Leadership & Governance

How to Make Public Engagement a Priority at Research Universities

Robert J. Jones, President, U. at Albany

February 03, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Public universities should deepen their engagement with their communities and make those partnerships part of their core academic missions, says Robert J. Jones, president of the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York system. Universities' expertise should be used to solve society's complex problems, he says, and public engagement needs to be integrated into both faculty-reward systems and students' educational experiences.

Mr. Jones spoke with The Chronicle about how college leaders can help overcome public mistrust of higher education by approaching community partners with more humility. On their campuses, he says, presidents need to make the case that community engagement not only is in the public's best interest but also is in universities' best interest.



SARA HEBEL: Hi. I'm here with Robert Jones, president of the University at Albany. Welcome.

ROBERT J. JONES: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

SARA HEBEL: One of the things you've said is important for becoming a leading public research university is to deepen the engagement with your community. Why does that matter? And what are some of the things that universities should be doing more of, not doing enough of?

ROBERT J. JONES: Well, it matters greatly given the time and the era in which we are living where there's a lot of mistrust of higher education institutions. There's questions about the value of an education. And I think one of the ways to really help build public trust is for universities to make it a top priority in terms of leveraging its resources to be deeply engaged with communities.

We have a responsibility, I think, particularly as public research universities, to work with communities in very seamless ways to solve some of the complex problems that face society. And so I've been very much a very strong supporter of the notion that research universities, public research universities in particular, need to step up and play a major role in helping to solve some of these complex issues. And public engagement is one of the core priorities in my administration at the University at Albany.

SARA HEBEL: Where has this mistrust come from? Why do you think that's been allowed to build up?

ROBERT J. JONES: Well, I think it comes from a number of places. First and foremost, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that in many communities, universities have not necessarily been a good partner. They have not necessarily approached communities in the proper way, in the proper context, as being a partner.

Much too often in higher education, I think universities have come to communities that, we're from the university, and we're here to help. But it's always from the perspective and from the paradigm that we have all the knowledge, we have all the expertise, and we're going to tell you how to solve your problems, rather than from the context that there's mutual and reciprocal learning that has to occur in a truly reciprocal partnership.

And that's the framework around which community engagement has to be shaped. We have to approach communities as equal partners and in a way that we can leverage our resources to solve some of these problems that are much too complex for any one entity to solve alone. And so that is the starting framework around which you really have to do deep public engagement is starting out as equal partners, leveraging our resources to solve complex issues.

SARA HEBEL: What specific things are you doing? What works?

ROBERT J. JONES: Well, based on my 27 years of experience, and particularly the last nine where I've had major responsibilities now at two universities to drive public engagement, one as a senior vice president for academic administration, and now as the president of the University at Albany, it's been my experience that it takes a commitment from the top that public engagement matters, that it's the core principle of the university.

And you have to send that message to your faculty and staff, particularly the faculty on the tenure track, that the work that they do in public engagement is not at the margins of the academic discipline but is at the core. It's very much valued, and it will count in consideration for advancement in the university.

That's a more difficult message to send because it requires a higher education entity to think differently about the reward system, but it's something that's absolutely critical to do. And we've started that conversation at the University at Albany.

And that, first of all, you have to demonstrate how public engagement plays a major role in enhancing the education experience of our students as well. So in addition to leveraging our academic expertise in partnership with the community, we have this enormous asset of our students who can benefit greatly from being engaged with community through service learning projects and all kinds of activities that will help make them better citizens in the future, as well as help them be a solution to solve some of these complex societal issues.

SARA HEBEL: One environment in which you've talked about engaging more directly is the K through 12 school system. Why does that matter?

ROBERT J. JONES: Well, it matters in a number of ways. And I'm a very strong advocate for the fact that I think university presidents, and higher education in general, have far too long sat on the sidelines of this critically important issue. It's been rather convenient to say, well, the superintendent or the school system is not doing x, y, and z. It's not our problem. If they would only do a better job of sending us better students, then everything would be right with the world.

We can't sit on the sidelines because you all know the demographic shifts that are occurring. We all know what's happening with educational attainment. For every 100 ninth graders in the state of New York, only 23 will actually graduate with a college degree and in a timely fashion. And those numbers are just not appropriate.

So it's been my position that given the demographic shifts, given the educational outcomes, we can't sit on the sideline knowing that we have a responsibility for educating a more diverse population of students coming from underserved backgrounds without higher education taking a more active role in working with K through 12 systems to make sure that each and every child that graduates from high school will have the habits and the skill set to be successful in postsecondary education, whether it's a technical school or whether it's a four-year university.

That's an obligation that I think every university president should have in terms of its role as a research university, in terms of its role as a publicly engaged university. It's not something that we can ignore any longer, and we can't just give lip service to it. We actually have to roll up our sleeves and be involved in the work. And that's what we're doing at U Albany.

SARA HEBEL: What are three things you think other leaders like yourself should be doing to make a difference on this front?

ROBERT J. JONES: I think you have to declare that this a priority. You have to get yourself engaged with the K through 12 educational system. And I don't care what strategy you might want to use, whether it's the collective impact strategy that the Cincinnati Strive model has been advocating for, that I had the pleasure of implementing both in Minnesota, and now working with Chancellor Zimpher in terms of driving this cradle-to-career strategy with the Albany Public School District called Albany Promise.

And so we are deeply engaged. We actually serve as the backbone. We are hosting the Albany Promise at the University at Albany, where we have responsibility and oversight for the staff. We have financial resources that we are investing in this cradle-to-career strategy for the collective impact of closing the achievement gap and creating better educational outcomes. We sit around the table as one of three conveners of this initiative. We are owning the initiative.

And in the role that I play as the co-chair of the Capital Region Economic Development Council, we are trying to find ways to move this to be a regional strategy, not just a strategy to focus on one school district, because we know that students are very highly mobile within our Tri-City region. Less than 30% of the students that graduate from Albany High School actually started out there as kindergarten and stayed there all the way to 12th grade.

So the mobility issue necessitates that you use a regional approach, where you get all the K through 12 educational systems, all the higher education entities, not just U Albany, but the other higher education providers around the table to move away from the "thousand points of light" approach where everybody's doing their own things. There's no real validation about what works. And so these cradle-to-career strategies, regardless of which one you're focusing on, really has to be focused on what works for kids to attain better educational outcomes.

SARA HEBEL: Finally, I'd ask, back on campus, how do you make the case to faculty?

ROBERT J. JONES: Well, we make the case to faculty very, very clearly, again, around the notion that engaged scholarship is critically important. It's something that almost every faculty member, regardless of whether you're in human biology, social sciences, or criminal justice, that there are ample opportunities for most of our faculty to find some way to be involved in a very systematic, impactful way in public, engaged research and scholarship.

And we send a very strong message. In my inaugural address, I mention this as one of the four stakes that were critically important to move the university to the next level of excellence. You have to follow the money and follow what we're investing in.

And so we have invested in moving our public engagement office that was a one or two-person operation for a number of years, we've now hired a new dean of the College of Social Welfare who is also the vice provost for public engagement. And so we're thinking strategically about how we position that leadership position within the academic side of the house so it no longer reports to the president. It reports to the provost's office.

And we think all of this sends a very strong message that, number one, it's a part of the academic core. It's part of our academic values. It matters to the university. And it's in our best interests to make sure that we are partnering to solve some of these complex issues. And it's a part of the educational experience for our students.

SARA HEBEL: Thank you, President Jones, for being here today.

ROBERT J. JONES: It's my pleasure.