American universities: reclaiming our role in society

But who will come out to talk with the public? Roger , CC BY-SA

American universities are facing a crisis of relevance. There is, quite simply, a growing tension between their internal cultures and their role within society.

But the good news is that a growing number of us academics are taking this issue head on, exploring a broader range of models for what it means to be a scholar within society, and challenging old models that stand in the way of such progress.

‘Stark fissures’ between gown and town

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the disconnect in this way:

“Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.”

Kristof was roundly criticized by a number of academics who accused him of lopsided arguments. But he was actually adding his voice to those of a growing number of prominent academics who are also calling for change, with book titles like Fixing the Fragmented University, Designing the New American University and many more.

Echoing this reality, the most recent Pew Research Center survey of public and scientists’ views on science and society exposed “stark fissures between scientists and citizens on a range of science, engineering and technology issues.”

For example, where 87% of scientists accept that natural selection plays a role in evolution, only 32% of the public agrees; where 88% of scientists think that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are safe to eat, only 37% of the public agrees.

In its most extreme example, actress Jenny McCarthy has been able to lead a movement in which parents choose not to vaccinate their children for fear of autism, despite the vehement rejection of that causal link by American medical institutions.

This dire state of affairs prompted National Geographic to devote a cover story to America’s “War on Science.”

At the same time, public universities are increasingly struggling to hold on to dwindling levels of state funding as state legislators profess a lack of appreciation of their value to society and parents struggle with their rising costs.

One Economist article opined that the American university system may be declining in much the same way that the Big 3 automakers did as their tuition costs rise, research displaces teaching as the primary focus of faculty, and administrative staffs grow to unprecedented proportions.

While one may worry about the future of the university in such circumstances, this drift from relevance has tremendous costs for society as well.

Academics have a critically important, though often neglected, role in the public and political debate on a range of issues: GMOs, climate change, gun control, health care, fiscal policy, nuclear power; the list goes on.

A time for self-examination

Two years ago, we were part of a group of 10 faculty at the University of Michigan who began to address this problem, exploring our role as academics in public and political discourse.

We started with a survey of our fellow faculty’s attitudes toward academic engagement, followed by a series of faculty forums, and culminated in a May 2015 conference that brought together experts and participants from across the US to discuss the role of academic engagement in public and political discourse.

The three days reflected the concerns of faculty but also provided unexpected insights into the nature of emerging challenges and opportunities.

We discovered a commitment to public dialogue among the faculty, although there are also concerns that engagement outside the walls of academia does not receive strong institutional support, leaving academics vulnerable to marginalization and even exclusion. For many within academia, public engagement is viewed as a waste of time at best, and anti-intellectual at worst.

There was also a clear sense that this is something we should be doing as academics, but something we have neither the training, the resources, nor the institutional support to undertake effectively. From our beginning as doctoral students through our evaluation for tenure, academic research is our primary metric of excellence.

Four university presidents discuss academic engagement in public and political discourse at a recent University of Michigan meeting. From right to left: Michael Crow (Arizona State University), Philip Hanlon (Dartmouth College), Mark Schlissel (University of Michigan) and Teresa Sullivan (University of Virginia). The panel was moderated by Andrew Hoffman (far left). University of Michigan

In an opening discussion between the presidents of the University of Michigan, University of Virginia, Dartmouth College and Arizona State University, it was clear that, while there was general agreement on the importance of academic engagement, individual institutions had markedly different challenges and approaches to its practice.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan spiced up the conversation by pointing out that many state legislatures not only fail to see the value of our research; some don’t think we should be doing research at all.

In the face of such concerns, there was surprisingly little clarity on what we mean by “engagement,” who should be engaging, how they should be doing this and what the role of the institution is in the public and political spheres.

There was much talk about cultural and institutional barriers. The criteria and process of tenure and promotion review came up again and again as an institutionalized disincentive to engage. We simply don’t know how to value or even measure impact beyond the academic world where, so often, it is the citation counts – the number of times a scholar’s work is cited by other scholars – that determine success.

Yet there was also the recognition that academics need to jolt themselves out of well-worn ruts and think creatively about how to successfully engage, rather than commiserate about how the institutions they themselves form create barriers to engagement.

Reflecting this, Penn State Professor Richard Alley made the point that if he could change one thing about the academy, he would change how universities measure “excellence.”

The need for two-way communication

Throughout the conversations, though, one aspect of engagement with the public was repeated again and again: it must be more than one-way communication.

To be truly effective, academics need to both listen and speak, to profess deep topic knowledge but also express humility and patience in hearing what people need and what they want.

As stated by Michael Kennedy from Northwestern University, we need to begin with the question “How can we help you?”

In fact, despite the urgency and confusion, Professor Jane Lubchenco – former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now Oregon State University professor – remarked that early-career academics are engaging whether we like it or not.

Indeed, we noted marked generational differences in this conversation. There is a growing hunger among scientists-in-training to ensure that their work has relevance beyond the ivory tower of the academy. They are already, for example, using forms of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs in innovative ways that older academics neither use nor fully understand.

Many of the nearly 60 PhD students who attended the conference worry that academia may take some time to be welcoming to their desires. This led some to wonder whether it will take the next generation of scholars to drag the “old guard” into relevance.

But with this theme came questions about whether young academics that value engagement will end up voting with their feet, migrating to those universities that provide them with the opportunities, support and recognition they are looking for. Indeed, this could create a new way to differentiate universities based on the faculty they hire, the students they attract and the communities they serve.

Initiatives taking place across the country

We are still mulling over the takeaway from the conference and plan to produce a final summary report later this summer.

But overall, what was clear from our deliberations was that faculty want to engage, and change is already in play, with programs like Northwestern’s Science in Society Program, the University of Massachusetts’ Public Engagement Project, Stanford’s Leopold Leadership Program, Harvard’s Scholars Strategy Network, the University of Michigan’s Arts of Citizenship Program and more developing at institutions around the country.

Reflecting the desire of the next generation to change the norms of academia, young scholars at the University of Michigan have created the RELATE program (Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement). This program’s story also demonstrates the resistance to public engagement that still exists in some of the US’s top academic institutions.

In RELATE’s inaugural year, some students were so worried about their advisor’s disapproval that they kept their participation a secret.

Whether such innovations will have a lasting impact on US universities as a whole is unclear.

But if the success of these programs is anything to go by, there is a growing hunger for more diverse academic institutions and career paths that enable research and teaching excellence to be augmented by excellence in engaging in public and political discourse – and finding relevance and value in communities outside the ivory tower.

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