Faculty who choose to act on their sense of social responsibility, beyond research and teaching, are not often rewarded by universities, and perhaps should be. I do not feel confident in what I believe might be done to remedy this situation. I am not sure that encouraging public engagement without clarifying what it means and entails is even a benefit to society.
Most of us would probably agree that engaging the public is good for some things and bad (or matters of indifference) for others. An example of a bad idea is the attempt to promote racism or fascism by faculty who claim to have arrived at their ideas rationally and according to some notion of the good of society. Should we reward such a project even though it seems to be an instance of engaging the public?
Once we try to define what we mean by the words “public” and “community” and what it means to “engage” them, we will most likely need to rethink what we believe about the obligations intellectuals have to society as a whole. For example, a common idea of a public may imply that differences of class, gender, race, and the like are of no account. That is, we engage the public when we speak across such differences and not for them or to them. Similarly, “community” may indicate entities impossible to identify and which may not even exist in the way suggested by the notion of “engaging” them. Even if we feel we know what we mean by a community, do we know who listens to and speaks for that community?
When we look at what might be meant by “engaging,” the liberal value of neutrality comes into focus. While I endorse this value in general, I must admit that it may make it difficult to distinguish between what does and does not satisfy those values initially taken to be reasons for “engaging the public and the community.”
I also believe it is utterly crucial to defend academic freedom and that its defense is increasingly difficult to maintain. But I cannot claim that without thinking of possible exceptions (for example, prohibiting yelling “fire” in a crowded auditorium), including social and political exceptions. While this requires a long and probably contentious discussion, I cannot imagine a person who would not endorse some exception, thereby raising doubts about the putative value of neutrality in engaging the public.
In any case, whether we want to protect academic freedom by rewarding what academics do in public is not the same as protecting their freedom to be public intellectuals. Both of those issues are key to understanding the problem of whether engaging the public or the community should be taken into consideration in tenure and promotion decisions. So one issue I am left with is the option of either tolerating participation in public discourse (by not punishing it under any circumstances) or rewarding it (by having it count toward tenure, promotion, numbers of classes assigned, choice of classes to teach, etc.).
Perhaps this attempt to delineate the complexity of the problem goes too far, but the fact remains: Academics are rarely rewarded for engaging in public discourse; instead, they are often punished.