To Reduce Risk to Activist Scholars, Change the Support Structures

To the Editor:

The discussion of the challenges of juggling activism and scholarship in your recent article, “When Activism is Worth the Risk,” (The Chronicle, July 20th) is much appreciated by those of us who have worked to balance these activities throughout our careers. As noted in the article, the balancing act typically is stated as an individual scholar challenge. However, we should not let departments, universities, and scholarly associations off the hook in their role in perpetuating the risks to creative scholars who are addressing broader societal inequities. The tensions between activism and scholarship have structural foundations in our universities and scholarly associations.

Rather than couching this in terms of a tightrope that individual activist academics must walk, universities need to change. The gold-standard of scholarship should not just be how it is judged in contributing to the discipline, but what impact it has on the quality of life of people and communities outside the universities — as measured by input from those communities.  Rather than occasionally recognizing and cheering on activist academic tightrope walkers from the sidelines, universities need to establish support systems for those scholars.

As the director of an interdisciplinary, nontraditional, collaborative university-community research center that is now in its 20th year, I can confirm that such institutional support systems do assist faculty in reducing risks and supporting activist scholarship. The Loyola University Chicago Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL) has been swimming against traditional academic currents through involvement of faculty, students, and community partners on our research teams. Community partners are involved in all aspects of research from conceptualization and research design to data collection and analysis.

We are a home where faculty (and graduate students aspiring to be faculty someday) can do activist research on issues ranging from youth organizing and affordable housing to immigration rights and racial justice. The collective accomplishments and credibility of the center, our research, and its impacts create a supportive environment, particularly for junior faculty. Deans have noted that an affiliation with CURL is recognized as a plus when faculty come up for tenure and promotion at Loyola.

The university from the president on down have been supportive of the center. The university has worked with us to build a strong endowment for CURL which typically supports research teams comprised of over 50 students, faculty, community partners, and fulltime staff working on over 15 projects in the average year. Community partners recognize the value of our research in their policy-change efforts and broader political battles.

We know that the problems that activist scholars face are typically problems created by inequitable social structures. It should be no surprise that the key to reducing the risk faced by activist scholars in universities is to be found in changing the support structures of universities themselves.

Philip Nyden
Distinguished University Research Professor
Director and Professor of Sociology
Center for Urban Research and Learning
Loyola University Chicago

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