University-Community Engagement during a Pandemic

Moving Beyond “Helping” to Public Problem Solving


  • Mary Ohmer University of Pittsburgh
  • Carrie Finkelstein University of Pittsburgh Community and Governmental Relations
  • Lina Dostilio University of Pittsburgh Community and Governmental Relations
  • Aliya Durham University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work
  • Alicia Melnick University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work



community engagement, public problem solving, social change, equity


The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major disruption in higher education, challenging universities to engage with community partners in unprecedented ways. Among them, was an accelerated challenge to ways of engaging with surrounding communities and the resulting importance this holds for social change. A common approach has been for the university to offer mutually beneficial “help” to communities through top-down directives and strategies. Another approach prioritizes co-constructed knowledge generation and political action where the university is part of a larger ecosystem engaged in public problem solving and deeply sustained, ways of collaborating (Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). Moments of economic and social crises put into stark view higher education’s intentions: are we playing at community involvement, or are we committed partners, leveraging our unique missions to join our communities in solving the problems facing us? This article will discuss how a university’s response to the pandemic illustrates democratic community-engagement, including ways in which the university partnered with community organizations to alleviate the dire impacts of the pandemic on peoples’ basic needs and equity. Lessons learned and implications for university-community engagement during both “normal” times and times of crisis will be shared, including ways to foster social change that addresses the inequities illuminated by the pandemic.


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