New ways the community can access UT's resources

by Sylvia Gale
Austin American-Statesman
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Last spring, the director of a small Austin nonprofit group issued a sharp challenge to University of Texas administrators and faculty who had gathered to discuss public scholarship and academic engagement. "What happens," she asked, "when we understand public scholarship to include the intellectual work that takes place outside the university - by scholars, citizens and artists who have no university affiliation?"

At a conference devoted - or so we thought - to discussing the institutional climate that best allows UT's community to serve a greater public, this question was more than provocative. It was downright revolutionary.

By asking a room full of university representatives to recognize that the university doesn't have a monopoly on intellectual activity, Chris Strickling, director of VSA arts of Texas' Actual Lives Performance Project, demanded that we consider the university's public obligations in a different light. What if, rather than looking for ways to share knowledge generated and stored inside the university, we tried to use the university's resources to encourage outsiders to explore, produce and share their own knowledge?

This question requires a shift in our assumptions about what it means for the university to fulfill its ethical obligations to society by putting knowledge to work. It asks that we understand the university's commitment to "citizen scholars" to include not only publicly engaged academic scholars, but also community members engaged in the creative, collaborative exchange of ideas.

Administrators, faculty members and community representatives in the room that day last spring began to sketch out a tangible and imaginative answer to the challenge of extending opportunities for scholarship outside the university. What if independent scholars in Austin could apply for expanded access to the university's resources - the kind of access routinely granted to visiting scholars from other universities? What if, instead of sending UT researchers out to do research about Austin's nonprofit organizations and the people they serve, nonprofit staff members could step away from the daily routine and do this research themselves?

Last month, almost one year since that conversation began, those questions began taking the shape of two new programs launched by the UT Humanities Institute. The Humanities Institute Research Associate Program will provide Central Texans engaged in independent research with full access to library resources and with the opportunity to belong to a community of scholars.

The Community Sabbatical Program, funded by the Provost's Office and run in partnership with the Office of Graduate Studies, will grant flexible leave time to employees of Central Texas's nonprofits, providing them with the tools (time, money, library access and a connection with UT researchers) they need to work on finding solutions to problems that face their organizations. Nonprofit partners will benefit from the chance to explore research and resources that match their organizational needs.

Participating university partners will get a hands-on, practical sense of what is going on in areas that intersect their research. Programs such as these alter our understanding of "the university as expert." And in that way they also pose an important challenge to our understanding of catch-phrases like "service," "engagement" and "public scholarship."

Like those writing as part of last year's American-Statesman series on academic engagement, I believe that the long-term success of our public universities depends on the degree to which they respond to and serve their extended communities. That ability is enhanced by the kinds of institutional reforms proposed in earlier essays.

It will be easier for my colleagues and me to become "citizen scholars" in a university where business studies are framed ethically, where graduate programs in the sciences directly address urgent problems and where our training includes practice in the real-world arts of communication.

But the university's commitment to academic engagement is and should be about more than producing civically engaged academics. It is also about the university's responsibility to recognize, promote and stimulate the intellectual life of its greater community. Practicing that kind of "engagement" brings those of us inside the university closer to being the vital community partners that we want and need to become.

Gale is a doctoral student in UT-Austin's English Department and the community programs coordinator for the UT Humanities Institute.