Research Universities and Engaged Scholarship: A Leadership Agenda for Renewing the Civic Mission of Higher Education

March 9, 2009


Research Universities and Engaged Scholarship: A Leadership Agenda for Renewing the Civic Mission of Higher Education

Theme: Embedding Engagement

Cynthia M. Gibson
Principal, Cynthesis Consulting & Senior Fellow
Tufts University, MA
Constituent Group:

During recent years, increasing numbers of colleges and universities have engaged in innovative efforts to reinvigorate the civic mission on which their institutions were founded?one that calls on faculty, students, and administrators to apply their skills, resources, and talents to address important issues affecting communities, the nation, and the world. This movement has been fueled largely by community and liberal arts colleges and state universities. Research universities have been much quieter, despite the ambitious efforts many have undertaken to promote and advance civic engagement in their institutions.

Auspiciously, there is growing awareness that research universities, with their significant academic and societal influence, world-class faculty, outstanding students, state-of-the-art research facilities, and considerable financial resources, have the credibility and stature needed to help drive institutional and field-wide change more rapidly and in ways that will ensure deeper and longer-lasting commitment to civic engagement among colleges and universities for centuries to come. In particular, because research universities “set the bar” for scholarship across higher education, they are well-positioned to promote and advance new forms of scholarship?those that link the intellectual assets of higher education institutions to solving public problems and issues.

Although a cadre of leading research universities has begun to embrace and adopt more comprehensive and sustainable approaches to civic engagement such as engaged scholarship, the scholar-practitioners leading these efforts often lack opportunities to convene with and learn from their colleagues at peer institutions. As a result, there have been few attempts to coalesce their energy, intellect, and ingenuity toward creating a group of educators able to promote engaged scholarship as a key component of the larger civic engagement agenda across all of higher education.

To address this gap, in October 2005, Campus Compact and Tufts University convened scholars from a group of research universities that are advanced in their civic engagement work to discuss to how their institutions were promoting civic engagement on their campuses and in their communities. During the course of two full days, this group shared information about the innovative work in which they had been engaged and exchanged ideas about “what works” in advancing this initiative at research institutions. The group also decided to take action and become a more prominent and visible voice for leadership in the larger civic engagement movement in higher education by developing a case statement that outlines why it is important for research universities to embrace and advance engaged scholarship as a central component of their activities and programs and at every level: institutional, faculty, and student. The statement comprises several parts, among them:

A Definition of “Engaged Scholarship”

Engaged scholarship is predicated on the idea that major advances in knowledge tend to occur when human beings consciously work to solve the central problems confronting their society. Ernest Boyer (1990; 1996; Ramaley, 2004; Schon, 1995) described engaged scholarship as an approach that melds:

  • The scholarship of discovery, which contributes to the search for new knowledge, the pursuit of inquiry, and the intellectual climate of universities.
  • The scholarship of integration, which makes connections across disciplines, places specialized knowledge in larger contexts such as communities, and advances knowledge through synthesis.
  • The scholarship of application through which scholars ask how knowledge can be applied to public problems and issues, address individual and societal needs, and use societal realities to test, inspire, and challenge theory.
  • The scholarship of teaching, which includes not only transmitting knowledge, but also transforming and extending it beyond the university walls.

Generally, engaged scholarship:

  • Draws on many sources of distributed knowledge
  • Is based on partnerships
  • Is shaped by multiple perspectives and expectations
  • Deals with difficult and evolving questions — complex issues that may shift constantly
  • Is long term, both effort and impact, often with episodic
  • bursts of progress
  • Requires diverse strategies and approaches
  • Crosses disciplinary lines — a challenge for institutions organized around disciplines (Source: Holland, 2005a, p. 7)

Engaged scholarship also works on several levels:

At the institutional level, engaged scholarship connects the intellectual assets of higher education institutions, including faculty expertise and high-quality graduate and undergraduate students, to public issues.

At the faculty level, engaged scholarship is a vehicle through which faculty can participate in “academically relevant work that simultaneously fulfills the campus mission and goals, as well as community needs” (Sandmann, 2003, p. 4).

At the student level, engaged scholarship can enhance academic learning and knowledge generation because of its ability to blend research, teaching, and service.

Barriers to Engaged Scholarship

Scholar-practitioners identified several barriers to implementing engaged scholarship in their institutions, among them:

A focus on individual disciplines rather than on public problems or issues. Research universities have a long tradition of supporting and investing in objective inquiry whose primary purpose is to add to the knowledge base of a field or discipline. This emphasis also tends to overshadow the multidisciplinary approach engaged scholars employ to addressing problems, which they see as a primary focus of research.

An emphasis on abstract theory rather than actionable theory derived from and useful for “real-world” practice. Research institutions tend to adhere to a Platonic notion of scholarship and education that assumes pure abstract theory as superior to actionable theory derived from engagement in “real-world” practice. This view contrasts with Dewey’s notion of education as participatory, action-oriented, and focused on “learning by doing” — a focus that engaged scholars and teachers embrace (Harkavy, 2004).

Lack of understanding about what engaged scholarship is and how it works.
An uncertainty about what engaged scholarship is and how to assess it has led many at research universities to view this approach as somewhat suspect and less valid than traditional research (Finkelstein, 2001). Because engaged work is largely interdisciplinary and involves partnerships with community-based organizations, the links to academic expertise are not always evident.

Few incentives exist to reward engaged scholarship. Traditional disciplinary-focused research endures primarily because of a strong set of incentives that reward them, including expectations in National Research Council rankings and publication in academic journals. There is also a tendency among those who make tenure or promotion decisions to value individual, rather than collaborative, achievement, and the publication of articles that will help position scholars as leaders in particular fields or disciplines, rather than in solving complex social problems.

Institutions are organized in ways that prohibit engaged scholarship. A disciplinary focus has led to institutions being structured in ways that inhibit engaged scholarship and teaching. Within these structures, fields are emphasized, faculty work in silos, students are encouraged to “declare their emphasis,” and classroom instruction predominates over community-based learning.

Research universities are often cut off from the communities in which they are located. Research universities are sometimes viewed as distinctly separate from the communities in which they are located and, in some cases, where poverty and other social problems are rampant. While engaged scholars see such issues as opportunities to work with communities to design studies that find solutions to these problems, they can face challenges from institutions who view “external” organizations or non-academics as inappropriate to include as part of scholarly research efforts.

Why Research Universities Should Incorporate an Ethos of Engaged Scholarship

There are several reasons that research universities should incorporate an ethos of engaged scholarship in their curricula, policies, and programs:

Research universities were founded and established with a civic mission. In 1749, Benjamin Franklin wrote that the “ability to serve” should be the rationale for all schooling and for the secular college he founded (Penn) — a mission to which other colonial colleges, including Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth adhered, based on their desire to educate men “capable of creating good communities built on religious denominational principles” (Harkavy, 2004, p. 6). Land-grant universities, established through the Morrill Act in 1862, also stipulated “service to society” as their primary mission, as did urban research universities that were founded in the late nineteenth century.

Interdisciplinary, collaborative, and community-based scholarship increasingly is becoming a requirement for consideration for funding, accreditation, and categorization. Growing numbers of major federal funding agencies are incorporating criteria for research proposals that include collaborative approaches and stipulate the public impact or future application of the study. Additionally, regional and national higher education accreditation organizations have begun to introduce new accreditation standards related to engaged research and teaching (Sandmann, 2003).

Students and other higher education stakeholders increasingly are asking for engaged scholarship curricula and opportunities. Increasingly, research universities that fail to incorporate civic engagement into their work “risk having younger people, who see this as a new pathway to achieving a learning society, go elsewhere” (Minkler, 2005, p. 12).

Demographic, cultural, economic, and knowledge shifts in American society, as well as globally, are demanding new approaches to research and problem-solving. Rapid and complex developments in technology, science, business, and other domains, both in the United States and globally, have prompted a need for research that incorporates the contributions of many disciplines, addresses public problems, and is sensitive to increasingly diverse populations and communities.

Engaged scholarship aligns traditional research methods with teaching to enhance student learning. Offering a combination of community-based research and service-learning courses can, together, provide extraordinary opportunities for students to obtain more meaningful experience with the inquiry process and to marry theory and practice. Through community-based research courses students gain understanding and expertise on social issues by engaging in cross-disciplinary inquiry and action, accessing community situations, asking significant questions, collecting data and information, analyzing the data using appropriate disciplinary methods, and drawing conclusions that are transformed into strategic action steps.

Research universities provide the bulk of graduate education and, thus, can serve as a major pipeline for tomorrow’s faculty and administrators skilled in engaged scholarship approaches.

Engaged scholarship helps research universities align their focus on high-quality research with the civic missions on which they were founded… Working with communities to help solve universal local problems — such as substandard schools, lack of affordable housing, poverty, crime, access to health care, and others — allows research universities unprecedented opportunities to create the kind of institutional alignment that is needed to fulfill their civic missions since the resources and expertise of virtually every university unit are needed to identify and implement more effective solutions to these problems (Harkavy, 2006).

…and, in turn, can enhance their credibility, usefulness, and role as important institutions in civic life. A focus on civic engagement through service-learning, community-based research, or engaged scholarship can help burnish the image of research universities that, in recent years, have suffered from decreases in public funding and questions about their role in society. By speaking publicly about engaged scholarship — and encouraging other institutions to implement similar approaches to research — research universities not only help to promote these models but also, send a message to the public that they are responsive to community needs and committed to contributing more meaningfully and directly to public problems and issues at the local, national, and international levels.

What Research Universities Can to Promote Engaged Scholarship

Scholar-practitioners also developed a set of action steps that leaders in research universities can take to advance and promote engaged scholarship. Among these are: engaging and involving the institution’s senior academic and administrative leadership in promoting engaged scholarship; ensuring that such approaches are valued in tenure and promotion decisions, grant awards, and public recognition; providing training to graduate students in these approaches and giving them opportunities to meld engaged scholarship with teaching and curricula; securing funding streams for this work; developing a set of standards for what constitutes high-quality engaged scholarship; creating journals dedicated to this approach; establishing national or regional institutes for faculty interested in civic engagement; encouraging disciplinary and other education associations to advocate for engaged scholarship; and others.


Boyer, E. (1990, re-released 1997). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Boyer, E. (1996). The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Service and Outreach, 1 (1), 11-20.

Finkelstein, M.A. (2001). Toward a unified view of scholarship: Eliminating tensions between traditional and engaged work. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 6, 35-44.

Harkavy, I. (2006). Foreword. In Creating a new kind of university: Institutionalizing community-university engagement (S.L. Percy, N. Zimpher & M.J. Brukhardt, eds.) (pp. viii-xvi), Boston: Anker.

Harkavy, I. (2004). Service-learning and the development of democratic universities, democratic schools, and democratic good societies in the 21st century. In New perspectives on service-learning: Research to advance the field (M. Welch & S. Billig, eds.) (pp. 3-22), Greenwich: Information Age Publishing.

Holland, B. (2005a). Scholarship and mission in the 21st century university: The role of engagement. Remarks made at a University of California Symposium sponsored by the Center for Studies in Higher Education on June 10, 2005. Berkeley: University of California.

Minkler, M. (2005). Remarks made at a University of California Symposium sponsored by the Center for Studies in Higher Education on June 10, 2005. Berkeley: University of California.

Ramaley, J. (2004). Higher education in the 21st century: Living in Pasteur’s Quadrant. Presentation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ Network for Academic Renewal Conference, March 4, 2005 (Long Beach, California). Retrieved on June 18, 2006.

Sandmann, L. (2003). When doing good is not good enough. Good to great: The scholarship of engagement. Address to the National Extension Director/Administrator Conference, February 12, 2003 (Fort Lauderdale, Florida).

Schon, D. (1995). The new scholarship requires a new epistemology. Change (Nov./Dec.), 27-34.

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