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These are the kinds of stories that colleges like to tell about the real-world benefits of faculty research and the public-mindedness of the academy.
God knows higher ed could use some positive messaging, as public trust in colleges hits yet another all-time low. Recent polling by Gallup found that only about a third of Americans have confidence in higher education, a precipitous drop in perceptions from just five years earlier.
There are plenty of factors fueling that mistrust. Tuition continues to rise, and student debt dogs graduates well into adulthood. Employers and others question whether college degrees, once a given, prepare their holders for workplace success. And the culture wars have come for higher ed, with conservatives objecting to what they see as campuses’ overwhelmingly leftist values and ideas. In the Gallup survey, Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to have a negative view of higher ed.
For colleges and their supporters, public or community-engaged research is a way to answer the critiques: By using their expertise to solve concrete problems and shape public policy, higher-education institutions are working for the broader good.
“It’s a powerful way to make the case that higher education matters,” said Shalom Staub, director of the Center for Community Engagement at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It’s an antidote to the rhetoric.”
The trouble is, institutional structures at the heart of academe can get in the way of doing such work. Research that’s funded by big grants and weighted heavily in reviews for promotion and tenure is typically not community-based. Even the way public research is structured and measured for impact makes those barriers harder to eliminate.
The result, experts said, is that although college leaders may have an interest in encouraging community-based research, higher ed’s policies and practices can stifle and discourage it, particularly among early-career faculty members facing the pressures to win tenure. Unless colleges make changes in how they work, and in what they reward, such scholarship will continue to be marginalized.
“If universities want truly engaged scholars, they have to create the conditions for it,” said Teresa Córdova, who directs the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a research center that focuses on community health, local governance, and other issues important to urban areas. “Is there room for us in universities?”
“Our biggest asset as a research institution is our research, so shouldn’t we do research in service to our community?” said Ruth N. López Turley, a professor of sociology and director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.
López Turley earned tenure at the University of Wisconsin at Madison but left for Rice, where she had the opportunity to start a research consortium linking the university and Houston public schools. Before that, taking stock of her career, “I could point to nothing that had changed as the result of my work, and that was very defeating,” she said. “That’s why I got into research, because I thought research mattered.”
Although college leaders may have an interest in encouraging community-based research, higher ed’s policies and practices can stifle and discourage it.
In truth, there’s long been a tension about the purposes of academic work, between the cloistered scholars of the medieval university and efforts, like the establishment of land-grant universities and Britain’s civic-universities movement, that sought to tie research to community needs.
In the early 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois, who founded the first scientific school of sociology at Atlanta University, clashed with Robert E. Park, a prominent scholar at the University of Chicago. Du Bois thought scientific research could advance social change; Park did not. “Just think how different social science might be if Du Bois’s ideas had prevailed,” said Adam Gamoran, a sociologist who is president of the William T. Grant Foundation, which supports research to improve the lives of young people.
Gamoran and others point to two other 20th-century developments that tipped the balance away from engaged research: the rise of the modern American university, with its emphasis on specialization, following World War II, and the establishment of tenure.
While tenure is often thought of as foundational to higher education, it’s a fairly recent development. The American Association of University Professors drafted its first statement on tenure in 1915 and updated it in 1940; colleges followed with their own institutional policies. The practice was meant to safeguard academic freedom and protect faculty members from losing their jobs if they expressed unpopular views.
Public scholars don’t oppose tenure. The problem is that it had the effect over time of institutionalizing a set of norms: To decide which faculty members should qualify for such job protections, colleges had to set standards for assessment. “Its legacy was raising up certain forms of knowledge and not others,” said Michael Rios, vice provost for public scholarship at the University of California at Davis.
At research universities especially, the paramount factor in tenure considerations became the quality of research. Work with the public, if it was factored in at all, was counted as service, which carries far less weight, said UCLA’s Staub. Even at liberal-arts colleges, like his former institution, Dickinson College, service is typically a distant third to teaching or scholarship in promotion decisions.
Characterizing their work as service misrepresents it, community-engaged scholars said, lumping it in with service learning or volunteerism. What they are doing is research; it has rigorous standards and generates new knowledge.
Still, the prevailing metrics used to assess the quality of scholarship frequently work against such researchers. Publishing in highly cited journals is the coin of the realm in tenure review. But such journals often turn down submissions based on community-engaged scholarship, said Emily M. Janke, director of the Institute for Community and Economic Engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The publications often want research that can be reproduced by other scholars, but that may not be possible when working with certain populations. Or they want randomized controls that are common in labs but wouldn’t be ethical in the real world, Janke said. And the interdisciplinary nature of public-focused research can be an ill fit with field-specific publications.
“Community problems don’t happen in disciplinary siloes,” said Max Crowley, an associate professor of public policy and human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University at University Park.
At the same time, the places where community-based scholarship is more routinely published — transdisciplinary journals, policy publications, or reports to governments or community groups — may be less valued in traditional tenure assessments. In the context of tenure, “why is having five people read a journal article impressive,” Janke said, “while impacting congressional policy is less impressive?”
The growing number of adjunct faculty members in higher education today can also be deterred from doing such research, because they lack the job security that tenure provides or may have to spend most of their time teaching.
For junior scholars, “it can be an act of self-preservation to not do engaged scholarship,” Staub said. Younger academics can be told to put off public research until they earn tenure. But is it reasonable to expect that they’ll return to a line of research after spending years working and building a scholarly reputation in other areas? Others may, in effect, maintain dual research agendas, stretching themselves thin to pursue both community scholarship and work that “counts.”
If universities want truly engaged scholars, they have to create the conditions for it.
Janke said even some more-established scholars who do public research may be resistant to changing the rules for younger colleagues. “I was in a meeting in which a professor said, ‘Well, I had to write a book,’” Janke said. “She was furious and completely against the idea that people coming up for tenure now could be evaluated differently.”
When David D. Hart and Linda Silka, professors at the University of Maine at Orono, were starting a research institute focused on sustainable economic and community development, they brought in several members of the National Academy of Science as advisers. All gave them common guidance: Don’t let untenured faculty members take part in the project, because it could be a strike against them in tenure review.
The admonishments were familiar to Silka, who is now a senior fellow at the institute, the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.
As a social psychologist starting out at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, she was approached by local officials concerned that the city’s sizable population of Cambodian refugees was ignoring “no fishing” signs and catching and eating fish out of the polluted Merrimack River. Rather than admonish the refugees not to eat the poisoned fish, Silka took a culturally focused approach, holding community discussions to better understand how fishing was an important connection to their home country and drawing connections between the fishing traditions of Cambodia and the Portuguese and French Canadian roots of many Lowell residents. Once relationships and trust were established, it became easier to discuss food safety.
As word of Silka’s work began to spread, she was contacted by her graduate-school mentor, a prominent scholar in her field. “We were so disappointed,” she recalled her mentor saying. “We thought you’d be a great social scientist.”
Silka’s experience underscores an important point: Although academics are based at specific institutions, they have a second home, in their disciplines.
Those disciplinary communities decide what constitutes good scholarship. They are the gatekeepers of what gets published in disciplinary journals and act as peer reviewers in deciding which projects receive funding. When professors come up for tenure, the first and most important hurdle they must pass is within their departments and schools; external reviewers in their field weigh in on their professional accomplishments.
The rise of specialization within higher education means that openness to engaged scholarship can vary widely from discipline to discipline, with some, like education and public health, more receptive to embracing it, while others, like sociology, hang back. It also means that even if colleges change their institutional policies on public research, the impact of those policies can be stymied by disciplinary norms.
“It’s academic pluralism,” said Bruce W. Jentleson, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University who has worked on practices for community-engaged scholarship, both at his own institution and nationally. The way that policies are put into practice can vary greatly from department to department, he said.
When it comes to advocating for such work, presidents, chancellors, and other upper administrators may be supportive, because they spend more time interacting with the public. Jentleson found that at many institutions, the resistance comes from department chairs, who are more closely aligned with the academic disciplines.
Good public scholarship is collaborative and of mutual benefit. In the past, however, it may have been done in drive-by fashion, with academics conducting research on certain communities and then “ghosting them” once data had been collected and their findings had been published, said Crowley, the Penn State professor. “We haven’t always been the best partners.”
As a result, building trust is often a necessary first step before any research can be conducted.
Still, as the desire, and the imperative, to do publicly relevant research increases, a growing number of colleges are looking inward, reassessing their policies and practices.
The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was one of the first institutions to change its tenure policy, in 2006, telling review committees to consider public engagement in research, teaching, and service, said Andrew Furco, who was the university’s first associate vice president for public engagement until he stepped down in 2021.
Other institutions, including Syracuse University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, have also recognized community-engaged scholarship in their tenure and promotion policies, laying out guidance for how to assess it. Colleges may be more inclined to enact such policies when their peer institutions do so, Furco said. For example, the 10 University of California campuses are working together on a community-engagement strategy.
Much of the momentum for change has come from the most research-intensive institutions. For smaller or regional colleges intent on climbing the rankings, there could be hesitation about moving away from traditional scholarship that confers prestige. Still, at UNC-Greensboro, a less research-intensive institution, a focus on community engagement helped it build a distinctive reputation, Janke said.
Nevertheless, institutional efforts continue to run into disciplinary roadblocks. At Duke, a task force led by Jentleson recommended that public scholarship be recognized in assessments of faculty research. Five years later, progress has been made, but it’s uneven because it was left up to each department to put into practice, Jentleson said.
At UCLA, Staub and his team proposed institutionwide criteria but met resistance from a powerful faculty-senate committee that was reluctant to impose standards on schools and departments. The effort got a fresh boost when a dean, Darnell Hunt, who had been enthusiastic about rewarding community-engaged scholarship, was named provost. Staub said he has since been contacted by deans of a half-dozen other divisions interested in changing their policies.
Still, putting such policies into practice can be challenging. Emily J. Ozer, a professor of public health who helped draft UC-Berkeley’s plan, said supporters have been careful to emphasize that in recognizing public scholarship, the university is not minimizing the importance of basic research. “We make sure our messaging is clear: This is not about lowering standards; it’s about broadening them,” she said. “It’s about expanding evidence of impact.”
There has been momentum, both nationally and on the institutional level, to find new ways of doing so. In Maine, Hart and Silka decided to ignore the advice from senior scientists and allow junior faculty members to join the Mitchell Center’s work. They committed to mentoring those researchers. Over a decade, everyone who has come up for tenure has been successful, Hart said.
Another development has been the rise of narrative CVs, which allow faculty members to frame their work in ways other than quantitative metrics. Portland State University and the University of California at Davis both offer programs to help professors write impact statements about community-engaged research. At UNC-Greensboro, Janke counsels researchers putting together their tenure and promotion dossiers.
Penn State’s Crowley leads a research consortium that helps translate academic research for policymakers and identify new measures of impact that could resonate within academe. For example, they ran an experiment to gauge how providing congressional offices with scientific evidence of the effects of certain children and family policies has an impact on legislating. The lawmakers that received such information didn’t introduce more bills than their colleagues, but they were more likely to cite academic research in the legislation they proposed, regardless of political party.
Some disciplines are also shifting. Jentleson and other public-focused political scientists started a book series with Oxford University Press that focuses on theory while also embracing policy. He was also part of an effort to help graduate students and early-career scholars in political science and international relations link their research to public policy, giving them media training and advice on writing about their work for nonacademic audiences. More than 15 years after the program started, some graduates are now department chairs.
Other shifts include the development of graduate-school courses on community-engaged research, new professional networks and consortia of scholars and institutions, the establishment of peer-reviewed publications on public research, and a growing number of colleges appointing senior administrators to oversee engagement, including research.
Outside groups are also pushing higher ed to change. Since 2006, colleges have been able to get a special Carnegie classification as community-engaged institutions. But when UCLA applied to renew its recognition, outside reviewers warned the university it would need to show progress on integrating community engagement into tenure and promotion if it wanted to retain the designation. That spurred Staub and his colleagues to take up the issue. Likewise, feedback during its Carnegie renewal led Portland State to pilot a program to assess its work with community partners, said Fletcher Beaudoin, director of the university’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, who was in charge of its reapplication.
When Ozer, the UC-Berkeley professor, applied for funding from the William T. Grant Foundation to support her research with San Francisco public schools on chronic absenteeism, it came with strings: How did the university enable such research? While campus culture at Berkeley had long been supportive of such work, it lacked formal policies. Ozer’s grant sparked efforts to enact institutional guidelines for promotion and tenure, the first University of California campus to do so.
The Grant Foundation is one of a number of philanthropic groups to tie support for community scholarship to deeper change. Public funders, too, have sought to encourage public research. Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health consider community impact in awarding grants — a $20-million NSF grant helped start Maine’s Mitchell Center, conferring credibility on it, Hart said. In California, state funding to public universities for climate-change research had standards for community engagement built into the requests for proposal.
“We’re not telling universities what to do, but we hope to create enabling conditions,” said Angela Bednarek, director of the Evidence Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, part of a network of more than 70 funding groups. “We can nudge.”
But the crisis of public perception could add new urgency to such work. “Universities today are under great pressure to be responsive to their communities,” said Gamoran, of the William T. Grant Foundation. “The politics of higher ed have become more fraught and more intense.”
Engaged, and results-oriented, scholarship may offer colleges a concrete way to build deeper connections with their communities, to demonstrate the value of their knowledge, and to counter declining trust. Indeed, when the Association of American Universities surveyed the public about what made their lives better or worse off, nearly eight in 10 said scientific and medical researchers had a positive impact, more than any other aspect of higher ed.
When Angus King, one of Maine’s U.S. senators and a former governor of the state, met with Mitchell Center officials about their work, he grew animated. “I just wish you’d been around when I was governor,” he told Silka and Hart.
Over the years, the institute has put nearly 150 university researchers into the field across Maine, working with state officials and municipalities, conservation groups and NGOs, businesses and tribal organizations on issues including water quality, invasive species, and tidal-energy development.
It’s a compelling story of how academic expertise can advance societal good. But until higher ed makes more changes in how it values and rewards this research, that narrative could remain uncommon.