By Brian Fleming
Analyst, Continuing & Professional Education and Online Higher Education
At a time when innovating higher education seems all the rage, one voice should not be forgotten. Ernest Boyer, former President of the Carnegie Foundation, Chancellor of the State University of New York, founder of Empire State College, was innovating long before innovation was cool. Boyer’s work touched on everything, from policy to pedagogy, often asking big, bold, daring questions like, Why does a university exist? What is its public mission? How can higher education better serve the common good?
From his 1997 work, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Boyer advocated for a deeper commitment to teaching and civic engagement as driving values for higher education, and for a scholarship of “discovery, integration, application, and teaching” to drive faculty recognition, promotion, priorities, and performance. Boyer called this “engaged scholarship,” basically an end to ivory tower insularity and a recovery of academic inquiry as a socially-minded practice through which an institution leverages faculty expertise to better teach its students and to inform the lives, work, needs, questions, and problems of everyday people in its community.
Moving Towards Engaged Scholarship
Think scholar-practitioners in fields like biology or linguistics devoting time to becoming better teachers, writing thoughtful op-ed pieces for the local paper, speaking at middle school science fairs, teaching Shakespeare or social psychology to working adults. Boyer wanted to see a lot more of that.
Boyer acknowledged, of course, that “paying lip service” to engagement is one thing; actually doing it is another. Engaged scholarship, after all, requires a radical shift in priorities, if not a complete culture change—something few universities might ever feel able to achieve with much sustained or measureable effort.
Not a “Nice To Have”
Recently, Eduventures conducted research on the implementation of engaged scholarship as a means toward faculty retention, finding that indeed enthusiasm about Boyer’s model abounds, but is quickly tempered by serious concerns, if not skepticism, about its implementation. Respondents noted, for instance, that, while critical to the future viability of their institutions, engagement would require a comprehensive, top-down strategy and complete rethinking of institutional priorities. Schools would need to infuse teaching and civic engagement into everything, by implementing things like centers for teaching excellence, institutionally defined best practices in pedagogy and service, generous attention to community partnerships, mandatory student and faculty service projects, and incentives for faculty involvement in non-university contexts (corporations, non-profits, P-12 classrooms) as part of the promotion and tenure review process.
While none of this is easy to do, some schools have made remarkable strides toward engagement. Tufts University, for instance, has for over 20 years now fully embraced the “engaged university model” pioneered by former Tufts presidents Jean Mayer and Larry Bacow, both of whom were instrumental also in the formulation of the Talloires network, “an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education,” now including schools like Tufts, Drexel, Portland State, and Syracuse.
Others have also leveraged Boyer’s model in creative ways. Think really innovative, outside the box type places such as Empire State College (a fine example of engagement) or the any number of student-centered, online, and adult learner programs out there. However intentional about engagement, of course, such initiatives are (distinct from places like Tufts or Drexel) often seen as interesting fringe innovators, or examples of how to challenge convention from the margins—or possibly as destroying higher education altogether, depending on whom you ask (not an opinion I hold).
Certainly, more radical things have emerged of late—innovations, fringe efforts, and suspected destroyers alike—such as the recent evolution of adult and continuing education into things like MOOCs, competency-based models, and outcomes driven assessment. While unusual, Boyer believed such models would be crucial to embrace (at least on some level). I suspect, by the way, Boyer might have found the MOOC model intriguing provided it not erode the communal nature of learning and the local presence of a university, among other things.
A Game Changing Idea
Engaged scholarship is an idea we should be talking about way more than we do. Whether as a faculty development exercise, or a community forum, or as part of a strategic planning process, Boyer might just prompt a constructive, if not game-changing return to first principles, possibly with refreshing attention to things like how well your institution practices its vision and mission statement, which are probably surprisingly rich in the language of teaching and civic service, however unrealized.
To innovate higher education, Boyer sought first to re-imagine and re-invigorate the dignity and possibility of scholarship as a catalyst for change. A wonderful reminder, indeed. Amid the frenzy of MOOC-mania and any number of other ‘so called’ disruptive models, Boyer teaches us that to change anything we have to set our sights on what matters most: teaching excellence, public service, and middle school science fairs.
- Eduventures, Engaged Scholarship and Retention, March 2012. Eduventures clients can access this report in our research library.
- Ernest Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, 1997.
- Robert Hollister, The Engaged University: An Invisible worldwide Revolution
- Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century, 2010.
- The Talloires Network