With skyrocketing tuition, shrinking budgets, increasing demands for performance-based measurements of academic success, and mounting assaults on the research mission of universities, it is time to ask: what are public research institutions doing—or what should they do—to fulfill their compact with the citizens of their states?
One among many viable approaches is the University of Texas at Austin's (UT-Austin) Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) initiative, a community-university collaboration that seeks to foster “citizen-scholars”—students who can offer more than narrow disciplinary knowledge to society. IE has been endorsed by presidents and chancellors from such prestigious institutions as the Ohio State University, Stanford, the University of California, Syracuse, and the University of North Carolina. Working in cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional teams, IE participants have found solutions to overcrowded emergency rooms and have used the scholarly methodology of oral history to implement programs for increasing diversity and promoting culturally-sensitive communication in local schools.
IE students take to heart the ethical obligation to discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference. They understand that the mission of higher education should include more than being a repository of knowledge bestowed upon a fortunate few—that it simultaneously should include being a partner of the larger society with an intellectually adventurous and fierce civic orientation. The program also reveals to students how local, national, and global problems are complex and cannot be solved by any one academic discipline or sector of society.
Yet serious challenges remain. To fully realize the ethical imperative to make a difference requires academe to confront stark realities: inflexible administrative structures, historically embedded practices, status-quo thinking, and inertia.
Consider just a few of the challenges confronting citizen-scholars:
• How do scholars, who live primarily in a world of ideas, develop the rhetorical skills needed to incubate and sustain projects requiring fiscal and intellectual investment by stakeholders inside and outside the university-skills typically disassociated from the scholarly enterprise?
• How can faculty integrate, synthesize, and unify knowledge to permit solutions to complex social, civic, and ethical problems? How do we ensure the continued proliferation of specialized knowledge, while concurrently encouraging renaissance thinking?
• How can faculty who engage in public scholarship flourish, given traditional performance assessment? Incentive systems fail to encourage public scholarship and may actually devalue research that simultaneously contributes to society. What changes to institutional reward structures are requisite for academic engagement?
• How should academic institutions recalibrate methods for creating and delivering knowledge? Because historically original thought, lone discovery, and disciplinary contribution are considered more important than team work, what changes are needed to address problems requiring multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative forms of investigation?
Although diagnosis of the problem is a first step, faculty, administrators, and campus leaders have yet to discern fully how to make the change-resistant academy more responsive to the needs of society. It is time to reflect on how to harness the vast intellectual assets of universities as a lever for social good.
Fashioning genuine university-community synergies must move beyond platitude, becoming part of the day-to-day routines of universities. I raise these issues not because they immediately or easily can be answered, but because their articulation itself may be controversial, requiring careful debate and discussion. If we can agree that these or other questions accurately capture the challenges confronting citizen-scholars, then we are one step closer to realizing genuine academic engagement. Nevertheless, let me at least offer a few examples of what might be done to address several of these challenges.
First, public research universities should begin to deliver more cross-disciplinary, graduate-level courses on topics such as innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, ethics, and communication. When institutions like UT-Austin and the University of Washington experimented with this type of curriculum in their graduate schools, it was discovered that these courses equip graduate students with the necessary knowledge and skills not only to successfully develop and sustain their research but also to put their projects to work for the benefit of society.
Second, we must seriously revisit the issue of faculty assessment and tenure and promotion, much as the Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee and Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor are doing on their campuses. This should include a discussion of whether the traditional three-pronged approach to faculty contribution (research, teaching, service) makes sense. These may no longer be discrete categories, and perhaps the time has come to recognize the vital role of service (engagement) in scholarship.
Third, in an effort to integrate knowledge, engage the community, and recalibrate methods for discovering and transmitting knowledge, universities should offer “action seminars”—team-based collaborations among faculty and students from multiple disciplines, and stakeholders from the public and private sectors. Action seminars would not start with academic disciplines or particular bodies of knowledge, but would instead focus on specific problems facing society, such as the environment and health care, seeking to produce a whole that is more powerful than the sum of the parts. Outcomes could include public policy proposals, corporate strategies and partnerships, funded and published research, new ways of discovering and communicating knowledge, and spin-off communities of practice.
Fourth, universities should deliver academic-community mentorships, working with both graduate students in academic disciplines of interest and with community liaisons inside their proposed majors to find important connections between academic fields and their career aspirations. These mentorships would allow undergraduate students to thoughtfully pick an academic major and devise a program of study, and would help make seamless connections between academic disciplines and social problems. This initiative might even reduce time to degree and increase retention, thus saving money and enabling universities to educate more students.
Whether it's solutions like these or others, addressing the challenges of creating engaged universities must not be a platform for disgruntled faculty or external groups motivated by a political agenda. On the academic side, this cause requires prominent scholars to join the conversation. While understanding the distinctive mission of research institutions, many distinguished faculty also recognize the need to build connections between universities and communities. Moreover, they refuse to apologize for being scholars. Through example, they can concretely illustrate how “research” (thought and reflection) and “engagement” (action) are not inherently an either-or; each propels and contributes to the other.
Academic engagement is laudable in its own right and therefore ought to be pursued by faculty and students, and vigorously facilitated and supported by administrators. Yet there may be a more practical and urgent reason for academics to engage their communities: if, for example, we expect the public—legislators, students, parents—to pay higher education's increasing sticker price, then building more relevant connections between academe and society is a must. As former UT-Austin president Larry Faulkner bluntly put it: “The antidote to irrelevance is engagement of the university with the real needs and aspirations of the supporting society.”