Public research universities face enormous challenges in the 21st century: waning fiscal support, a loss of public confidence, and a persistent lack of diversity. Perhaps no challenge is more compelling, however, than the obligation to serve society. The time has come for increased commitment to and removal of barriers preventing collaborative, interdisciplinary, socially relevant research and learning.
Unfortunately, too often service is portrayed exclusively as "volunteerism," a university's third function, and interdisciplinary scholarship is viewed as less rigorous than and at odds with disciplinary knowledge. So conceived, service is destined to take a back seat to research and teaching and interdisciplinary initiatives at best become supplements or add-ons which compete for time and money and are incapable of fixing structural flaws in the way knowledge is arranged and delivered. The result is a lost opportunity for "academic engagement": collaboration across disciplines and partnerships with the community that might produce solutions to society's most vexing problems.
Pursuing academic engagement necessitates radically rethinking "service" and "knowledge," finding innovative mechanisms to organize and leverage academe's intellectual capital to transform lives for the benefit of society. It requires us to acknowledge that a university's collective wisdom is among its most precious assets -- anchored to, but not in competition with, basic research and disciplinary knowledge -- and that part of the significance of such wisdom is tied to its use.
While redefining and implementing more robust notions of service and knowledge will be arduous, the payoff could be enormous. Fortunately, there is a movement afoot at many public research institutions across the nation, a movement to bring higher education out of the 19th into the 21st century. With rising tuition, limited access to the nation's best universities, and increasingly complex social problems, many recognize that the need for public institutions to find meaningful ways to serve the citizens of their states is more important than ever. Universities must fulfill a social compact with their states.
At my own institution, the University of Texas at Austin, a critical mass of faculty embrace this compact: academics best described as "intellectual entrepreneurs," citizen-scholars supplying more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge. They exemplify academic engagement, taking to heart the ethical obligation to contribute to society, to both discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference.
Among them are a philosopher helping to increase the role played by ethics in corporate decision making, a neurobiologist and pharmacologist struggling to bring personal and public policies in line with scientific knowledge about alcohol addiction, a theater historian attempting to use performance as a mechanism through which ordinary people can change their lives, and a literary scholar who uses poetry to enable those in business and government to imagine what is possible.
In 2004-5 these and several other faculty, along with distinguished members of the community (including the U.S. secretary of commerce, the chancellor the University of Texas System, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the executive VP and COO of a major health-care network), contributed to a series in the local newspaper exploring how to engender greater connections between the university and community to address society's most troublesome issues.
The arguments advanced by these writers may reflect some of what President Larry Faulkner had in mind in his February 13, 2005 speech the American Council on Education, when he called for a new "social compact." Confronting this quest to contribute to society and realize the ethical imperative to make a difference, however, is a stark reality: Inflexible administrative structures, historically embedded practices, status quo thinking and inertia. Until these obstacles are overcome, the current retreat from public life will not be arrested and the new social compact envisioned by President Faulkner will not be realized.
Among the daunting challenges confronting universities aspiring to intellectual entrepreneurship and the resulting academic engagement are these:
- How do scholars, who live primarily in a world of ideas, acquire the practical (e.g., rhetorical, business, design, technological, etc.) tools needed to develop and sustain projects requiring acceptance and investment by audiences both inside and outside the university -- skills typically disassociated from the scholarly enterprise?
- How can faculty integrate, synthesize and unify knowledge to permit solution of complex social, civic and ethical problems? This is an enormous challenge in an academic culture that the former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian says "respects specialists and suspects generalists." How do we ensure the continued proliferation of specialized knowledge, while concurrently encouraging renaissance thinking?
- How can faculty who engage in public scholarship -- who undertake projects like those pursued by the philosopher, literary scholar, theatre historian, neurobiologist and pharmacologist, described above -- flourish given restricted measurements for assessing performance enforced by universities and academic disciplines (e.g., journal publications tailored to small and insular audiences)? Incentive systems not only fail to encourage public scholarship, but may actually devalue research that doesn't fit neatly into the academic geography of one's home discipline and simultaneously contributes to society. What changes to institutional reward structures are requisite for academic engagement?
- How can faculty maintain standards of academic integrity and objectivity, while participating in community projects in which they may become ideologically vested, serve as change agents or directly profit?
- How should academic institutions adjust their methods for discovering and imparting knowledge in an ever-changing world? Because historically original thought, lone discovery and disciplinary contribution have been considered more important than team work, what changes are needed to address effectively 21st century problems? Complex issues such as health, the environment, education, cultural diversity and others demand multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary and collaborative forms of investigation.
- How can academic engagement be achieved in an environment maintaining that research is two-dimensional, either basic or applied, a long-held, rigid dichotomy frequently invoked to deter faculty from venturing too far from theoretical knowledge?
- How might the entrepreneurial thinking that universities successfully deploy for technology transfer analogously be used to empower all of the arts and sciences, to unleash a university-wide spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship? How might this agenda be pursued while remaining vigilant to the sanctity of the academic enterprise?
- How can the university better apply its morally centered quest for truth to matters of public concern? How can it encourage public deliberation that benefits from many different opinions and challenges to received wisdom, without being perceived as relativistic or unpatriotic?
These are but a few challenges to intellectual entrepreneurship. Answers to these questions, which for so long have remained unarticulated, will not be easy to come by and cannot possibly be answered via the lone contribution of an essayist. Because awareness and diagnosis of the problem is the first step to solution, university presidents and their community stakeholders must encourage faculty to begin a rigorous and thoughtful conversation about how to make the academy -- culture that far too often resists change -- more responsive to the needs of society and structured in a manner best suited for the 21st century knowledge industry.
It is time for us to reflect on what must be done to harness and integrate the vast intellectual assets of universities as a lever for social good -- about what it will take to bring academics together on equal footing with those in the public and private sectors, collaboratively producing, jointly owning and using knowledge to change people's lives and improve the human condition.
To be clear, this quest to build a new social compact must not become a platform for disgruntled and gadfly faculty -- something that, as we witnessed in the debates of prior decades about teaching versus research, will make it far too easy for the reticent and nay sayers among us to dismiss the call for intellectual entrepreneurship as merely the diatribe of failed scholars who would have us abandon the research focus of universities. Instead, this topic should be pursued vigorously by our institutions' most prominent researchers who, while understanding the distinctive mission of academic institutions, also recognize the need to build connections across disciplines and between the university and community, and who refuse to apologize for being scholars. After all, creating a culture of academic engagement requires accountability and collaborative problem-solving in forthright public exchanges about how to enact change.
Public intellectual practice is a noble quest -- one that doesn't inherently or automatically require us to choose between a commitment either to research or service or between disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge. President Faulkner's suggestion of the need for a new social compact, therefore, may be prophetic. In this spirit, I challenge university presidents and community leaders to set the tone: to create and lead conversations exploring how best to forge new, productive, synergistic connections between universities and society. Together we can make academic engagement more the rule than the exception; through collaboration, intellectual entrepreneurship will become a defining characteristic of our academic brand name, designating our institutions as truly innovative and exemplary sites of learning in this century.
Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication studies and rhetoric and composition, and founder and director of the intellectual entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the January 17, 2005 issue of The Scientist.