The financial crises of the first two decades of the 21st century has forced innovation on universities. Forced to compete for decreasing numbers of students less able to afford increasing costs of traditional education and more likely to encounter university education instrumentally a factor in strategic entry into labor markets, universities have proceeded with profound changes the effects of which will not be apparent to most for years to come. (A great student perspective on the crisis of university education may be accessed here).
(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)
Most of these changes have been well veiled by a combination of well developed rhetoric of passivity ("we can only respond to the market" rhetoric, whose falsity is only augmented by the profound effect on markets that responses produce especially by the largest university players) and by restructuring that increasingly re characterizes most important aspects of university operations as administrative and financial and thus beyond the reach of the traditional governance mechanics of academic governance. These changes have found ready acceptance and the culture of university governance has been affected so that faculty, trustees, administrators and students have begun to understand the university as cultural object in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
At middle tier universities the changes have been evidenced in a number of ways. One of the most interesting is what has been euphemistically pushed by senior administrators as "pedagogical efficacy" (see here). In the form of a movement toward "engaged scholarship" some aspects of this drive involve the active complicity of well placed faculty. The ways in which influential faculty have rushed to rework their academic cultures to more comfortably conform within new markets driven operational cultures at universities provides a useful basis for understanding the nature and direction of changes to the "business" of the academy. In the process of being "helpful", these faculty efforts that mean to change the culture of the academic enterprise, may transform the nature of the academic enterprise, from an autonomous production model driven by its own objectives to one that becomes a secondary element of wage labor markets and the enterprises that drive them. This essay considers whether recent movements to compel academic conformity to so-called "engaged scholarship" might provide a good example of the profound and perhaps profoundly disturbing example of faculty complicity in movements from education to training models, models in which the academic enterprise may lose its autonomy and thus transformed, more explicitly serve other masters.
Engaged scholarship might be usefully understood this way:
The term "scholarship of engagement" is an emergent concept first used by Ernest Boyer in a 1996 article by that title. The term redefines faculty scholarly work from application of academic expertise to community engaged scholarship that involves the faculty member in a reciprocal partnership with the community, is interdisciplinary, and integrates faculty roles of teaching, research, and service. While there is variation in current terminology (public scholarship, scholarship of engagement, community-engaged scholarship), engaged scholarship is defined by the collaboration between academics and individuals outside the academy - knowledge professionals and the lay public (local, regional/state, national, global) - for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. The scholarship of engagement includes explicitly democratic dimensions of encouraging the participation of non-academics in ways that enhance and broaden engagement and deliberation about major social issues inside and outside the university. It seeks to facilitate a more active and engaged democracy by bringing affected publics into problem-solving work in ways that advance the public good with and not merely for the public. (New England Resource Center for Higher Education, Definition of Engaged Scholarship).
Indeed, Ernest Boyer's germinal work is usually cited as the cource of this model, one that seeks to tie also scholarship to a praxis based communal utility. (Boyer, E. (1996). The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Service and Outreach, 1(1), 11-20. Boyer, E (1996).pdf). Today, more than 15 years after its publication, its thesis has seeped into academic popular culture in important ways. Indeed, the interest in engaged scholarship is broad and deep. For example, The Research University Civic Engagement Network (TRUCEN) has published a "Research University Engaged Scholarship Toolkit," which is meant to help further the project of engaged scholarship. They also provide a useful bibliography: HERE. The justification for engaged scholarship is interesting:
Research universities are unique. They produce most of the latest and cited research, prepare the next generation of college and university faculty, have extensive library and research facilities, serve as models for other higher education institutions, and are often referred to as the envy of the higher education world.
While their strength is research, generally speaking these universities have lagged behind other higher education institutions such as land-grant universities in organizing and systematizing partnerships with communities to ameliorate social ills. Nevertheless, research universities are in an admirable position to advance community engaged scholarship; indeed this may be their contribution to the community engagement movement with the greatest potential. But to do community-engaged research well requires new understanding, practice, and epistemology that is qualitatively different than that prioritized in traditional scholarship. To gain recognition and reward for community engaged scholarship at research universities requires new ways of documenting and evaluating this work. This Toolkit contains resources that address these matters. (Research University Civic Engagement Network, "Research University Engaged Scholarship Toolkit" (Introduction--"Why an Engaged Scholarship Toolkit for Research Universities?")).
There is both a critical and progressive element to this definition--one that re-frames the focus of education and the production of knowledge from one that is centered on itself to one that is far more instrumental--instrumental int he sense that knowledge production serves others (wage labor markets, enterprises, politics, etc. to whose objectives its production must be bent). (Cf. Nicholas Blomly, "Uncritical Critical Geography," Progress in Human Geography 30(1):87-94, 92 (2006)). The central notion, one echoed recently with approval by CIC provosts in its form as so-called "adaptive instruction" (CIC Ad Hoc Committee for Online Learning, CIC Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework (June 15, 2013)), is the imperative to de-center faculty from the processes of scholarship and teaching. With respect to teaching the shift is quite self conscious:
This means not only a philosophical shift of attitude from “What do I want to teach?” to “What do I want my students to learn?” It also means a shift of accountability toward promoting student learning and collecting systematic data about whether or not our teachers and students are succeeding—together. (CIC Ad Hoc Committee for Online Learning, supra).
With respect to scholarship, the shift perhaps is more subtle, focusing on the move from pure to applied research, whether in its Marxist form of praxis notions or in its free markets form of value maximization. In a sense, this move suggests that the driver of research, of scholarship, moves from the faculty member undertaking the work, to the productive social forces that may benefit from it. As with teaching, accountability also moves from the research community to the targets of scholarship. And scholarship is understood, like teaching, in its more instrumental and networked character, as a means of producing value--either students effectively trained for adsorption by wage labor markets or research of measurable profit to the university, government, civil society or private enterprises. Faculty, as a consequence are abstracted. No longer individuals, they become means to the ends of others--factors in the production of this or that, in connection with which their utility (and thus their value) is measured. And as abstraction--means of production--they lose their autonomous character as meaningfully important stakeholders in the educational enterprise itself. In effect, in its most advanced form, engaged scholarship suggests the illegitimacy of a relationship between autonomous equals among academics, the university, and the public and private communities of enterprises in which she undertakes her role in knowledge production, and proffers a view of the academic as a cog in vertical relationships in which her autonomy is substantially reduced.
For all that, and its potential to substantially reshape the academy, especially the relation of academic to her institution and her relationship to other university stakeholder communities, much current scholarship about engaged scholarship has been cautious--especially about the relationship of engaged to traditional scholarship. (e.g., Furco, A. (2002). A comparison of traditional scholarship and the scholarship of engagement. In Promoting civic engagement at the University of California: Recommendations from the strategy group on civic and academic engagement 10 (Anderson J. & Douglass, J.A. et al,, eds., .Berkeley, CA: Center for Studies in Higher Education). At its best, engaged scholarship might suggest targets for engagement, and a focus for study; see also HERE). And indeed, in isolation, engaged scholarship might be considered benign, and even useful. But it is a very short step from welcoming a broadening of the academic enterprise to using the particular techniques of engaged scholarship to advance strategies that will reduce faculty roles in the shaping of academic mission and by de-centering and abstracting faculty, remove them from the equation of the education business. That, in turn, can as readily produce under the banner of engaged scholarship the sort of training methodologies that reduce the university to the worst sort of polytech and eliminate any possibility of producing an education of students for leadership roles--a task that might then increasingly migrate back to elite schools. While this shift might produce the satisfaction of middle brow jobs for graduates, it will also effectively produce a education-class ceiling on advancement that reproduces the worst class barriers of the last century. In a very broad sense, then, the issue of engaged scholarship is directly tied to the more fundamental issue of the role of the university itself--servant to the community, autonomous producer of knowledge, servant of wage labor markets, class sorting device, etc.
The discussion to this point suggests the need for a healthy wariness about engaged scholarship--especially in the current "crisis" context in which universities are said to find themselves. But wariness does not suggest a simplistic rejection of the notion of engaged scholarship--just a caution against its embrace as a panacea for all that ails or as a means of sweeping aside in wholesale fashion what has taken a century or more to build up. With that as background there are some useful strans of engagement that are worth pursing by a university faculty that wishes to avoid complicity with finance based quality issue decision making.
First, engaged scholarship can serve as the cover label for efforts to broaden engagement by students in research experiences, especially at the undergraduate level. This is, in effect, a form of internally driven engagement scholarship that is truest to the autonomous knowledge production mission of academics in research universities. Engagement here requires partnerships with the university. It is one thing to encourage faculty to seek to engage their students in their own research projects, or even to supervise appropriately structured student research tied to such faculty research. It is quite another to fund such projects. That funding must come form faculty through grants (and thus potentially imposing increased grant based obligations the effects of which are unknown) or acquiring university funding in some form. More troubling, though, may be student research that is intertwined with community engagement projects at the heart of engaged scholarship. Ethical issues coercion issues, issues of freedom of expression and the like may make this tricky. Because community engagement, public or private, may touch on political, moral, religious or personal belief, moving from discretionary to mandatory programs of research participation that burden these important student autonomy spheres may pose a substantial problem.
The last point of course implicates in a negative way the sometimes desired objective of using engaged scholarship and research participation to contribute to moral and ethical development, to civic engagement, and to the service mission of the University. Beyond the easy to spot issues of abuse--especially as a means of disciplining conformity and extracting silence from people traditionally marginalized on the basis of their beliefs, practices, race, class, religion, sexual preference, gender and the like, is the more important issue of coherence. The meaning of moral and ethical development, for example, remains substantially ambiguous, and is likely to be contested when applied in specific ways. The university as an institution long ago lost its legitimacy as a source for moral and ethical training--especially now when these things have become much politicized. When directed toward students, the problems are compounded, especially when the university means to use engaged scholarship to further anything but the most generic and lawfully justifiable morals and ethics.
Third, engaged scholarship is at its most vulnerable when it is used as a cover to advance other agendas--for example the battle over the general education programs of most major research universities. Most people will see through the subterfuge. And at that point engaged scholarship becomes an instrument through which the politics of inter departmental competition is played out, for example in the division of general education class spoils--though of course, the language of the debate would admirably hide these realities. The possibility of corruption of engaged scholarship is compounded when it is undertaken for the basest reasons--the efforts to produce a university "brand." Engaged scholarship as a branding technique is troublesome. The objective of branding tends to turn the issue of engaged scholarship on its head, and suggests no real commitment to the conceptual foundations of engagement. It is to be utilized only to the extent that it seals a "brand" image, and otherwise can be ignored. There is a methodological danger to this sort of business based commitment--the incentive to reduce engaged scholarship to empty formalism. That empty formalism produces pedagogical reductionism of the worst sort--faculty engagement could would consist of the forms of engagement and limited to the appearance of engagement sufficient to satisfy branding requirements. That incentive would produce substantial transaction costs, especially in the form of policing engagement, but one in tension with the branding goal. The mixed message will prove costly.
Fourth, engaged scholarship can become a distinguishing characteristic of a university undergraduate education. That is simple enough with a sufficient assertion of administrative power. The difficulty, of course, would come from the pull of academic freedom. Engaged scholarship, as a form of pedagogy, might be difficult to impose. It is easier to encourage. But to encourage and not to impose makes the objective of creating "distinguishing characteristics" that much harder. Even when it is successful, it may vary substantially between departments. Harder, that is, unless the objective is merely going toward branding.
Fifth, engaged scholarship can be used instrumentally to strengthen the bonds between the undergraduate experience and the outside world. But the more fundamental question might focus on the reasons for this connection. The engaged scholarship literature, of course, provides some justification. And some of these are quite valuable. Still, instrumentalism can strengthen these bonds in more troublesome ways as well. Engagement scholarship can in its worst aspects produce the tail wagging the dog effect. To produce engaged scholarship one needs to reach out to the community, and to connect with the community requires the fashioning of engagement scholarship that is acceptable or useful to the community. Where business is involved that raises ethics issues. Where government is involved it raises other issues. Where civil society is involved it raises substantial issues of moral, ethical and political choices and coercion of student participation with forms of engagement to which they may neither agree nor be comfortable with.
Sixth, engaged scholarship can also be used instrumentally for other and sometimes related university efforts, for example university on line education. But online education itself produces its own set of difficulties (Do MOOC Faculty Have a Responsibility For How Courses are Used?; Debating MOOCs: Shared Governance, Quality Control, Outsourcing, and Control of Curriculum at Harvard, Duke, American, San Jose State). These difficulties may be compounded with the introduction of engaged scholarship to the mix. The hybridity of online education and engaged scholarship regimes may enhance corruption of the fundamentally well meaning objectives of both. The corruption, of course, emerges from the premise of de-centering faculty in both types of endeavors, and the consequence is that the educational project can quickly devolve into elaborate forms of training for the specific benefit of either the object of engagement or in the case of online education, the wage labor markets. In either case, the transformative potential of both on education is immense, and not well understood.,
Seventh, given these concerns, it is important for faculty, as a body, to retain substantial control over the curriculum and curriculum submission process to enable all units and departments to develop a flexible engaged scholarship curriculum that covers all areas of engaged scholarship. But that enhances curricular control is itself a high price to pay for the flexibility of engaged scholarship. In a sense, the cure for faculty de-centering is more faculty de-centering, this time to an institutional embodiment of the faculty that itself may not be free of administrative influence with respect to broad aims and objectives. The transaction costs can include both much longer times to course approval, much more intrusive processes of review and much greater incentives to avoid approval by strategic use of the process. The potential for curricular corruption would increase as a consequence.
Eighth, engagement scholarship, of course, can also be used as a means of broadening the global reach of a university, and as a means of better integrating international students within the student community. Many universities already utilize something that approaches engaged scholarship with course segments taught abroad. It would be useful to expand this and perhaps to better integrate this into the framework of engaged scholarship. But many of these global programs may not meet the requirements of engaged scholarship. That may require an adjustment to the understanding of engagement, one that would be as usefully applied domestically. This is not to suggest a shift form engagement to experiental learning, but it does suggest that both might profit from further thought.
Ninth, it is something tempting to overwork new educational technologies. This applies with particular force with engagement scholarship. Universities might want to be particularly sensitive to the overburdening of this device with objectives that are unsuitable and that pervert and thus misdirect engagement scholarship. This is particularly the case with efforts, well meaning no doubt, to use engaged scholarship contribute to student understanding of a diverse and accepting society. It is fairly clear that the device is not focused on issues of diversity. It is also clear that such objectives would tend to intrude on a faculty member's control of course content. Lastly, it is not clear that there is consensus about the form, content and meaning of these worthy goals. Similar concerns can be raised about whether engaged scholarship can be used to enhance the undergraduate experience of student athletes, including an identification and evaluation of the opportunities and constraints.
Last, and most ominously, universities are seeking to build engaged scholarship into the promotion and tenure process so that it is an expectation of all tenure-line faculty, and to build it into the workload expectations of all non-tenure line faculty. (e.g., Diane C. Calleson, "Community-Engaged Scholarship: Is Faculty Work in Communities a True Academic Enterprise?," Academic Medicine, Vol. 80, No. 4 / April 2005). With this, universities move from patterns of encouragement to different potential levels of inducement to coercion. The possibility of abuse increases as university policy frames engaged scholarship as something that is not just encourage but expected, especially when those expectations come to be built into the reward/punishment structures of promotion and tenure, and when they become an important factor in determining faculty working conditions through workload policies with manipulative objectives. But of course, this is a necessary step. Faculty complicity requires the institutional representative of the faculty to determine that the center of faculty activity that serves as the foundation of professional expectations shifts to conform to the needs and expectations of engaged scholarship, that is, as the CIC provosts declare (CIC Ad Hoc Committee for Online Learning, supra), that faculty impose on themselves a new standard for determining conformity to professional standards. The new standard, when it is built into promotion and tenure as an expectation rather than as a discretionary possibility, shifts the formal basis for assessing job performance and professional expectations. No longer permitted to embrace engaged scholarship, this device uses faculty to impose on themselves a requirement that engaged scholarship be undertaken. To build engaged scholarship into workload expectations suffers the same potential difficulty. Where engaged scholarship forms part of the workload expectations of faculty it moves from margin to center of professional life. Taken together, this approach provides the formal and compulsory character to the shift from education and faculty centered to community/labor market and faculty de-centered training structures. The shift requires the formal complicity of faculty to move form discretionary to mandatory, but the deployment of the language of professional expectations and quality assessment can aid in that transformation. To be sure, engaged scholarship ought to have a place, and in some colleges an important place, in the educational pedagogy, and room made for the appropriate recognition of this form of training. But beyond that, its fundamental transformative character militates against its use to reshape the academy.