Remembering Dick Cone

April 21, 2020

Dick Cone died earlier this month. From 1980-2002, Dick led the Joint Educational Project at the University of Southern California. During that time and right through his final months, Dick was a powerful voice for the public purposes of higher education and for the role of experiential community-based learning in realizing those purposes.

A more detailed account of Dick’s life and contributions has been posted by California Campus Compact, which for years has recognized his contributions to our movement by presenting the Richard E. Cone Award for emerging leaders in community engagement. Here I want to share some personal reflections about Dick and his influence.

I got to know Dick Cone before I had ever met him. We got connected through an intersecting series of email exchanges over a period of about two years. Some of those exchanges included others and some were just between the two of us. They showed me many—though not all—of Dick’s significant characteristics.

Dick originally reached out because he got wind of Campus Compact’s efforts to explore a credentialing program for community engagement professionals in higher education. At the time, we were in the very early stages of our exploration, beginning a dialogue with Lina Dostilio about a research endeavor to provide a foundation for thinking through the competencies possessed by effective professionals in the field. Dick reached back out at various stages in the development of the program and as we shared emerging design elements through conferences, the Compact Nation Podcast, and our website.

To say that Dick was skeptical of our efforts would be to soften his position. Alarmed might be a better description. Dick feared that Campus Compact was heading down a path that would standardize the work of community engagement in stark contrast to what real engagement is all about. He feared that we would contribute to the elevation of hollow credentials over experience-based knowledge. He feared, above all, that we would drive the soul out of what is at its best profoundly soulful work that takes shape in the connections forged by real human beings joining with each other in common purpose.

But despite Dick’s deep concern about the direction we were heading, he reached out in a way that was absolutely respectful. In Dick’s well reasoned and carefully argued messages, one recognized that while Dick was a powerful critic of higher education, he was also an accomplished scholar who found ways to drive change within universities.

Dick was an exemplar of focusing on ideas rather than personalities in making an argument. He never questioned motives and focused instead on consequences. Dick’s arguments were blistering but also constructive. He read my responses carefully and took seriously Campus Compact’s interest in elevating the quality and consistency of ethical community practice across the country. Dick highlighted components he saw as crucial in building a program that could achieve our goals without eliminating the relational element of community engagement. In the end, Dick’s messages had a significant influence on the design and execution of the program as it now exists.

By the time I met Dick in person in 2017, we had been writing back and forth for several years. I knew, therefore, of his intellectual acuity, his commitment to an inclusive vision of community engagement, and his willingness to live by the values he espoused.

What I had not experienced through our correspondence was Dick’s deep personal warmth. On paper, Dick could be intimidating. In person, he was kind and self-effacing. None of what he did was about him; it was all about all of us. We miss him already.

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