Stewards of Place

The University of North Carolina Charlotte is discussing plans to give community engagement a bigger role in promotion and tenure.

March 7, 2012

As part of Janni Sorensen’s community planning class, students work at a troubled neighborhood in the Charlotte suburbs every semester, trying to help residents hard-hit by foreclosures and absentee landlords. They have helped form a stable neighborhood association and a crime watch group, and work with residents when they have questions for a property management company or utility providers. Sorensen, an assistant professor of geography and earth sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says that such partnerships help her students reap the full benefits of service learning while helping the community.

What such work does not do, at least right now, is qualify as "research" work toward Sorensen's pending bid for tenure. As at many institutions, UNC-Charlotte's tenure criteria often favor traditional books and journal articles in leading publications in her field. But that could soon change, as UNCC, which has been recognized as a Carnegie Engaged Institution for its work in the community, aims to take this kind of engagement one step further by revising its tenure and promotion guidelines to take such work out of the sole realm of service.

“This is an extremely important step for someone like me. I got the sense that this university was culturally supportive of community-based research. This step would formalize the kind of research I’m doing,” says Sorensen, whose students can specialize in community planning.

According to a draft memo prepared by UNCC's Faculty Employment Status Committee, community engagement could qualify for any of the three existing categories for promotion and tenure -- research, teaching or service -- based on how faculty members defined their work. If approved, the Academic Personnel Procedures Handbook will be changed to reflect the new criteria. A previous motion was tabled last year to allow more discussions and come up with more-precise language to be used in the handbook.

The move comes at a time of dwindling state support, when institutions, especially public universities, feel an increased need to justify their connections with the community. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities has pushed the idea of universities being “stewards of place,” meaning that institutions can help their communities by working with them in more and varied ways. Engaging the community could even lead to alternative revenue streams (a few of Sorensen’s graduate students, for example, are funded 20 hours a week by the City of Charlotte for their neighborhood work).

Aimee Parkison, chairwoman of the faculty employment panel and an associate professor of English at Charlotte, says that discussions have been more complicated than originally anticipated. “While many faculty are concerned with protecting the research status of the university, others are equally concerned with protecting the clarity within the [reappointment, promotion and tenure] section of the Faculty Handbook, and still others wish to protect community engagement as a new and innovative form of ‘nontraditional’ scholarship,” she says.

The challenge is to find a widely accepted way of peer reviewing community engagement work, a complicated task given the different needs and functions of different disciplines. UNCC’s push on nontraditional scholarship might, in some cases, be opposed by those who define research mainly in the traditional sense of books or journal articles, which is certainly the norm at many top universities (and many institutions that strive to be seen that way).

At an emergency meeting of the UNC-Charlotte faculty committee this month, representatives of different colleges and departments discussed the proposed changes to the faculty handbook and how they would affect different disciplines and areas of research. “Ultimately, we came to the realization that every department and college has its own standards for research, so the community engagement motion we’re writing would have to preserve the academic freedom of each discipline and each college,” Parkison says.

She emphasized that community-engaged scholarship remains an optional element in promotion and tenure, and that not every faculty member will have to engage in such work.

Provost Joan Lorden says she thinks the new motion before the Faculty Council will reaffirm UNCC’s emphasis on community engagement. “It is not a fourth obligation, but a part of what some faculty do as part of one’s teaching, research and/or service,” she says.

Lorden says that some years ago, the UNC system issued a special report following a statewide “listening tour”, and subsequently the university’s mission statement was revised to clarify the university system's commitment to the region. “Revision of our tenure and promotion guidelines to explicitly include wording of what we have been doing all along was the next step,” she says. “The goal is to get community engagement solely out of the realm of service.”

This is a philosophical change for the university, and Lorden drew a distinction between community engagement that would qualify as service and faculty-involved research with the community as a partner. “In many areas, we have already recognized the importance of community engagement. I think that the change in the guidelines will help make this work more visible to us,” she says.

The proposed move, Lorden says, would build on a a long history of community engagement, including the Urban Institute, which was formed 40 years ago. “[T]he UNC Charlotte Urban Institute has been working with community partners to provide insight into community issues and to help solve community problems,” she says. She points out that there are several other institutes at the university -- the Design and Society Research Center, the Charlotte Research Institute, and the Institute for Social Capital -- that promote work and research in the community.

The benefits of such a change to professors like Sorensen is obvious. Her brand of community-based work can now qualify as research. “It would formalize the kind of research I’m doing. The kind of work I do -- building relationships with the community -- takes a long time,” she says.

Michael G. Green, Faculty Council president at UNCC and associate professor of education, says that even though the changes would make perfect sense in his field, there might be more of a debate when it comes to disciplines like philosophy and math. “The notion of community in those disciplines may be a little loose. It might mean the larger community they work with. There are different views about it,” he says.

Mirsad Hadzikadic, a professor of software and information systems, says community engagement could be an additional avenue for demonstrating faculty creativity and might lead to more ideas for future research. “I cannot think of any discipline that would not be able to find an issue of importance to the community, which might require help of such a discipline,” he says.

Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at AASCU, applauds the proposed move at Charlotte, calling it a balanced approach as opposed to a “publish or perish” mentality. He notes that UNCC’s state funding had decreased tremendously. “It could have become an excuse to disengage and focus solely on teaching and learning,” Hurley says.

Civic engagement is a very tangible application of faculty work, he says. “It makes a tremendous amount of common sense, and reaffirms the public mission of these public institutions by serving regional public needs.”

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