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Monterey Bay Campus Is a Role Model

Debate on requiring community service for students turns to a university where giving back is a core value.

August 10, 2004|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

SEASIDE, Calif. — To graduate from college, Tracy Burke spent time in a halfway house for female felons. Alicia Gregory filled grocery bags at a food bank. Tiana Trutna taught elementary students how to grow vegetables for their school cafeteria.

Here at Cal State Monterey Bay, it's required work. To the university, it's an essential part of an education. But some educators elsewhere say required community service squanders precious education dollars -- and time.

The only public university or college in the state to require such service, Monterey Bay is finding itself at the center of a fast-growing debate as California begins to consider whether to mandate community service for all 3.4 million students in the public system.

The notion that such service should be required for a college degree was among the many proposals to emerge last week from the California Performance Review, a report commissioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that addresses hundreds of aspects of state government.

At issue, first, is whether it is appropriate to require community service as part of what goes into a university degree. Beyond that, even among those who support mandatory service, there is disagreement over how best to make such service meaningful.

Mandatory service might be of little value, some say, without accompanying academic study -- "service learning," as it's known.

"Requiring community service is a good first step," said Stephen M. Reed, associate vice president for external relations at Monterey Bay. "But it's only a first step."

Students here not only must work in the community; they also must take courses related to that work.

"The important thing is not contributing hours," said Seth Pollack, director of the university's Service Learning Institute. "The important thing is learning your own responsibility to your community. That comes not from parking cars or licking envelopes, but from understanding the root causes of our social problems."

The state's colleges and universities have long urged their students to volunteer for good causes of all kinds, and hundreds of thousands of students do. The California Performance Review advocated taking such volunteerism a step further: converting voluntary service into mandatory community work for students.

All but hidden among the 50,000 acres of artillery ranges and deteriorating barracks of the now-defunct Ft. Ord Army base, Cal State Monterey Bay has been an outpost of civic-minded academics since the day it opened nine years ago, a place where theories of ethics, community and multiculturalism are debated while the military detonates aging munitions nearby.

In part because of its service requirement, the school has acquired a reputation as a left-leaning establishment, though the area also is known for military-style conservatism, thanks to Ft. Ord, the Naval Postgraduate School and other military installations.

The university's pioneers laid the groundwork for socially conscious scholarship in the school's vision statement, written in 1994, which pledges to imbue students with the "responsibility and skills to be community builders."

All students must take eight units of service-study courses -- four while fulfilling their basic general education requirements and four related to their major, all while working in the community.

They have 40 such courses to choose from -- everything from "Museum Studies Service Learning" to classes on tutoring in mathematics -- and students are encouraged to explore a field they might otherwise never experience.

As a communications major from a white, middle-class family in the suburbs of San Francisco, Burke chose to work in a minimum-security facility in Salinas for female convicts with young children.

"I knew a couple of people in high school who had drug problems, but their parents had the money to send them to rehab," Burke said. "This was just this huge eye-opener -- about how this happens, about how the society is shaped."

The recommendation of the governor's task force, complete with quotes from Gandhi and the governor's wife, Maria Shriver, is not the first time a service requirement has been recommended for all public universities. In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis floated a nearly identical proposal.

Thomas Sowell, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, lambasted the notion then. "Forced to volunteer," he wrote of Democrat Davis' proposal, "is the Orwellian notion to which contemporary liberalism has sunk."

Sowell might have been among the more politically outspoken opponents, but he had lots of company -- most notably all three branches of state higher education: the University of California system, the California State system and the state's community colleges.

None implemented Davis' recommendation. The reasons were many, but money was at the top of the list. Student labor is cheap only for the groups employing the students.

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