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Taking Community Engagement Seriously: Universities, Inequality and Accountability

By Ana Milic, Alex Megelas, and Emanuel Guay

The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Community Economic Development series, which examines a range of initiatives, such as cooperatives, alternative forms of collective land ownership and stewardship, mutual aid networks and worker advocacy/training organizations. Read more about this series here.

There is a growing interest in the academic world, both in Canada and beyond, to cast universities as institutional actors engaged in social development and committed to building relationships with a variety of community-based stakeholders. These relationships often take the form of community-campus collaborations, which refer to collaborative projects and initiatives that bring together people and organizations embedded both in academic settings and in other institutional environments. For instance, community-campus collaborations have been praised for their capacity to establish durable partnerships and help foster innovative solutions to pressing social issues. However, in looking more closely at a case in Montreal, a city in which universities have expressed a strong interest in furthering the community-campus collaboration model, a more complicated picture of the pitfalls and blind spots, as well as the strategies for social responsibility and accountability can be revealed.

The community-campus collaboration model in Montreal is often framed as a strategy to foster social development and challenge inequalities. Despite a seeming alignment in the language and values used to describe it, the outcomes of community-campus collaboration can differ significantly. For instance, in an opinion piece penned by Suzanne Fortier (principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University) and Daniel Jutras (rector of the Université de Montréal), it is mentioned that partnerships between universities, international knowledge networks, and various local stakeholders will be “redefining rules of community life at a time when we can no longer tolerate structural inequalities and systemic racism.”

While the stated commitment raised here is noteworthy, we would do well to consider the range of strategies that emerge from it. Evidence shows that universities have, at best, an ambivalent social impact, as they act as drivers of economic growth and innovation while contributing to spatial and economic inequality, as well as racial inequality. As shown in the cases of West Harlem with Columbia University and North Philadelphia with Temple University, the inequitable impacts from the development of academic campuses and ensuing gentrification follow distinctly racialized patterns. These patterns are reflected here in Montreal. As has been extensively documented, a new campus of the Université de Montréal (‘Campus MIL’), which opened its doors in 2019, has had a deleterious impact on Parc-Extension, a low-income neighborhood in which first-generation and second-generation migrants have developed strong bonds of solidarity and support networks for numerous decades. The opening of this campus has accelerated the gentrification of Parc-Extension, leading to an increase in rents, evictions, and residential instability for low-income tenants, in particular those who recently arrived in Canada and in a precarious immigration status. The Campus MIL’s initial plans included a student housing strategy, but it was put aside in the years preceding its opening, which has encouraged the displacement of Parc-Extension residents to the benefit of incoming waves of students. No measure has been put forward so far by the University to address the long-term impact of its campus on the neighbourhood’s residential stability, despite numerous calls for increased accountability by local community groups. This situation is particularly questionable, given that the Campus MIL has been branded as an “innovation campus,” where the research produced could ostensibly generate benefits for the community and the city.

Developing genuine collaboration between academics and local communities and fostering sustainable social development both require a break with the assumption that research and student placements are automatically beneficial to the community. When repeated engagements with researchers do not lead to any significant positive change or benefit for communities, the risk of research fatigue increases, and can eventually lead to an opposition to research projects which appear as extractive and insensitive to local concerns. Devising socially responsible research projects should lead academics to acknowledge the concerns of the communities who are involved, and whose lives and realities need not be framed in relation to academic imperatives. It is also important to not position students and researchers as separate entities and superior holders of knowledge and skills: in fact, there is an actual risk of causing harm to communities when relatively inexperienced interns and volunteers find themselves in contexts they are not familiar with, or asked to intervene on issues they have never personally experienced. Rather than othering communities by framing them as entities which researchers will experiment on, efforts should be made to build nuanced and equitable relationships that position research as an extension of local agency and follow the “nothing about us without us” principle put forward by practitioners of solidarity research.

University administrations and planners need to put forward strategies that can help to make university resources accessible to the community, in order to respond, in a concrete and accountable way, to community-identified needs. In that regard, the conclusion of the report MIL façons de se faire évincer: The University of Montreal and gentrification in Park Extension highlights examples of universities that have taken leadership in partnering with local communities, by transferring resources and creating spaces to acknowledge the latter’s expertise and concerns. For example, the Concordia University Office of Community Engagement offers a range of innovative activities to encourage equitable collaborations between the university and various communities around Montreal, while the Vancity Office of Community Engagement at Simon Fraser University has created a community space for Vancouver residents to organize activities related to community issues.

We hope that this sharing of perspectives will contribute to ongoing reflections on how post-secondary institutions can be accountable to community stakeholders, by considering critical and self-aware community engagement practices that go beyond benevolence, professionalization, disconnected internship programs, and “innovation labs.” Community engagement should be done in consultation with residents, measurably benefit communities, foster students’ critical thinking and deepen our understanding of our shared context, while acknowledging power imbalances and striving to mitigate them. This requires a break with a widespread perspective that envisions cities as “laboratories” for researchers to toy with.

If those of us who are embedded in academic settings are serious about developing research projects that can contribute to social development and problem-solving, we need to pay closer attention to how these projects can provide concrete benefits and support local communities with their various initiatives. Rather than perpetuating historicized exploitation of compromised communities, our universities need to shift their work, engagement, and research towards structural changes that recognize their own position and complicity in the status quo.

Ana Milic is an MA student in an individualized program at Concordia University

Alex Megelas is a PhD student in Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University

Emanuel Guay is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Université du Québec à Montréal

If you are interested in reading more about this topic, please see the Progressive City article The City is not your Laboratory by Jonathan Marty.




We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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