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Measuring the Community Impact of Faculty

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas Barth
November 16, 2017

As the director of an MPA program at an urban research university, I have the responsibility to build enrollments, monitor and assess teaching and student success, foster an environment where our faculty can be effective in their multiple roles of teaching, research and service, among other duties. Amidst all this, I often find myself reflecting on what is the real, measurable impact we are having on our community, given that part of our mission statement is to “serve the community.” The issue of what community engagement means for a university is an important conversation occurring on a national level, so here are three thoughts accompanied by questions worth pondering that are not by any means new but worth continued discussion.

First, in assessing the quality of faculty publications, our department looks at the impact factor of the journals in which they publish. The impact factor reflects how frequently the articles published in a journal are cited, and this leads to journal rankings in a discipline. This is a useful measure, but it essentially focuses on academics talking to other academics doing research of mutual interest. When I ask about developing a measure for capturing the impact of faculty publications on our community, I receive strange looks. Such a measure implies a mechanism for assessing the degree to which practitioners read and use faculty publications. The academy is fully capable of developing such measures, but the deeper question, is do we really see community impact as an important part of our mission as faculty?

Second, at our university faculty are evaluated primarily on their research productivity, their teaching effectiveness, and service to their department and university. Service to or engagement with the community is optional, and tenure track faculty are advised that when they get involved in such labor intensive activity, they do so “at their own risk” if it gets in the way of publication in the previously discussed high impact journals. Given this message, there is a disincentive to faculty serving on community task forces, boards, applied research needs or other forms of technical assistance. Is there not space at a university where faculty can be rewarded and valued for sharing their expertise in community engagement activity outside of publication in high impact academic journals?

Third, Earnest Boyer is widely cited for his argument that universities should adopt an expanded model of scholarship that includes the scholarship of application or engagement, where faculty are not doing original research but are involved in the application of existing knowledge to solve practical problems facing a community. He also describes the scholarship of teaching or learning that suggests the role for faculty in translating existing research to allow public sharing and consumption. What does it mean to be such an engaged scholar, and can we truly embrace the paradigm that faculty can pursue different forms of scholarship and be recognized and rewarded?

Ultimately the ongoing discussions about community engagement at universities will only be meaningful if we have a fundamental belief beyond lip service that a primary purpose of faculty is to have a measurable impact on their communities, whether that be at the local, state, national or international level.

What gets measured gets attention. Imagine a university where faculty could not be tenured or promoted without tangibly demonstrating how their work has made an impact outside the academic community. What a wonderfully uncomfortable, messy and meaningful university that would be!

Author: Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of human resource management, strategic planning, leadership and ethics.  [email protected]

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