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National higher education consortium urges reform that values public scholarship

June 27, 2008

Peter Englot
315 443 1921

Peter Englot

Higher education leaders in the humanities, arts and design from across the United States are amplifying a wave of reform to recognize public scholarship in faculty tenure and promotion decisions. The catalyst for this movement is the release of "Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University," a new report from Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life.

Imagining America is a national consortium of more than 80 colleges and universities -- based at Syracuse University -- committed to building democratic culture and fostering public scholarship and practice through the humanities, arts and design. Joining Imagining America members in this effort are leaders of national organizations influential in higher education, such as the Social Science Research Council, Campus Compact, the Modern Language Association and the Teagle Foundation.

The Scholarship in Public report, a product of Imagining America's Tenure Team Initiative on Public Scholarship (TTI), proposes concrete ways to remove obstacles to academic work carried out with the public by giving such work full standing as scholarship, research or artistic creation. SU Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor, who co-chairs TTI with California Institute for the Arts President Steven Lavine, articulates the motivating question behind this type of reform this way: "As university presidents and chancellors, we say we want creative scholars who are also committed to the public good. So how can we create environments that attract them?"

Lavine adds: "We need to look hard at the culture of the academic workplace, including places and spaces in which we do our best work today. The range of scholarly products has expanded, as have the pathways for dissemination. If we care about higher education's engagement with its communities, we must reward it at tenure time."

The 42-page report, co-authored by Imagining America's director emerita, Julie Ellison of the University of Michigan, and research director, Timothy Eatman of SU, argues that publicly engaged academic work already is taking hold nationally, reflecting a larger trend toward civic engagement. The authors cite numerous examples of this from a range of institutions, including:

  • the Keeping and Creating American Communities Project, led by Sarah Robbins of Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., through which K-12 teachers became public scholars of their own regions, developing curricular modules that enable their students to undertake local investigations benefiting their communities;
  • the Free Minds Project in Austin, Texas, led by Sylvia Gale of the University of Texas, as part of a national network of programs offering college-level humanities courses to low-income adults;
  • the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) founded by Judy Baca, which produces, preserves and conducts educational programs about highly participatory, community-based public art works of historic dimensions, such as "The Great Wall" of Los Angeles, and has spurred new curricula to be developed at the University of California at Los Angeles and California State University at Monterey; and
  • the oral history project coordinated by the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in collaboration with Museum L-A in Lewiston-Auburn, through which professors and students documented the lives and livelihoods of mill worker elders.

"But," says Eatman, "tenure and promotion policies lag behind public scholarly and creative work. That discourages faculty from doing it."

The report culminates with a series of concise recommendations that are flexible enough for any department in a college or university to undertake in codifying what public scholarly and creative work is and how to develop ways to reward it. Ellison and Eatman harvested these insights from the rich set of structured interviews they conducted over the past two years with the national leaders who comprise the Tenure Team, as well as a group of nationally prominent consulting scholars and artists.

According to Ellison, the report constitutes the launch of a new phase of TTI, during which the team will promote not only broad and robust dialogue at institutions across the country about the recommendations, but creative experimentation with them. "In that sense, it's more apt to think of this new phase of the initiative as being more about `action' than `implementation,'" she says.

Beyond the specific actions advocated by the authors, the report urges readers not to lose sight of the context of the work of TTI and Imagining America. David Scobey, director and professor of the Harward Center at Bates and a Tenure Team member, sees it against the broad backdrop of democratic practice in America: "Ultimately, this is about more than just tenure reform. This is about renewing the social contract between higher education and American society," he says.

Imagining America advances its mission by facilitating national and regional meetings and offering Critical Exchange grants for member institutions to develop programs, build regional collaborations, or jump-start engaged cultural work on campus. It also maintains a member listserv and public website, issues a bi-annual newsletter, and publishes position papers under its Foreseeable Futures series. Based at Syracuse University under the direction of Jan Cohen-Cruz, who also serves as one of TTI's consulting scholars and artists, Imagining America currently is pursuing three national program priorities: the Tenure Team Initiative on Public Scholarship, the Community Cultural Development (CCD) Curriculum Project, and the Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Program.

The TTI report and complete information about Imagining America are available at Imagining America invites inquiries about how to take action on "Scholarship in Public" at

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