The following sections critically reflect on the camp’s development, implementation, and subsequent efforts to ensure the longevity of the camp by placing these activities within the framework of the neoliberal university. First, we discuss the separate and shared goals of the university and the school partner. After identifying these goals, we assess whether these goals were met or not and whether each group benefitted or lost in the short and long term. Then, we discuss what we call ‘the rupture’, which is the series of events that led to a discontinuation of the camp. We describe our efforts to develop supportive networks to ensure the camp’s longevity, how this effort was lost when placed against an unyielding and existing institutional structure, and our own burnout from exploitation and the COVID-19 pandemic. From critically assessing these events, we present a model for institutional partnerships which is informed by ‘the rupture’, focuses on the origin of unyielding institutional structures, and offers potential steps forward.
Community school partner and university goals
To identify the camp’s goals from the perspectives of the university and the community school partner, we drew on interviews, documents, and our own perspectives. Franklin level goals were defined based on conversations with school administrators and students, questionnaires, and notes from the organizational stage of the camp. In assessing whether the Franklin goals were met, we considered two perspectives: school administrators and students. The university (SESE) level goals came from SESE’s Strategic Plan of 2019 (SESE, 2019). University goals also represent our own expectations for impact and longevity of the camp, as well as our own academic goals, as graduate students aiming to be future academic leaders and community organizers. In assessing if the university goals were met, we considered both SESE’s perspective and our perspective as graduate students.
The goals of the camp from the Franklin standpoint were identified as:
Provide a Geosciences educational opportunity at no-cost to students (F1).
Have university members available to provide community learning opportunities outside of camp (F2).
Provide long-term connections for students to pursue a science/Geosciences education (F3).
The goals of the camp from the university standpoint included:
Identify community interest and promote engagement with Geosciences educational opportunities in hopes of leading to future diversity in the field (U1).
Successfully hold a camp event with full enrollment (U2).
Establish long-term university structures to continue holding the camp as a form of SESE-wide outreach (U3).
Table 1 breaks these goals down into short- and long-term outcomes, and identifies whether the goals were achieved.
While the camp was successful in the short term, there were clear long-term failures, resulting in losses on both sides. A university-community formal partnership was not established, leaving Franklin with only short-term relationships with transient university members—graduate students—who would not be available after graduation. The university lost a long-term connection opportunity with the Franklin community, and institutional knowledge of how to organize and run the camp. Some short-term losses translated to long term losses. A small number of registered camp participants were ultimately unable to attend because of various last-minute barriers that could not be foreseen or overcome (illness, scheduling conflicts). The fact that the camp was organized by graduate students, not professors or campus administrators, meant that resources were limited which limited the length of the camp and number of students. While these were short term losses, the causes—graduate student organizers rather than professor or university administrator organizers—eventually contributed to the long-term breakdown of the potential for an institutional partnership and ultimately, the camp occurring regularly in the future.
‘The rupture,’ occurring among different university participants, refers to the series of events that led to discontinuation of the camp. Two key factors of the rupture were: differing goals amongst university participants (1), and COVID-19 (2). While the latter is rare and unforeseeable, the former is rooted in power differentials and politics that can impede community geography projects. This section deconstructs the rupture from our graduate student perspective as project organizers.
In this case, the power structures of the “academy,” which SESE is located within, are part of why the Geosciences has pre-existing structural bias against people of color/underrepresented backgrounds (Bernard & Cooperdock, 2018). This community geography project was trying to combat those power structures through partnering with a community institution with a direct line to people of color underrepresented in the academy and the Geosciences. As a community geography project, our goals for the camp involved: “creating reciprocal relationships between community and university partners, and the negotiation of collaborative knowledge production and shared power” (Block et al., 2018; Robinson et al., 2017). Challenges that have been commonly identified in community geography literature were seen here, through this ‘rupture,’ of gaining faculty member support without clear structural support—such as course releases. We, as organizers, also faced the noted explicit internal politics that in this case failed to destabilize the power structures of the university and its involvement with the community (Fudge Schormans et al., 2019).
The rupture occurred partially due to an unsustainable approach to the camp by SESE leadership. We were entering the next phases of our dissertation work and would not have time to lead the camp the next year. New leaders were needed to strengthen relations with Franklin and ensure the camp’s long-term sustainability. In addition, sustaining the camp required a commitment of resources including funding for the camp and compensation for those who organize and work at the camp. The failure of SESE administration to address these issues was key to the rupture, and led to differing goals and power differentials among university members for the university’s side of the partnership. The next section examines how and why the rupture occurred, as framed within the complex structure of SESE.
SESE includes the departments of Atmospheric Sciences, Geography and GIScience, and Geology, each of which is independently organized, with its own department head and internal structure. The school (SESE) is a larger organizing body that coordinates budgets and academic planning among the departments. SESE has a Board of Directors and a Director. However, the departments are semi-autonomous in their choices and organization.
When we first sought to address issues of diversity in the Geosciences, the camp was pitched to the Board of Directors as a SESE-wide effort. Due to concerns about lack of interest, and SESE lacking institutional knowledge on camp coordination, the idea was tabled with interest by the Board. It was at this point that we reached out to the instructional coordinators at Franklin. After that, SESE gave support for the project once interest from the community was established through registration. The camp's success led to significant interest amongst many university members.
Because of the semi-autonomous nature of the SESE departments, G-Camp inspired a variety of approaches within SESE to long-term planning. One department formed a committee to explore the possibility of hosting a field-specific camp and invited us to attend a meeting and discuss with them next steps. We also had specific ideas of what path the camp would follow; we envisioned a more coordinated SESE effort where the camp cycled through 4–5 years of subject-specific themed activities. This cycling meant campers could participate throughout middle school and after five years, camp themes and activities could be recycled, requiring less upkeep from the university coordinators. It was clear this effort would take all four departments and SESE’s leadership to commit to such a model, and so we began conversations with the SESE Director on how best to move forward.
After the camp was held, we sought out university support to create structures that would ensure an institutional partnership. The Director of SESE agreed structure was necessary and made several recommendations to us for moving forward:
Identify interested members of each department to assist with the camp.
Develop a leadership structure that would ensure institutional knowledge was sustained.
Host a workshop to show how the camp was organized and generate interest to commit to coordination.
Additionally, we shared the opportunities to participate in the future development of the camp, coordinating a SESE-wide workshop to discuss next steps. The workshop was well-attended, and engagement and participation were steady throughout. However, the last hour focused on structuring long-term organization and leadership for the camp through a SESE Outreach Committee. Leading the discussion, we saw attendees were nervous about committing to a new committee without explicit funding or other forms of structural support. These concerns were entirely in-line with the issues faculty in the literature express concern over when taking on community geography initiatives (Block et al., 2018; Robinson et al., 2017). Attendees highlighted different issues—lack of funding, lack of time from professors, additional workloads going uncompensated, and other similar equitable labor-related concerns. To address these concerns, we suggested various strategies including: applying for NSF GeoPaths grant to support the project; establishing a committee to alleviate the load of camp organization and management; and providing financial support or course releases for professors and graduate students to work on the project.
Ultimately through the group discussion, it became clear a SESE Outreach Committee needed explicit support from the SESE leadership, and clear methods for supporting all who participated on it. However, the power dynamics of those interested in moving forward with the committee, and those who had the ability to direct resources and address concerns, were clearly imbalanced. Faculty were unwilling to commit without clear support. SESE leadership was unwilling to commit clear support when prompted. Without the concerns around workload and structural support being addressed in the meeting, two factors community geography literature notes as key to successful work, we were left uncertain on a path forward. The lack of commitment in the moment stemmed not only from power imbalances between SESE leadership and faculty, but also from ongoing power relations between us, graduate students, and SESE leadership. The workshop had been designed by us from a recommendation from SESE leadership in order to garner support for the camp and the Outreach Committee from faculty, with the understanding we already had support from SESE leadership. In the workshop, with that support no longer explicitly available, we felt uncomfortable moving forward with organizing the camp without structural support, such as the committee. A committee was needed to ensure the coordination, design, and implementation load was shared and transferred away from us, graduate students, and to fully integrate the camp into the structure of the university, while beginning to address concerns by the faculty about workload and structural support.
These challenges were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic which led the University of Illinois, like many other universities in the U.S., to stop in-person activities and transition to online working. The SESE Director reached out to us in June of 2020 to reinitiate discussions around organizing the camp. However, by this time we were unable to meet, due to managing COVID-19-related stresses and our own growing concern with the lack of clear structures to move forward with in planning.
In SESE’s case, the inability to create support for the camp as an important initiative can be attributed to the differing goals amongst university members—SESE leadership and the graduate students. The understanding of SESE leadership’s goals we feel are exemplified in the SESE strategic plan for the next five years. This plan was published online July 2019 and written in collaboration with all SESE department leaders, the director, and with department faculty (SESE, 2019). In the strategic plan, 10 strategic goals were identified, but only two seem to consider diversity and community collaboration, key points for showing goals relating to the work that G-Camp achieves.
The eighth goal was “increase diversity within SESE” which centered strategies on recruiting undergraduate and graduate students of underrepresented minorities into SESE. Goal nine is listed as, “increase school visibility.” This goal is intended to “increase the visibility of [SESE’s] academic programs and the footprint of [SESE] within the College of LAS, across campus, within the local community and the State of Illinois, and nationally and internationally.” The only strategy in this goal directed at the “local” community was the following section:
Given that SESE disciplines are often not well represented in high school curricula, especially at rural and underrepresented minority-serving schools, we will explore actions to make more students aware of the opportunities SESE offers as excellent professional alternatives to the standard STEM tracks most of them follow, beginning in high school.
—SESE Strategic Plan, 2019
The language of this strategy shows a lack of emphasis on this action to work with the community, focusing on the exploration of potential actions, rather than a clear plan of who to work with. Despite the fact that SESE claims to support community outreach, it was unwilling to take the necessary steps and devote resources to make the camp outreach a priority, even when provided with the opportunity to do so.
The plan fits into the expectations of the neoliberal model of the university—a focus on research, publications, and a higher profile as a university and unit of the university. Faculty are better equipped to complete these goals surrounding research through the established research-based partnerships faculty already have because they are researchers and college educators first. Further, the university does not incentivize or specifically create the environment necessary for faculty to be supported in pursuing community collaborations. Within the strategic plan, there is not room for a detailed community outreach plan because these are not skills the university expects its members to foster. Successfully establishing institutional partnerships requires more than individual university members (faculty or graduate students) with a passion for community outreach. Successfully establishing institutional partnerships requires a shift in university expectations and goals.