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Transforming the Role of Higher Education: Engaged Scholarship

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

By Susan Opp
March 9, 2018

Faculty working in public administration programs have long valued the role of healthy and mutually beneficial partnerships with practitioners in teaching, research and service activities. In fact, as Paul Posner says in a 2009 article in Public Budgeting and Finance “… the field of public administration was in no small part premised on sustaining a healthy academic-practitioner connection.” The term pracademic is often used to describe the people that span the boundaries between the academy and the practitioner world. However, in recent years concerns have emerged about what appears to be a retreat from the pracademic foundations of public administration (see for example, the Posner article cited above as well as the recent creation of the Pracademic Fellowship sponsored by Dr. Beryl Radin and the American Association of Political Science). While public administration seems to be bemoaning this retreat and recognizing the problems associated with it, many universities are pushing for something they call engaged scholarship. So, what is engaged scholarship and what can the field of public administration say about it?

The term engaged scholarship usually relates to a 1996 article in the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement where Ernest Boyer noted the history of practicality in science and in higher education and points out that higher education seems to have evolved into something more abstract and less applied. Boyer rightly points out in this article that “…faculty who do spend time with so-called applied projects frequently jeopardize their careers.” The calls for engaged scholarship (and the many variations of this concept) have rapidly expanded and grown in visibility across the Academy. In 2010, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) commissioned a white paper (published in 2015) on the importance of engagement to higher education. The final report titled “The Centrality of Engagement in Higher Education” highlights the many reasons that engagement activities are crucial for institutions of higher education. Although many variations of definitions and terms are used to describe engaged scholarship — most are referring to a refocusing of research, teaching and service to better serve and benefit society. Engaged scholarship is also meant to emphasize impact and problem solving over sterile academic debates and incremental revisions to scientific models meant to create new publication opportunities and talk to other scientists in the discipline.

While many traditional academic disciplines are finding this concept of engagement and engaged scholarship as a foreign concept, it is something closely aligned with the foundations of public administration. Internships, service learning, public consulting, applied policy evaluation and ongoing relationships with public sector partners are very common activities for public administration faculty working in MPA programs. It is easy to see the relevance of engagement to public administration by reviewing the primary accrediting organization, NASPAA, documents defining their mission and purpose. As stated on the NASPAA website they define their mission as, “…ensur[ing] excellence in education and training for public service….” This focus has led to a natural engagement orientation for the curriculum, faculty and academic units housing these programs. As an academic field with a lengthy history of this orientation, it seems that public administration faculty and practitioners are well poised to lead these discussions on how to effectively embrace, encourage and support a “scholarship of engagement.” Where do we start?

A number of researchers have highlighted the mismatch between engaged scholarship (all varieties) and the incentive and evaluation structure of Universities. For example, in the Coggburn and Neely article “Public or Perish? Examining Academic Tenure Standards in Public Affairs and Administration Programs” published in the Journal of Public Affairs Education the authors point out that “earning tenure in the field is predominantly a matter of research productivity…” Unfortunately, engaged scholarship does not often align well with the typical academic definitions of research productivity. Working with external partners takes time, patience and a reorientation of focus that is not always congruent with typical academic measures of research productivity and academic journal expectations. For example, working with a city on a program evaluation process may earn a faculty member some “points” in the service category of their evaluation (which is most often the least valued part of a faculty member’s job) — but it will not naturally lead to the publication opportunities required for meeting the research expectations of Universities. It is promising that the concept of engaged scholarship is gaining traction across academia and not just in the so-called professional fields like public administration. It is a good time for public administration to take the lead in this conversation so that long overdue changes to university incentive structures can be made to support this important work.

Author: Susan Opp is an Associate Professor at Colorado State University.  She is a pracademic that focuses on questions of local sustainability, economic development, and urban affairs.  She had the distinct pleasure of being one of the inaugural APSA “Pracademic Fellows” at the Environmental Protection Agency working in the Office of Policy in 2016- thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Dr. Beryl Radin. [email protected]

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3 Responses to Transforming the Role of Higher Education: Engaged Scholarship

  1. Nancy Augustine Reply

    March 9, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks for addressing this topic. The corollary question, which comes up regularly, is how to engage in engaged scholarship. Funded and contract research can be good options for bringing an academic framework to a practical problem. But what if we take a step or two back? What are the larger problems we should be addressing? How do we develop the questions that people working in the field don’t think of? For me, these are the tantalizing challenges.

  2. Alex Pattakos, Ph.D. Reply

    March 9, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    Nice piece, Susan! As a fellow pracademic, who also happens to know and respect Beryl Radin, your article carries a very meaningful message, not only for the discipline of public administration but also for the broadly-defined “academy.”

  3. Alex Pattakos, Ph.D. Reply

    March 9, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    Nice piece, Sue! As a fellow pracademic, who also happens to know and respect Beryl Radin, your article carries a very meaningful message, not only for the discipline of public administration but also for the broadly-defined “academy.”

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