Toward an Academically Engaged Academy

In the August 13, 2004 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, ASA President Michael Burawoy, responding to a New York Times op-ed by Stanley Fish, challenges sociologists not to retreat from public life. "Academics," he declares, "are living in a fool's paradise if they think they can hold on to their ivory tower . . . . But the chickens are coming home to roost as the public is no longer interested in our truth, no longer prepared to subsidize our academic pursuits. Fish would have us draw the curtains, close our eyes, and either accede to privatization or hope that the passion for the market will evaporate. It won't. We have to demonstrate our public worth."

Burawoy is correct. Fortunately, there is a movement afoot at public research institutions across the nation--to bring higher education out of the nineteenth and into the twenty-first century. With rising tuition, limited access to the nation's best universities, and increasingly complex social problems, many recognize that the need for public institutions to fulfill their compact with citizens of their states is more important than ever.

At the University of Texas at Austin, a critical mass of faculty embrace this compact, viewing themselves as "citizen-scholars"--researchers supplying more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge. They exemplify "academic engagement," taking to heart the ethical obligation to contribute to society, to discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference. In 2004-2005 several of these faculty (a poet, economist, philosopher, neurobiologist, theatre historian, and geologist), along with distinguished community members (including the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, CEO of a major healthcare network, and Chancellor the University of Texas System), will contribute to a newspaper series exploring how to engender greater connections between the university and community.

Confronting this quest to fully realize the ethical imperative to make a difference, however, is a stark reality: Inflexible administrative structures, historically embedded practices, status quo thinking, and inertia. Until these obstacles are overcome, the retreat from public life will not be arrested.

A sampling of challenges confronting citizen-scholars include:

  • How do scholars, who live primarily in a world of ideas, develop the rhetorical skills needed to incubate and sustain projects requiring fiscal and intellectual investment by stakeholders inside and outside the university--skills typically disassociated from the scholarly enterprise?
  • How can faculty integrate, synthesize and unify knowledge to permit solutions to complex social, civic and ethical problems? This is an enormous challenge in an academic culture that former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian says "respects specialists and suspects generalists." How do we ensure the continued proliferation of specialized knowledge, while concurrently encouraging renaissance thinking?
  • How can faculty who engage in public scholarship flourish, given traditional performance assessment? Incentive systems not only fail to encourage public scholarship but may actually devalue research simultaneously contributing to society. What changes to institutional reward structures are requisite for academic engagement?
  • How can faculty maintain standards of academic integrity and objectivity while participating in community projects in which they may become ideologically vested or serve as change agents?
  • How should academic institutions recalibrate methods for creating and delivering knowledge? Because historically original thought, lone discovery, and disciplinary contribution are considered more important than team work, what changes are needed to address problems requiring multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary and collaborative forms of investigation?
  • How can academic engagement be achieved in an environment maintaining that research is two-dimensional, either "basic" or "applied"--a long-held, rigid dichotomy frequently invoked to deter faculty from venturing too far from theoretical knowledge?
  • How might the entrepreneurial thinking that universities successfully deploy for technology transfer analogously be used to empower all of the arts and sciences--to unleash a university-wide spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship while respecting the sanctity of the academic enterprise?
  • How can the university better apply its morally centered quest for truth to matters of public concern? How can it encourage public deliberation that benefits from many opinions about and challenges to received wisdom, without being perceived as relativistic or unpatriotic?

Because diagnosis of the problem is the first step to solution, faculty must begin a conversation about how to make the change-resistant academy more responsive to the needs of society. It is time to reflect on what must be done to harness the vast intellectual assets of universities as a lever for social good--about how to fashion genuine synergy between the university and community to transform lives for the benefit of society.

This topic should be pursued by prominent researchers who, while understanding the distinctive mission of academic institutions, also recognize the need to build connections between the university and community and who refuse to apologize for being scholars. Creating a culture of academic engagement requires accountability and collaborative problem-solving in forthright public exchanges.

Burawoy's defense of public intellectual practice is laudable. Scholars in all disciplines should join the conversation, discovering how best to forge new connections between universities and society. Together we can make academic engagement more the rule than the exception; through collaboration it will become a defining characteristic of our academic brand name, designating our institutions as truly innovative and exemplary sites of learning in this century.

Rick Cherwitz, University of Texas-Austin

Rick Cherwitz is Professor of Communication Studies and Rhetoric and Composition, and founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program, which is focused on "Educating Citizen-Scholars".