Public engagement ‘should be key part of promotion policies’

Liberal arts chief warns academics of cost of failing to serve local communities

June 14, 2019
Source: Getty

Tenure and promotion policies are key drivers of the dangerous decline in public support for US higher education because they can leave faculty with little direct incentive to engage with their communities, a conference has heard.

Some US colleges – such as Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts – are trying to reverse that dynamic, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

But across the wide swathe of US higher education, Professor Pasquerella told the Worldviews 2019 conference in Toronto, many academics seem to be unaware of the risks they create for themselves when they do not usefully apply their expertise close to home.

The gathering at the University of Toronto, organised by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, focused on steps that higher education could take to help heal communities riven by technological upheaval and rising inequality.

Too often, Professor Pasquerella said, academics go about their work without thinking hard enough about applying it to problems right around them because institutions regularly award promotions without any regard to such public service.

“I fear that if we don’t engage in more humanities practice,” said Professor Pasquerella, “our colleges and universities are going to become nothing other than ossified depositories of curiosity.”

Professor Pasquerella is a former president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she helped to produce the Academic Minute, a brief daily radio and blog presentation in which academic experts discussed their work. She said her role as college president had made it relatively easy to obtain money for Academic Minute, which she now runs at AACU, and she said other institutions and funding agencies needed to make such outreach a priority.

Adjusting tenure and promotion policies could be even more direct and effective, she said, but that requires the cooperation of faculty, who ultimately retain the right to drive academic standards at most institutions.

Success, Professor Pasquerella said, can be seen at institutions such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where students in one project worked hard to convince residents of a coastal community to take action to prevent ongoing soil erosion. The work, she said, included explaining the realities of climate change to residents and assuring them that mitigation plans did not amount to a covert land grab.

“To do that, you have to have the trust of the people within the community,” Professor Pasquerella said. “But that takes a long time, and that isn’t recognised in tenure and promotion processes.”

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