Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer

Reflective Essays

Vol. 19 No. 1

Systemic Engagement: Universities as Partners in Systemic Approaches to Community Change

March 20, 2015


The most pressing social problems facing humanity in the 21st century are what systems theorist Russell Ackoff referred to as “messes”—complex dynamic systems of problems that interact and reinforce each other over time. In this article, the authors argue that the lack of progress in managing messes is in part due to the predominance of a university-driven isolated-impact approach to social problem solving. The authors suggest an alternative approach called systemic engagement (SE), which involves universities as partners in systemic approaches to community change. The six principles of SE are presented and illustrated with a case example. Barriers to SE are discussed, and strategies are proposed for increasing faculty use of this methodology. The promises and perils of SE as an alternative community-engaged approach to social problem solving are considered.