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A view of the audience and panel members a the public forum on civic engagement.

On October 31, a panel of U administrators and faculty members explored the connection between public engagement and the U's aspirations to become one of the world's top 3 public research universities.

Engaging in public engagement

By Pauline Oo

Published on November 1, 2005;
updated November 9, 2005

For the past five years, "public engagement" has been the catchphrase at the University of Minnesota. It's the 21st century buzzword for outreach. Whereas outreach is generally thought of as a one-way street--for example, the U going into communities to share what it has learned--public engagement means the sharing goes both ways.

"Public engagement is a symbiotic relationship," says Arlene Carney, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs. "We need [the public] as much as they need us. We should not look at [people in our communities] as research subjects but as partners in the work we do. Unfortunately, we're not quite there yet, and that's precisely why we need to make public engagement a priority."

Carney was one of eight University of Minnesota administrators and faculty members invited to share insight on how public engagement could help the U attain its goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world within 10 years. The two-and-a-half-hour public forum October 31, "Collaboration on a Vision: How Public Engagement can Build a Better University," drew more than 100 people to the McNamara Alumni Center.

"Public engagement is a symbiotic relationship," says Carney. "We need [the public] as much as they need us. We should not look at [people in our communities] as research subjects but as partners in the work we do."

In addition to Carney, the panel included Graduate School dean Gail Dubrow, provost Tom Sullivan, family social science professor Bill Doherty, Chicano studies department chair Louis Mendoza, Academic Health Center assistant vice president Barbara Brandt, Bioethics Center director Jeffrey Kahn, and Carlson School of Management professor Paul Johnson. The speakers addressed the topics of promotion and tenure, diversity, and disciplinary culture with personal anecdotes and examples from their departments.

In keynote remarks, Dubrow named several potential problems and perceptions about public engagement that should be addressed: pressure to focus on work that is likely to get national or international rather than local attention, the possibility that time demanded by research and public engagement will short-change teaching, and limitations of existing university ranking systems.

"Public engagement is part of a growing national movement--[among both public and private universities]--recognizing that to be distinguished you have to be a publicly engaged university," said Tom Sullivan. While the number and variety of current University-community connections are remarkable, he said, the University is regularly faulted for alleged inaccessibility and unresponsiveness to community concerns. In part, the problem lies in public perception and understanding the ways in which the different kinds of work at the University contribute positively to the well-being of people locally, in the state and nation, and globally.

In 2000, the University formed a U-wide Civic Engagement Task Force to strengthen its public mission across the full range of activities and to make practical proposals for institutionalizing public engagement as a continuing priority. Two years later, the task force evolved into the Council on Public Engagement. U president Bob Bruininks has made public engagement a part of all eight of his President's Interdisciplinary Academic Initiatives.

Public engagement can build a better University, said Doherty, "but it won't happen overnight" and it can happen only if scholarship at the U is redefined. Currently, too many faculty members think of public engagement or service within the community as "something to do if you have time for it" or "do-gooding," he said. One reason for this train of thought is that they think service or public engagement is not intrinsic to their work or interests.

"Somebody shouldn't get tenure in a Tier-1 institution just because they sit on a lot of boards or give really good talks," he quipped. "We have to define teaching, research, and service as all wrapped together, and we [as faculty] have to renew our own culture. It cannot be just up to the administration."

Mendoza, who chairs the Chicano studies department, agreed with Doherty that faculty members have a large role to play if the U is to achieve its top-three aspirations.

"Oftentimes, universities have a history of hostility with the community. For example, we take over lands or have curriculum that is not relevant to the community," said Mendoza. "The community has expectations of their university, and one of the ways we can meet that expectation is if we change our curriculum. But that change can't happen if faculty don't change." In other words, said Mendoza, the U has to listen to its community--be it internal or external--and then adapt.

"We have to look like the world and be sensitive to that," he said. "If we want to be a global leader in education, we cannot only look at our peer institutions [and measure ourselves against them], we have to see what others are doing around the world. In the last 20 years, the demographic changes going on [in the United States] are mirrored around the world."

Bioethics Center director Kahn, the last speaker, said public engagement doesn't start where the U ends. Like Carney, Kahn said the public engagement is a two-way street.

"We have to look at the community as teachers and not just learners," he said.

A question-and-answer session followed the panel discussion. Numerous hands went up, with audience members--a mix of faculty, staff, and students--expressing favor for the U's desire to infuse public engagement across its campuses, curriculum, and research agenda, as well as concern for how the U would measure its success or the public contributions of its faculty.