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Public universities must do more: the public needs our help and expertise

Academics must engage with the communities outside the ivory tower. Columns image via

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has been in the national headlines for months, culminating in its central role at a recent debate in the city when Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton slammed government officials for dismissing the health of residents.

Sadly, not every marginalized community can depend on a political debate to highlight its cause. But in the absence of media frenzies and heavy-hitting politicians, to whom can beleaguered citizens turn?

Before Flint’s water issues hit the big time, help arrived from two unexpected sources – Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and director of the Pediatric Residency Program and Hurley Medical Center, and Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. Their interventions put the Flint water crisis on the map, ultimately leading to the national attention it’s received.

Hanna-Attisha and Edwards both work for large public universities. Yet it was their personal actions – not those of their institutions – that gave the citizens of Flint a voice. How much more could have been achieved if public universities themselves had spearheaded efforts to address the water crisis in Flint from the get-go?

This is a question I’ve grappled with for some time – both in my current position at Arizona State University (ASU) and previously. At the University of Michigan, for instance, I led a center that sought to connect academic research on risk to ordinary people who could use it. We were successful, although the only record of that now resides on the Internet archive site Wayback Machine. Even with this success, there were many times that I felt it was despite the institution we were a part of, rather than because of it.

‘Costs of doing science’ for the public good

Unfortunately, as I’ve experienced firsthand, there’s a stark disconnect between personal aspirations and institutional expectations in many of our public universities that severely limits their role in serving local communities. And it seeps down through the academic community.

For instance, three of the Ph.D. students working with Marc Edwards’ team recently concluded that despite being motivated by a personal desire to serve the Flint community:

Our experience in Flint has shown us some unpleasant costs of doing good science. It can mean burning bridges to potential funding and damage to your name and professional reputation.

This is a deeply disappointing lesson for scientists- and engineers-in-training to learn firsthand. Yet I suspect it’ll come as no surprise to most academics.

In most top-tier research universities, faculty members are evaluated against three criteria: research (how much money they’ve brought in, how many peer-reviewed papers they’ve published, how prestigious those publications are), teaching (how many students they’ve taught, how well they’re rated) and service (essentially how many university committees they’ve served on).

Within this framework, there’s little room for acts of public good. Even in the “service” bucket, what you do outside the “academy” is often considered inconsequential. These criteria actively discourage public service because it doesn’t directly bring in dollars or students or add to the prestige of the institution (more often than not as judged by the US News and World Report rankings).

And yet, despite this, I’m surrounded by academics who consider public service part of their vocation. Even in their article, Marc Edwards’ students stated with certainty that “Academic researchers are supposed to contribute to the public good.”

Public universities’ obligations to the public good

A commitment to public service is perhaps most readily associated with the U.S. land grant universities – established by the Morrill Act of 1862. This network of universities is charged with making the benefits of developments in agriculture, “home economics” and “related subjects” (the relevant legislation is a little old) accessible to the public and others through extension services.

However, while land grant universities – including Michigan State and Virginia Tech – have an institutional responsibility to public service, what constitutes such service is not always clear. Many, for instance, continue to focus on connecting agricultural and rural communities with academic knowledge. Some extension units, such as the one at Michigan State, have a much broader mission to improve the lives of state residents. Yet even engaged faculty members can struggle to define the social mission of a land grant university.

Things are murkier still for non-land grant public universities, though their role was originally envisaged as serving the public good through innovation and economic growth. As ASU President Michael Crow and ASU Professor William Dabars note in their recent book Designing the New American University:

Accessibility to our nation’s college[s] and universities served as a springboard to intergenerational economic mobility and a catalyst to innovation, which in turn brought prosperity to a broad middle class.

That’s a clear vision of public service, but it’s largely blind to responsibility at the local level. Crow and Dabars argue that even this big-picture conception has been diminished in the increasingly competitive world of university rankings. The metrics against which public universities measure themselves increasingly fail to take into account activities that don’t directly benefit the institution.

This institutional self-interest may help explain a seeming reticence on the part of Michigan’s two top universities to publicly address conditions in Flint – at least until the past couple of months when institutional engagement from both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University markedly picked up. And both schools are now publicly active in helping Flint residents.

Yet Flint is just one marginalized community out of many struggling with the impacts of polluted air, water and soil. There are many other communities in Michigan and beyond that could be served far more effectively than they currently are by their local public universities.

Universities should keep in mind those who live beyond their campus gates. Wally Gobetz, CC BY-NC-ND

Shifting values to value public service

Of course, serving the public good doesn’t necessarily come cheap. But even before worrying about balancing the books, public universities could take steps toward institutional cultures that place a greater value on supporting local communities.

  • Promote a culture of community service. Within the current three-legged university evaluation system of research, teaching and institutional service, serving local communities risks being inconsequential at best and harmful to academic careers at worst. But by adding a fourth leg of community service to faculty expectations, universities could reward those who connect their expertise with people who need it.

  • Support communication and engagement. Even if a stronger culture of community service existed within our public universities, many academics lack the skills necessary to bring their research knowledge to bear on issues of concern to the public. That’s changing, with university support for platforms like The Conversation and communication/engagement training programs such as RELATE becoming more widespread. Yet in most institutions, more could be done to train faculty and students in how to communicate and engage effectively.

  • Giving marginalized communities a voice. Our public universities collectively have the ears of hundreds of thousands of faculty and staff, millions of students and tens of millions of alumni and donors. What they say and do – or don’t – makes a difference. Using this influence to support local communities – especially those with no voice of their own – has not traditionally been part of a public university’s role. But it could be. By highlighting the needs of the needy and the ignored through social media and more conventional media platforms, public universities are uniquely positioned to provide amplification for these marginalized communities’s voices. In the case of Flint, for instance, early, frequent tweets from the nearby universities could have helped mobilize action to protect the community sooner.

Baking in commitment to social responsibility

Even in our public universities, money matters. If being responsible to local communities is seen as jeopardizing productivity and funding, it’ll be a tough sell.

This tension between people and profits is something the business world has long struggled with. It underpins the institutionalization (admittedly imperfectly in many cases) of ethical business practices such as corporate social responsibility and sustainable business practices.

You might expect public universities to be more socially responsible than businesses – their mission, after all, is the public good, not profit. But it’s surprisingly hard to find strong formal frameworks of socially responsible practices associated with higher education. Businesses tend to have prominent codes of business conduct that establish the boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. These are much harder to find at universities, in part because such codes are buried deep within institutional policies, but also because many are devolved to individual schools, departments and research leaders.

Even without profit as the top goal, money, prestige and power can be corrupting motives. As a result, while there are often good underlying intentions within our public institutions, it’s easy for practices to emerge that are not socially responsive or responsible – especially where people and communities end up standing in the way.

I suspect that this is by default rather than by design. From experience, public universities are by and large made up of people with strong individual social consciences. They want to serve the public good. It’s just that, somehow, the institution gets in the way.

This gives me hope that, with sufficient determination, these public institutions can transform themselves. Universities such as ASU, my own academic home, and others are already demonstrating that reimagining the role of public universities in our society is possible. The question is, can universities change enough to serve local communities, as well as society as a whole?

Because, for every Flint, there are thousands of other communities that you and I have never heard of, and maybe never will, but that still need all the help they can get to ensure a decent quality of life for those that live in them.

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