11 lessons learned from our Distinguished Lecture

In his introduction to the DOCE’s Civic Engagement Distinguished Lecture last week, Duke president Richard Brodhead said that the work of the university finds its “meaning” when applied to larger societal problems. Later, in a discussion with Earl Lewis, president of the Mellon Foundation and Laurie Patton, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Sanford School dean Kelly Brownell asked provocatively – and hypothetically – what would happen if the university ceased any new research for a period of time, focusing only on taking its existing research and leveraging it for societal good.

Later, an audience member asked – perhaps also hypothetically – isn’t there room for research that simply results in discovery? How does one place a societal value on knowledge? President Lewis, a strong proponent of engaged scholarship, acknowledged that knowledge and discovery have inherent value, and another audience member pointed out that it is also difficult to place a value on knowledge. Sometimes, the relevance of a discovery doesn’t become apparent until long after it is made.

The event, which brought together the three thought leaders for an intimate conversation in front of a small audience, is recapped in an article on the Sanford School’s website. While the discussion may not have settled any debates on the value of scholarship to society, it provoked thoughtful questions and a fascinating discussion on public scholarship and its roles. Dean Patton, who moderated the conversation, ended the event with a list of 11 takeaways that were raised at various points during the conversation by audience members and panelists. Some of these points are questions while others are mandates, and some are directed to university leaders while others are relevant for all members of the university.

  • Characterize fields differently.
    The three panelists represented three different areas of study: Dean Patton the arts and sciences, Dean Brownell the social sciences and President Lewis the humanities. Dean Patton called for a new “relationship of values” between those three areas, one that would allow for more effective partnerships to face pressing “grand challenges” of society.
  • Ask the community what they want.
    The least successful, most disastrous community partnerships often involve universities initiating projects they think the community needs, without meaningful input from community members. Many longtime Durham residents will talk about how the relationship between the city and the university has improved as the university has begun to partner with, rather than serve, the city – and how long it took to repair what was often seen as an unequal relationship between the two entities.
  • Send the message that more synthetic, more public scholarship matters as much as “new” discoveries.
    If the university wants to maximize the value of its scholarship, the panelists all seemed to agree, that decisions of hiring, tenure and granting of graduate degrees should credit public scholarship as much as completely “new” discoveries.
  • What if we stopped research for awhile?
    It is unlikely that the university will actually place a moratorium on new research. However, it’s an intriguing question that raises important points. Are we so focused on creating new research that we don’t ensure that research reaches relevant community members? Are we limiting the societal impact of our research by failing to ensure that the knowledge generated reaches populations that could be positively impacted?
  • Are we ready to let experience count in degree-granting situations?
    One panelist raised the point that, particularly in graduate school, students often have relevant real-world experience, but that experience rarely counts toward a degree. This experience can often be just as valuable as research or coursework, and discounting it can exacerbate the problem of low socioeconomic diversity in the academy.
  • We need to spend time with the community.
    President Lewis pointed out that academic timelines do not always fit community needs. University research projects usually last a maximum of five to seven years, a fairly arbitrary timeline from the perspective of community needs and problems. Meaningful campus-community relationships cannot only adhere to the university’s calendar.
  • Structure student engagement by life stage.
    Lewis pointed out that student civic engagement experiences are often a “one-off,” and they are rarely tailored to students at different stages of development. Expectations for an incoming freshman must be different from those of a graduating senior, but our civic engagement initiatives are often not designed in such a way. By adjusting our programs to provide more responsibility as students mature, we could avoid student burnout and increase both students’ growth as citizens and the benefits enjoyed by the partnering community.
  • Be more engaged in bringing community members onto campus.
    Dean Patton, who oversees Duke’s successful Forum for Scholars and Publics, which brings community members for educational events on campus as well as providing academic events in the community, said that community members should feel they have a reason to visit campus – not just that the university invited them.
  • Do research into participation of research.
    One point that came up more than once was that as tax-exempt (and, in many cases, publicly funded) institutions, universities must constantly make the case that their scholarship is valuable to the public. Making this case will entail doing research into public perceptions and participation, and bringing the evidence to a variety of publics, including the press.
  • Create an ongoing orientation for parents.
    In his introductory address, President Lewis discussed the racial and socioeconomic inequality that still exists in academia – not just in attracting minority, low-income and first-generation students, but also in ensuring those students thrive. Part of that process, suggested an audience member, might involve orienting families of those students to the academic environment.
  • Remember that university staff represent various segments of the community.
    The delineation between “university” and “community” can often seem arbitrary. Universities, after all, are an important part of their larger community. Most faculty and staff, and some students and alumni, live in the surrounding community. But universities sometimes forget that even the poorest segments of the community often include university support staff.During the conversation, President Lewis pointed out that university administrators and faculty often fail to recognize and acknowledge their relative societal power. On the other side of the coin, universities must recognize and acknowledge that their populations are composed of people from many different socioeconomic brackets.

While some of these suggestions are more likely than others – Duke will probably ­­not pause research anytime soon – they elicit myriad possibilities for university civic engagement, and for higher education as a whole. We thank Earl Lewis, Laurie Patton and Kelly Brownell for providing the community with a conversation that will undoubtedly provoke thought and conversation for a long time into the future.