Science Leadership Conference

Today's America is similar to post-Civil War America, psychologist Nancy Cantor, PhD, chancellor of Syracuse University, told participants at APA's Science Leadership Conference in September, describing a fractured society and stalled economy.

When Abraham Lincoln was faced with that situation, he created public land grant institutions to help heal the nation's wounds, spur innovation and encourage upward mobility. With the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which created the land grant schools, said Cantor, the time is right for psychological scientists to come together with communities in intellectual "barn-raisings."

"This is a moment in our nation's history when psychological science and scientists can and should rise to an occasion of national need and serve the public good, both with our science and simultaneously our penchant for cultivating new talent pools," Cantor said.

Universities and faculty members "need to deliberately and consciously build a two-way street in which we move from our campuses to engage with the diverse community of experts in our communities in public problem-solving," she said.

Doing that requires institutional change, Cantor emphasized, including changing tenure and promotion guidelines to recognize this work's importance. At Syracuse, she said, it took four years of debate to get a short statement recognizing the importance of public scholarship into the tenure and promotion manual.

Today, Syracuse embraces its role as an institutional citizen, Cantor said. When she first arrived in 2004, she and university colleagues spent a year "exploring the soul" of the city, sponsoring focus groups with university and community participants, sending students into neighborhoods to collect stories and even commissioning a play about the lives of Syracuse residents. Designed to set the stage for future collaborations, these efforts helped the university understand the city's past and present and how this aging industrial area could be revitalized.

That kind of collaboration has since blossomed. When grandmothers reported that they were sick of newspapers always reporting what neighborhood kids did wrong, for example, residents, faculty and students from the school of communication began jointly producing a local digital newspaper filled with more positive news. The university created a community center and a nonprofit organization to sustain its work. The university and surrounding neighborhood also worked together to rehab local buildings in environmentally friendly ways and created a program that trains residents to be green technology management experts.

Most important, said Cantor, the university and school district are working together to better serve all 21,000 Syracuse schoolchildren by providing before- and after-school programs and summer services, establishing health clinics in schools, offering pro bono legal services for parents and giving scholarships to the university to all local children who qualify for admission.

Psychological scientists are key players in such efforts, said Cantor, because psychology's toolkit can help solve many of the problems facing urban America. Psychologists are experts in fostering growth and change, for example. In addition, psychologists' research on such varied topics as conflict resolution, behavioral economics and Alzheimer's and other health conditions can help guide community action.

Psychologists also continue to draw on the work of psychologist Kurt Lewin, PhD, who after World War II, insisted that knowledge be transformed into action.

"If we simply sit in our institutions and in our discipline, knowing but not doing, we will be the free riders, not the cooperators," said Cantor. "We won't build the barn."

—Rebecca A. Clay