Lou Swanson, Emeritus Vice President of Engagement, Colorado State University
Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus, Outreach and Engagement, Oregon State University
External perceptions of universities, or more specifically for their staff and students, can tip the scales toward deeper and sustained public legitimacy. Public universities self-proclaim the importance of sharing their extraordinary talents with their publics. Ostensibly, academic engagement matters.
The value engagement holds for universities is evident in the legacies and present values of Land Grant University (LGU) Extension services (Cooperative Extension for many Land Grant Universities). While directly serving the agricultural sector, extension services historically have shaped positive citizen perceptions for the entire university.
Similarly, university medical centers’ clinical and translational science programs connect communities with university talent. University engagement creates value for their students, staff and faculty as well as the communities with whom they create programs.
University engagement makes a difference for the publics with whom they partner as well as improving the applied intellectual focus of university faculty and programs. But the breadth of their engagement relative to scope of the comprehensive universities they are embedded in is narrow and limited.
University-wide engagement embedded with teaching/learning and research/learning is an aspirational goal for Land Grant Universities. As a core university mission, engagement should be university wide.
Engagement limited to a single or even a few colleges restricts the opportunities for positive valuation of the entire university. Expanding university-wide engagement, particularly expanding Extension’s local and regional networks, significantly enlarges university relevance and political value.
Universities touch individuals and communities – both rural and urban.
Systematic outreach of science-based, single discipline-focused, and knowledge applied to specific needs often suffices in creating value for academic engagement.
Frequently, broader, more complex issues involve the convergence of a few academic disciplines and interdisciplinary engagement, are asked for.
Then there are the grand issues, such as climate change, sustainable and healthy food systems, social and economic community well-being, pandemics.
Recently, Covid-19, Avian Flu and African Swine Fever have rattled our policy and academic ‘business as usual paradigms’. The reality of these pandemics transcends any one or even any several academic disciplines. These are transdisciplinary challenges that can and have threatened significant sectors of the economy, health institutions, community well-being and family functions.
Universities offer comprehensive talent pools for engaging these challenges.
Among LGUs, their Extension services should be ideal platforms for university-wide engagement. Extension services have more than a century of successful applied research, usually co-created with local and regional stakeholders. Most interdisciplinary and all transdisciplinary projects must call upon collections of disciplinary expertise.
If university wide engagement matters, then Extension services need to be repurposed for coordinating university transdisciplinary initiatives.
Intuitively, successful transdisciplinary engagement is most likely to succeed in a knowledge ecosystem that includes teaching/learning and research/discovery. Universities need to seamlessly facilitate university talents – student, staff and faculty – to become relevant for engaging the serious challenges confronting their immediate publics and their world.
We recognized in an earlier blog Gavazzi and Gee’s 2018 book, Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good that urges use of terms talent-innovation and place to yield high-impact engagement.
Extension services provide ready-made platforms for university wide engagement.
University wide Engagement is a prime platform for comprehensive public universities to widely adopt transdisciplinary teaching, research and engagement in addressing the grand issues facing and even threatening public well-being.