When Steven Danish, PhD, became psychology department chair in 1985, he was troubled that the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) weren't involving Richmond's diverse, needy community in their research.
In eight years, Danish turned that around, starting a tradition of community intervention and research in the department. Fueled by grants from the likes of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Danish and his faculty brought strategies for decision-making, assertiveness, communication and goal-setting to area school children. The researchers took training on substance-abuse prevention, career planning and healthy eating into afterschool sports and arts programs and, along with their students, researched its effectiveness and trained other trainers to deliver it. Since then, they have added a teacher-wellness focus.
"The community was very receptive when we came in with our students," says Danish. "The peer-led component worked well, and schools told us they wanted more wellness programs, focusing on teachers as well as students. To me, this is what being a scientist-practitioner is all about."
The work epitomizes the "engaged scholarship" model, currently a hot-button subject in academe. Engaged scholars, the model holds, link their teaching and scholarship to community needs, tackling societal problems locally and head on. Backers say it bolsters faculty and student learning while enabling faculty to do the teaching, research and service necessary for promotion.
Other faculty see it differently. They argue that universities ought to stick to their traditional value system of rewarding peer-reviewed research first, teaching second, service to the institution third and service outside the institution last.
The problem with engaged scholarship is faculty are asked to do more than ever, and traditional research suffers, says Jay Moore, PhD, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) psychology professor who has served in its governance. Big grants could be sacrificed, and "faculty would not be creating new knowledge," Moore worries.
Not so, say engaged scholars. Engaged scholarship can also generate sizeable grants, Danish argues, noting that his research is funded by SAMHSA and the National Cancer Institute. Since those grants emphasize outcomes research, quality doesn't suffer but improves, he says. As for the faculty-burden issue, engaged scholarship expert Edward Zlotkowski, PhD, counters that the approach actually consolidates what's asked of faculty, as long as institutions view and reward community scholarship that way.
"What's needed is a revisiting of promotion and tenure guidelines such that faculty are better rewarded for serving the public good," says Zlotkowski, senior faculty fellow at the higher-education civic organization, Campus Compact, and senior associate at the American Association for Higher Education. "This isn't to say that the engagement culture wants a total conversion of the reward system. It wants the pie expanded."
The problem with service
Zlotkowski concedes that some types of institutions and disciplines lend themselves better to the engaged model. Each department must decide how it rewards faculty service and faculty activities in general, he says. In its most traditional sense, service refers to how faculty contribute to their academic institutions--from serving on departmental committees to participating in university governance. Secondary forms of service, often reserved for more senior faculty, include serving one's profession--through, for example, professional association governance--or serving the community through, for example, a local nursing home's board of directors.
As state legislators clamor for more university involvement in the community, universities are urging faculty to create, test and apply knowledge locally. To be sure, urban institutions whose missions include community development will be best suited for this, says Campus Compact's Zlotkowski, citing as examples UWM, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Portland State University. Small, elite liberal arts colleges and large research universities are less involved. But even that's changing. Places such as Bates College and the University of Pennsylvania have developed strong community ties, he says, "putting pressure on other universities."
At the same time, service has historically been the poor cousin to research, and even to teaching, says Jon Wergin, PhD, a VCU educational studies professor who conducted a case study on UWM's engaged scholarship.
"There's a lot of lip service given to service," say Wergin. "Junior faculty are told to spend most of their discretionary time on research. And if they want to get more service oriented after earning tenure, fine."
The call for more flexible rewards
How, then, can faculty be expected to do more engaged scholarship if service is still rewarded less? By making the reward structure more flexible, says Wergin. Someone with a strong publication record might not need so much service, he says, and vice versa.
"We shouldn't expect individuals to add value to departments in the same way," explains Wergin. "Why not reward them according to their individual talents and expertise?"
In any case, argues psychologist Robert Bringle, PhD, director of IUPUI's Center for Service and Learning, engaged scholarship ought to be peer-reviewed, just as teaching and research are--in fact, if it is supported by a large funding agency, it will have to be. The point, he says, is to think of engaged scholarship as a unifying force for teaching, research and service, rather than as something separate.
"By compartmentalizing service, we have made it the short leg on the stool," he explains. "Rather, the ideal is to integrate it with research and teaching--that's a powerful model."
Some faculty question the model's feasibility, however. UWM's Moore worries that it could, for example, create two classes of faculty and universities: the tier-one publishers and the tier-two service providers. "There will be greater separation between the haves and have-nots," says Moore, who argues that a strong research department is better positioned to land lucrative research grants. "You will have the large flagship universities and their large research faculty, and then you'll have everybody else."
Moore also has concerns that the engaged-scholarship emphasis could sacrifice the rigorous peer-review of traditional research. "I have a problem when people say engaged scholarship should compensate for research," he says. "That means you're redefining what it means to be a professor."
Also, engaged scholarship could distract junior faculty from gathering publications for tenure eligibility, says Southwest Missouri State University's Fred Maxwell, PhD, Council of Undergraduate Psychology Programs liaison to APA's Board of Educational Affairs.
Engaged-scholarship supporters believe such arguments only hold water as long as institutions put up walls between faculty duties and the surrounding community. Disciplines such as psychology only stand to gain from knocking those walls down, says VCU's Wergin, noting how Danish has pulled together community members, faculty and psychology students in his life-skills program.
"To the extent that we do community case studies to improve practice, that is solid scholarly activity," says Wergin. "In some ways it's harder because there are no controls, it's an unfamiliar environment and it's risky. It's the real world."