A Quest to Get Scholars Engaged in Community

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Read Other Essays in the Academic Engagement Series

Rick Cherwitz
Austin American-Statesman
August 16, 2004

There is a movement afoot at The University of Texas and other public research institutions across the nation--a movement to bring higher education out of the nineteenth into the twenty-first century. With rising tuition, limited access to the university, and increasingly complex social problems, the need for public institutions to fulfill their compact with the citizens of the state is more important than ever.

There is a critical mass of UT faculty who take this compact seriously, 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.

Too often, though, inflexible administrative structures, historically embedded practices, status quo thinking and inertia inhibit full realization of this ethical imperative.

Among the daunting challenges confronting universities aspiring to academic engagement are these:

  • 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 solution of 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 restricted measurements for assessing performance enforced by universities and academic disciplines? Incentive systems not only fail to encourage public scholarship, but may actually devalue research that simultaneously contributes 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 effectively 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? How might this agenda be pursued while remaining vigilant to 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 different opinions and challenges to received wisdom, without being perceived as relativistic or unpatriotic?

These are but a few challenges to citizen-scholars. Believing that awareness and diagnosis of the problem is the first step to solution, this editorial series begins a conversation about how to make the academy--a culture that far too often resists change--more responsive to the needs of society.

In the weeks to come, some of UT's eminent scholars--including a poet, philosopher, neurobiologist, economist, theatre historian, pharmacologist and geologist--weigh in on this issue. They reflect on what must be done to harness the vast intellectual assets of the university as a lever for social good--about what it will take to fashion genuine synergy between the university and its community partners to transform lives for the benefit of society.

Concluding essays are written by Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce Donald Evans, UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof and Dr. Patricia Hayes, Executive Vice President and CEO of SETON Healthcare Network--all of whom take seriously the need for academic-civic partnerships and increasing the accountability of educational institutions.

To be clear, this won't be a venue for disgruntled and gadfly faculty. Contributors are prominent researchers who, while understanding the distinctive mission of academic institutions, have spent their careers building connections between the university and community without apologizing for being scholars. They realize that creating a culture of academic engagement requires accountability and collaborative problem-solving in forthright public exchanges about how to enact change.

In this spirit, readers are invited to participate--to share ideas about how best to forge new, productive connections between UT and the community. Together we can make academic engagement more the rule than the exception; through collaboration it will become a defining characteristic of UT's brand name, designating this institution one of the truly innovative and exemplary public sites of learning in this century.

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Rick Cherwitz is Professor of Communication Studies and Rhetoric and Composition, and Founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program (IE) at the University of Texas at Austin [http://www.ut-ie.com/]