't want people from other communities, this is our university!'

Here a department chair at WKU describes an interaction with the local community in which the university is portrayed as being a microcosm of the country, made up of many ethnic groups, despite local beliefs that only one ethnic group, the primary one of the local community, should possess the resources of the institution. Ethnic claims and counter-claims further entrenched the isolationist nature of the university and limited the nature of community engagement prior to the conflict.

At UCI the relationship between the campus and community was complicated by the urban nature of the campus. There was a thriving informal economy on campus at UCI, one in which people sold items, exchanged services, and lived, despite their lack of affiliation with the university. When describing the nature of campus prior to the conflict, a faculty union representative [End Page 74] said, "There was a small village, people living inside the campus." During the conflict, many of these individuals, termed "shadow workers" by participants, became embroiled in violence against the university.

There is really some army on the campus and where people died, but this was a strong decision for everything that people on the Ministry because they decided to put them out (sic). We have to take bulldozer because we discovered [an] army, weapons hidden in houses. We found human bones.

(UCI faculty member)

As the conflict increased in intensity, a former interim president and current faculty member described the university as a battlefield populated by young men from the local area:

They were young, 20–25 years, but we do not know if they were students. They were dressed like military but on the back of their [t-shirt], it was written DE. DE is an affiliation of one particular political party. They told us to leave the area, and then they kidnapped my husband. They asked if we did not know that the university was closed. We said no and I told them to leave him then they let us go home. That's it … I think that after this scene, the situation changed because when we went out of the university, I told a lady who was at the entrance what happened to us, she told me to report it to the police. I did so, and later the government closed the university for security reason[s]. They knew that there were gangs hidden in the bush woods [on campus].

In the case of UCI, because of the perception of the university as an apparatus of the state, it became a target by politicized youth groups from the local community. A director of a program at UCI expounded upon this,

What we know on the historical point of view, it is when there is a war there are structures that are protected, mainly schools, hospital and other things. But in our case, it was not the situation, mainly the universities have been attacked, yes we had the feeling that it was an [intended] demolition of the university.

It was not clear from these discussions that the university had any relationship with the community. In fact, the local community pillaged the university during its closure, stealing equipment, books, and damaging university property.

After the violent gunfire has been stopped it was at that time that larkers were strolling here; they stole and took many things. We lost many things. They destroyed our armchairs. All the desks were sacked. Our office was in a break down. All the documents. People when they came here to take things it was not necessarily the university documents. Sometimes they don't know the importance of the documents. We have lost all our dissertations and our library was looted. They loot it and take it. Not to study but to play with the [End Page 75] sheet of paper exam. They use it to wrap goods [to sell things on the street, like bread].

(UCI Dean)

The community engagement aspect of the institution's service mission was essentially defunct. Instead the university was something to be attacked and looted because of its perceived political affiliations and its resources. In both cases, the university was either physically (WKU) or politically (UCI) separated from the community. Consequently, when violence broke out, the universities were not protected because of their relationships with the community, but became targets.

Establishing Academic Values

In the post-conflict environment, pressure may be exerted on the university to attend to relationships within the community affected by the violence. In both cases, engagement with the community was critical, from the institution's perspective, to establishing academic superordinancy and a more peaceful environment. At WKU, the campus-community connection was threatened by ethnic alliances that were seen by many as driving the community's expectations of the university. As a result of this discontent, the university, post-conflict, made a significant effort to establish collaborative relationships with community officials in order to stave off future violence and to improve town-gown relations.

I think after that … in a nutshell after the events of 2007/08 there was now a change of thought and the university administration as well as the students' body sought to actively now engage with the community and we saw some activities that build up towards 2013 [the latest election]. The students units [also known as peace units], I mean the students' organizations also began getting involved and in collaboration with NGOs as well as the community leadership and the provincial administration … on the ground.

(WKU Director)

For a very long time the community felt that this was just more or less like an isolated place. We are not getting any benefits from the university. Now there [are] many initiatives to bring the community together so that at least the institution can help where it can, like for example issues to do with helping the needy of the community. We have for example those that are physically challenged. The Vice Chancellor I remember actually got some, from I think a donor, wheelchairs and so on and some members of the community were also employed within the organization … so that the community would now feel that 'Yes we are also benefiting from this institution.'

(WKU Deputy Vice Chancellor)

In each narrative, the organizational members acknowledged the poor relationship between the university and the community surrounding the campus and saw community engagement as a possible solution. Moreover, sending [End Page 76] students into the community enabled the institution to extend its academic values into the community. Engagement in this context was fundamentally about sharing resources with the community and connecting this to peace activities.

At UCI, a critical step toward addressing conflict between the university and the community was to more fully establish the boundaries of the institution within the neighboring physical spaces. Prior to the reopening of the university, officials built fences around the university and banned shadow workers from campus in order to formerly establish the academic environment.

There was a small village, people living inside the campus. But what we saw was markets and villages. So clearly it is in the opening process to have the academic environment, to keep sellers out. We had to reorganize the university in order that the students study in a good environment.

(UCI Interim President, Faculty Member)

We can see flowers everywhere and the trees that give us shelter. The psychological oppression has decreased. And there is no more noise because in the past there were markets, restaurants, and soldiers. We [could] see them running on the campus. But now things are normal.

(UCI Vice Dean)

Unlike WKU, this case demonstrated a focus on establishing an academic environment and separating physical spaces as important first steps toward addressing the potential for conflict with/in the community. Of this a faculty member stated, "The University campus was a capital in the [local area]. There are some villages for army [that is] more than 20,000 people … this is one of success of the actions to keep those people out of the university." Moreover, participants saw the demarcation of the academic environment from the community as improving the teaching and learning process on campus. Thus the purpose was not engagement, but differentiation. However, this also had the effect of clearly establishing the values of the institution, similar to that of WKU.

Problematic Policies

Each case demonstrated awareness among participants that the university exists in a physical space within which interactions occur with non-university constituencies. These interactions may be the basis for conflict both on and off campus. WKU addressed conflict by building reciprocal relationships with community members through student activities, employment opportunities, and charity. UCI sought to more clearly establish the boundaries between the campus and community, thereby decreasing the potential for conflict on campus. In both cases, the university sought to transform either community [End Page 77] relationships or physical spaces in order to transform the conditions for conflict. However, the results varied.

While many of the new programs that resulted from the conflict at WKU were meant to address the conditions for violence, perhaps the most interesting, in light of the earlier critique of the movement of community engagement toward addressing the productive sector, was that of employment. According to a director at WKU,

What the vice chancellor did was to even give employment to the young people from the neighborhood so that they see the university as a source of employment. So that they are integrated within the university community; I think that was it. That was one major thing that happened because … you know it was unthinkable that members of the community would invade the university and attack, ransack houses there and attack people who live within the neighborhood. So that actually did some magic to reconcile …

This new policy was not without problems.

Faculty participant: The local communities were asked to organize themselves in such a way that the university can employ the needy members of their communities. At least every village to submit names of people who deserve to be assisted the needy ones and they were employed.

Interviewer: So the more needy … [were] employed on campus, has that addressed the some of the tensions?

Faculty participant: Yeah although, for a while, it reduced the tension for a while but it was later on discovered again those local leaders again brought their own relatives (laughs) so the most needy ones were not helped, so again the people were coming back to say, 'These people whom you assisted, whom you recognized as the leaders are assisting their relatives.' So in the process it did not help because there is no one the university could trust represent the community needs. So I think that made the university not to rely on those leaders any more.

These problems were echoed again and again in participant discussions. The most influential form of engagement was associated with employment, but with employment came problems associated with nepotism, trust, and questions about with whom the university should be negotiating; this then begged the question, "Who is the university empowering through the engagement process?"

Well maybe it served a purpose … a very temporary purpose I don't it is something that we should continue using as a way of reconciling the local community with others that come from outside, otherwise all our universities will do that and that will be terrible … Universities then will not be univer-sity, they will be ethnic institutions (laughing).

(WKU Faculty Member) [End Page 78]

So while the new programs that engaged students in community work were making a difference in the nature of campus-community relations, the new policy of employment was but a panacea for embedded ethnic rivalries.

At UCI, the university, after the conflict, sought to establish its borders, erecting new fences around campus and building entrances with security checkpoints. Yet these checkpoints became flash points for campus constituencies.

We will train first the youth who wanted to take part at this university police. And we try to lay out some recruitment criteria. And what happens, the ministry seems to take only [candidates who showed] political support. And they have no training. And [the ministry] created violence on the campus between the students and the police at the university. And so in this university police we have formed [a] union of sorts. And it was denounced by the students. And it created a terrible conflict, a very hard conflict.

(UCI Dean)

Indeed, as a researcher, I experienced some harassment by "police" upon exiting the campus early in the first phase of the study. Participants reported that unemployed youth were offered positions as security personnel on campus, however a lack of competence in this area and sectarian issues increased insecurity for the campus, resulting in violence and harassment. Of this a program director at UCI expounded with an example of how securitization had created a sense of insecurity, specifically when dealing with the new university police,

So we organized a seminar for our colleagues as at the moment, we asked for someone to cook for them. And one day the young girls who were coming with the food [were] blocked at the entrance. And then [the police] bring them there. We don't know much who is the police. And then [the police] said, 'What are you selling on the campus?' And the girls said, 'No, some teachers have training so we cook for them.' I was obliged to make a paper for those young girls so that they won't be blocked anymore for a seminar of 10 days. That's it. The coming in the campus is a problem. So what I can say, in the past we can go to the office [and stay] late [until] 21h (9:00 pm). But now from 16h (4:00 pm), 17h (5:00 pm), no one wants to stay here because of the security issue.

So the intent was to demarcate the university and protect it as an academic space from those who might seek to harm it, yet instead this new practice at the university increased feelings of insecurity and created conflict on campus. Failing to engage with the community, beyond employment practices, in both cases, added to the conditions for violence instead of transforming them. Community relations may have been improved, but the data speak to a fleeting peace; one in which attempts to create a new university-community relationship may have had unintended consequences. [End Page 79]

Discussion & Implications

Community engagement is an essential part of a university's mission. However, what these cases demonstrate is that problems in the community also pervade university life. Indeed the university is a microcosm of the nation, serving many identities; therefore, it is not free of the sectarian problems, such as those related to ethnicity and politics, which plague a community and a nation. WKU sought to create long-term programs that engaged students and the community in addressing underlying reasons for violence; however, they also instituted short-term policies meant to ingratiate community members that may raise tensions. Thus in this case, new programs and policies may work at cross-purposes. At UCI, administrators saw creating an academic environment separate from the community as being essential to peace, but then ministry officials created programs that fostered divisive politics on campus. In both cases, engagement policies were politicized. In the following section, I analyze the different approaches to engagement as each relates to how the university functions as a place in the community and the implications of community engagement for peacebuilding.

The University as a Place

The first research question asked, "What was the nature of the relationship between the campus and community prior to the conflict?" There are many consistent characteristics between the cases: a lack of trust, sectarianism, violence, and fear. However, these characteristics pervaded different contexts–one relatively rural and one urban. In the case of WKU, it was more of an issue of getting community members on campus and students out in the community. At UCI, it was about clearly establishing the boundaries between the university and the community. Weerts & Sandmann (2008) asserted that there is no "one-size fits all" approach to relations with the community; indeed, context is key to how policies and programs are created. However, the present research contrasts with Weerts & Sandman, who stated, "At the institutional level, urban research universities clearly have an easier time adopting a two-way interactive model of engagement than their land-grant counterparts" (p. 96). They frame the community-university relationship at land grants as unidirectional, directed by the campus interests, not those of the community. In this cross case comparison, we see the exact opposite: the rural, land-grant type university seeking to appeal to community interests and the urban institution addressing only campus interests. Both demonstrate that the physical locations of the university have implications for community relations.

Placemaking as Community Engagement

The second research question addressed the nature of the changes made at each institution to transform relations with the community. Spaces–ownership [End Page 80] of and delineation between–emerged as an important concept in both of the cases. This is consistent with the concept of placemaking, in which "place is produced through social, and socially contested, processes … is involved in the construction of social meaning and identification, and is part of—and constituted by—social and discursive practices" (Røe, 2014, p 501). The concept of place is also characterized by politics, where space is contested, both rhetorically and relationally; sites may function as symbols of struggles for power and resources (Kuper, 1972). Moore (2014) associates placemaking to higher education when examining community engagement activities and suggests that community-university interactions are inherently place-based, requiring negotiated meanings, goals, access, and benefits.

Physical spaces

In the Ivorian case, the university's values pervaded the placemaking process; seeking to transform the campus environment to an academic one, separate from the community. In contrast, the community, according to participants, saw the university space as a marketplace and a government apparatus, to which open access was expected. The university, through physical changes to space–new fences, checkpoints, and security personnel–sought to resolve these conflicting values. Yet placemaking in this context was troubled by overzealous campus securitization. Watson (2007) defined this relationship as first order engagement, in which the university functions as a social institution in the community: "at its best, a model of continuity and a focus of aspiration for a better and more fulfilled life; at its worst, a source of envy and resentment" (p. 364). UCI's concern for demarcating the academic space may actually function as a first step in community engagement and create a shared understanding about education and academic spaces. "There would not be a single community engagement framework 'where everyone should fit' rather, at this point, it is more crucial to generate understanding that could lead to collaboration 'where everyone has a space to be'" (Bernardo, Butcher, & Howard, 2012, p. 191). In cases where the boundaries are permeable, creating disruption to the academic enterprise, literal space creation may be critical to establishing the role and function of higher education in a contested community.

Psychological spaces

In other cases, where psychological boundaries are compromised, like at WKU, placemaking has a more nuanced focus on engendering respect for university values in the community. Moore (2013) highlights that the university may be located on land that has significance for the community; "Place–the geographic, cultural, social, and historic context–matters a great deal … when considering how and with whom a university partners in any type of community development activity" (p.76). At WKU, the university was located in a community that had strong ethnic and political affiliations; therefore, there was a sense of ownership over the institution that conflicted with the values of the university–to [End Page 81] hire, promote, and serve those academically qualified regardless of ethnic or political ties. Each constituent sought to influence the way the conflict was understood and addressed on and off campus. In this case, community engagement was negotiated: community values were appealed to through employment practices and university values were addressed through new student service-learning programs and charity activities. This may be viewed through Watson's (2007) conception as second order engagement in which the university is an important economic player–producing skilled graduates with applicable experiences and providing employment opportunities to the local and regional community. However, indeterminate community actors troubled university efforts to negotiate. In both cases, placemaking as a process of negotiating access to and the values of the academic space was critical to laying the groundwork for new community relations from which engagement efforts might grow.

Creating and Protecting Peaceful Academic Places

Politics, power, and violence pervaded both cases in which the university came into conflict with the community during a contested national election. In neither case were the long-term conditions for violence with the community adequately addressed, leaving the final question regarding community engagement possible function as a heuristic for peace in (post) conflict contexts somewhat unanswered. The WKU case shows the most promise for community engagement as part of the peacebuilding process and highlights possible actions for other institutions, like UCI, that contend with conflict; sending students out into the community demonstrates the university's commitment and allows for the values of the institution to be inculcated into the community through projects and programs. Johnson (2013b) framed this as building shared norms and identity, critical elements of peacebuilding (Lederach, 1997), that can be relied upon in the future when national conflict threatens campus and community safety.

University constituents may be able to demonstrate a capacity for evolving a shared consciousness about the meanings of the institution, its activities, programs, and mission, in times of conflict; they may also be able to initiate a changed relationship with the government and society as a whole.

However, this process must include identifying appropriate community partners. In the WKU case, improperly vetting these partners threatened sustainable peace and complicated attempts at engagement. Indeed, community engagement can be undermined by the hierarchical nature of the university and the lack of hierarchy in the community can introduce power differentials into the process, which may impact the amount of mutuality and reciprocity both experience (Sandmann & Kliewer, 2012). Therefore, [End Page 82] carefully and critically evaluating partners, their histories, goals, and values is an important element of the community engagement process, especially in a contested space. Institutionalizing partner vetting may set the stage and tone for community engagement as peacebuilding and allow the university to appeal to community values and expectations without compromising its own, sharing the risk of conflict transformation mutually.

The UCI case speaks to a significant need to protect academic spaces in conflict, which undoubtedly requires the engagement of the community. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (2014) promotes negotiations between educational institutions, armed groups, governments, and communities to treat academic spaces as zones of peace. For example, in Nepal, these zones of peace were governed by codes of conduct created through community negotiation and entailed "defining what was and was not allowed on school grounds in order to minimize violence, school closures and the politicization of schooling" (p. 68). McEvoy-Levy (2012) referred to these practices as "placemaking for peace:" strategies that capitalize on existing intergroup norms related to solidarity and identifying bounded spaces that contribute to peace (p. 6). This strategy can be applied to higher education in conflict zones where there is agreement on the protection of the institution (by all parties), lending to the creation of conflict-free campuses that may allow for continued education in crisis and a place in which students, faculty, and staff are protected from violence.

Violence and Higher Education, Globally

In the end, what do these findings suggest for our understanding of higher education more globally? In the United States, violence on campus has led to increased securitization of university facilities, not increased engagement with the community. As a result, higher education appears merely reactive, not responsive, locating prevention solely within the responsibility of the institution (Bondü & Beier, 2015). The work reported here, however, advocates otherwise: violence prevention should be a collaborative effort, suggesting that perhaps we have something to learn from universities in the Global South who have sought to partner with local organizations to protect physical spaces and cultivated policies that establish psychological spaces that promote the academic enterprise during community duress.


The ability of the university to substantively address social problems remains an important question to address through reform, policy creation, and critical self-evaluation. Increasingly, universities in Africa are taking up this consideration. Creating policy to address the conditions for conflict [End Page 83] on campus and in the surrounding community may be a significant step, in fragile contexts, to developing institutional capacity for development consciousness, and subsequently, peace. This research highlighted changing university policy and practice that sought to address the conditions for violence through placemaking. Yet at times these same actions served to foment sectarian politics and conflict. Universities must engage in evaluating potential partners for community engagement and developing collaborative plans to protect the institution during times of crisis. Indeed, these activities have implications for establishing community engagement as a university mechanism for peace, in any manner of contexts.

Ane Turner Johnson

Dr. Ane Turner Johnson is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and affiliated faculty to the Ph.D. in Education in the Center for Access, Success, and Equity (CASE) at Rowan University. Dr. Johnson is an international education researcher, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. She has conducted research in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, South Africa, Togo, and Kenya. The majority of her work has focused on rebuilding universities in post-conflict conditions and how universities contribute to the peacebuilding process during conflict. Dr. Johnson teaches research methods and higher education content courses in the Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs at Rowan University.


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