Koppell to amplify ASU's socially embedded initiatives in new role

Watts dean wants to create more public-service opportunities for students


Arizona State University’s commitment to the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves is embedded in its charter.

As part of that commitment, ASU President Michael Crow has named Jonathan Koppell to the newly created position of vice provost for public service and social impact. Koppell will remain dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

The Watts College has multiple socially embedded initiatives and Koppell will coordinate universitywide efforts in every ASU unit that addresses pressing social issues.

Several programs will be overseen from the Office of the Executive Vice President and University Provost and Koppell, including the Public Service Academy, Changemaker Central, Devils in Disguise and service-learning and community-engagement programs.

Koppell answered some questions from ASU News on his new role:

Question: Why is it important to have a vice provost devoted to public service and social impact?

Answer: The charter, which is so important to us at ASU, has this critical element that says we take responsibility for the condition of the community we serve. That’s a crucial part of our mission, alongside our commitment to accessibility.

There are extraordinary things happening all over the university that live out that mission. But there’s an opportunity for the whole to be more than the sum of its parts, and we haven’t yet fully realized that potential.

This role represents an expression, on the social impact side, of our mission to advance the well-being of the communities we serve both in geographic and population terms, really in every possible way you can conceive of community.

The public service part is also an extension of our mission. We encourage our students to adopt the same ethos — to embrace the idea that they, too, have a responsibility to serve and advance the well-being of the community of which they are a part.

That’s why we created the Public Service Academy, which was created and run through Watts, but is not exclusive to Watts students. In fact, the majority of Public Service Academy students are not public service majors. They’re engineering, business, nursing, Herberger (Institute) – over 160 different majors!

And of course, there are thousands of ASU students who are doing public service every single day.

So there’s an opportunity to support, coordinate and amplify the service activities at ASU to increase the positive impact and to increase the opportunities for every ASU student, staff member and faculty member to engage in meaningful service.

Q: How will you support, coordinate and amplify those service opportunities?

A: One example is university service-learning. We’d like to see that reach many more students. I envision university service-learning offerings in every college and we already have terrific things going. Consider the Engineering Projects in Community Service program, where students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering connect their training with public service. Students in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication are engaged in service in the community. And students in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts are doing creative engagement activities in every discipline.

And of course, most of our students in the Watts College are engaged in service or service-learning. It’s who we are.

I think we can not only increase the number of students doing service, but we can raise the level of the experience so it’s not just the labor of cleaning a park or serving a meal. It would be a way to use the opportunity to better understand the nature of the challenge being addressed.

That higher level of service engagement is something I would like to see us model for all universities.

When we created the Public Service Academy, our goal was not to own this space exclusively. It was to be a model that attracted attention and to encourage other universities to do the same. We’re well on our way to that objective with the creation of the Next Gen Service Partnership. It’s demonstrating to all institutions what a university can and should be.

Jonathan Koppell

Jonathan Koppell is the new vice provost for public service and social impact. He will remain dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Q: Explain what ASU means by “social embeddedness.”

A: What social embeddedness does not mean is that we put on our ASU sweatshirts and go into a community and say, “We’re from ASU and we’re here to help.”

Social embeddedness means you enter a community with humility and an eagerness to be partners. I learned from my colleagues in the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center about an approach called “community-based participatory research.”

One of the things SIRC researchers emphasize in designing their work is that the community members are co-principal investigators. In academia, the principal investigator is the professor who is running the research program, and it’s a big statement to say that the community members are the co-PIs. We’ve tried to adopt this mindset across Watts College.

The normal way you’d think of it is that the community members are the subjects and we’re running an intervention and will test the results. Under that way of thinking, the community members would be “human subjects.”

It turns out that people don’t appreciate being experimental subjects. They like being co-investigators. That’s the way social embeddedness thrives, when it’s viewed as a partnership of equals. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve with this initiative. ASU will not only do work in the community, we will do work with the community in the service of the community.

There is, for good reasons, often a nervousness and hesitation to work with academic institutions: because generally this is not the attitude. It’s a barrier to a lot of potentially beneficial projects.

This isn’t just about figuring out a way to weasel your way in. It’s about building a foundation for constructive collaboration that’s going to yield really positive insight into the way challenges can be met.

Q: Does that take a long time?

A: I’ve had to learn that you can’t earn trust and build confidence and also move at light speed. Those things don’t go together.

The key is that you build a foundation of trust and relationships and a track record, and if you do that, then you’re ready to move quickly when the moment strikes.

Watts College is effective in part because we’ve had years of faculty members and centers establishing good working relationships with nonprofits, civic associations and also with government agencies, so that when a grant opportunity comes about or a solicitation is made available, we can pick up the phone and call our friends and say, “Want to do this together?” And they know they can trust us. It’s not like we have to start from scratch each time.

Q: What happens when that effort falls short?

A: The time and effort and listening are not just about “How are you?” It’s saying, “How can we do better? Where have we messed up?”

We asked those questions and we got answers.

We asked people, “In your experience working with us or other academic institutions, what have you disliked?”

People said, “You know, this professor came in and did research for two years and asked a lot of questions and got a bunch of data and then never told us what they found. They didn’t share the results.”

That’s incredibly disrespectful. That should never happen.

So, part of what we hope to do is to build a set of principles or expectations so that an ASU researcher doing work in the community has a field manual on how we expect them to do socially embedded work at ASU.

One example is that you always build into your plan a report back to the community on what you learned.

Another thing we heard was, “You came, and you started something, and then when the money ran out, you disappeared.”

The reality is that a lot of the stuff we do is time limited because of external funding. That implies two things: We have to be really clear on expectations so that people don’t think we’re starting something that will go on forever if you know it won’t outlive a grant. And second, if you’re going to start something, a critical element of your design will be how to make it last. That’s been a big part of our question in Maryvale: “How do we make this exist in perpetuity without us?” This isn’t supposed to be an ASU initiative. It’s a Maryvale initiative.

We need to build into each project a design for sustainability.

Q: Can you describe how ASU’s work in the Maryvale community in Phoenix is an example of social embeddedness?

A: In Maryvale we’ve launched the One Square Mile Initiative. The premise is derived in part from an observation that there many ASU things going on in the community. We have things in Watts College, but also the College of Health Solutions, the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, W. P. Carey School of Business, the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, and things in engineering and teaching and the arts.

There are so many different things that are designed to take on really tough challenges and make the world a better place. But we haven’t knit those things together.

And that creates lost opportunities.

First of all, it doesn’t give people a sense of everything the university does. It’s like the old anecdote about touching the elephant — you don’t know everything that’s going on if you only touch one piece.

But more importantly, we won’t reach our potential if we only address one part of a multidimensional challenge.

The goal in the Maryvale project is to capture the full capacity of the university and channel it.

We’ve moved at a deliberate pace. As Erik Cole, the director of the Design Studio for Community Solutions for the One Square Mile project, puts it, “We move at the speed of trust.” So, the members of the community feel like it’s their project and we support them. That’s our goal from the outset. We’re engaged deeply and spend a lot of time listening.

One of the things we discovered, not surprisingly, is the phenomenon of well-intentioned but disconnected pieces applies to government programs and even community initiatives. You have nonprofits working three doors away from each other but they don’t know what each other is doing.

We can focus on giving the community the opportunity to articulate its needs and then they can tap into the capital of ASU to meet those needs.

Q: What is an example of that?

A: One thing we heard from the community partners in Maryvale is a deep hunger for English classes.

This is a community of strivers, of people who are ambitious for themselves and their children and that was a need they had to continue their progress.

And so we went to our friends at Global Launch of ASU and said, “I know this isn’t what you do but can you teach English classes in Maryvale?”

And their answer, which we fully expected, was, “Yes, we’d be excited to.”

What is so great about this university is that the answer is usually, “Yes. When can we start?”

Here you have an example of a program coming to a community that’s hungry for it, which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t created a bridge to connect the university and the community.

Similarly, we’re helping to bring the incredible COVID testing capacity that’s been built in the Biodesign Institute to Maryvale, and translating all the materials into Spanish so it’s more accessible.

So, these are just few examples that show what happens when you flip the script and say, “What is missing and how can ASU fill in the gaps?”

We see One Square Mile in Maryvale as an opportunity to build a protype that can be replicated.

Ultimately what it shows is how seemingly intractable problems — things that policy nerds call wicked problems — are not so wicked after all, and they can be solved.

As President Crow says, “We don’t think we’re going to solve the problems of the world, but we will show that the problems of the world can be solved.”

Q: How will this new service initiative affect students?

A: We hope to take things like Changemaker Central and Devils in Disguise and ratchet them up substantially.

The generation of students in school now are highly service motivated. There was this idea floating around when we created the Public Service Academy that we needed to light the fire of public service in the current generation of students. I think actually, many young people today are more service motivated than other generations.

But they don’t necessarily know the best way to make a difference. They have a burning desire but don’t have a tool set, and that’s what the Public Service Academy was created to do.

Not everyone needs to major in public policy or social work to do public service. We wanted to give everyone some sense of their own efficacy in addressing this.

By making different avenues of that education available, whether it’s Changemaker Central or university service learning, we’ll be empowering all ASU students to realize the vision they have to make the world a better place. That’s what this initiative is all about.

Success looks like a broad set of pathways that reveal themselves to ASU students who are interested in serving the greater good.

Top photo courtesy ASU