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Public Outreach in an Anti-Knowledge Moment

We live in a time in which knowledge has been devalued. Ahistoricism is a central tenet of the current administration, and research-based evidence in both the social and natural sciences is regularly disregarded.

Our elected officials propose and pass legislation for policies that run counter to what research suggests would best serve the public, which has negative repercussions in the present and for future generations. Postsecondary institutions are centers of knowledge production, and the undermining of knowledge has thus made higher education increasingly susceptible to legislative attack.

We must not forget that such short-sighted and misinformed actions by politicians were enabled by those who voted them into office, many of whom consider higher education to be an elitist and exclusive enterprise. In this anti-knowledge moment when it may be tempting for members of the academy to feel resentment toward the masses and retreat, it has never been more important for our colleges and universities to engage.

Effective engagement will require institutions to interrogate their practices, identify opportunities and act strategically.

One norm which must be interrogated is the underappreciation (and sometimes stigmatization) of faculty participation in public outreach.

Tenure criteria typically include public outreach in the service category, which is often given less importance than teaching and research. “Service” includes many activities that are done within academic contexts, such as participating on committees, serving as a reviewer for publications and advising student organizations. All of these activities hold importance, but unfortunately, public outreach is often drowned out.

In many cases, academics who are interested in public outreach are explicitly discouraged from participation by their colleagues and mentors, who believe it is a distraction from more important professorial responsibilities. These norms have been passed down from generation to generation within the academy, and are tied both to tradition and to financial incentives within the ecosystem of higher education such as the interrelationship between research production, prestige and national rankings.

Yet, blind pursuit of individualistic and neoliberal incentives blurs the bigger picture —all of higher education loses when the general public no longer values their institutions and the knowledge they produce. There needs to be a shift in how the academy talks about public outreach, and practices that disincentivize it need to be revised.

Prioritizing public outreach will create more opportunities for colleges and universities to develop relationships with communities that feel alienated by higher education. Thoughtful and intentional engagement of these communities is essential to proving the value of higher education to a broader swath of the population, and ultimately works toward fulfilling what most institutions were founded to do —serve the public good.

Access to quality education is still too dependent upon location, and impoverished communities, both urban and rural, remain deprived. Opportunities abound for colleges and universities to identify “education deserts” and partner with their local educational institutions, be they two-year institutions or school districts, to provide resources to help their students succeed and solve issues in their communities.

Such partnerships should be centered on relationship-building, and geographical distance can be overcome through technology and through institutional investments in travel. Rather than thinking about such a form of public outreach as part of a zero-sum game, institutions can support faculty members to build their classes around these opportunities, and to engage in participatory action research in which they become co-researchers with the communities they are reaching out to.

Approaching communities in a culturally responsive and respectful way and co-producing knowledge with them will affirm the value of higher education and lead to rich learning experiences for all involved.

In order to influence policy, such engagement must be accompanied by community empowerment to participate in political processes. Colleges and universities can and should do more to encourage voting, through participating in outreach and partnering to organize voter-registration drives in regions that have low voter turnout. Moreover, institutions that are not a polling site must work to become one in order to increase the voting participation of their students and communities.

These efforts must not be limited to presidential election cycles, but should be sustained through local and midterm elections. Informed political mobilization will force candidates to advocate for evidence-based policies and will hold systems of governance accountable to rationality.

The onus is on colleges and universities to restore knowledge to its proper place, and in a democratic society this can only be accomplished through engaging effectively with the public. Faculty must take leadership by emphasizing the importance of public outreach and incorporating it into their practices, and administrators must invest strategically in these efforts and establish cross-institutional collaborations that expand higher education’s contributions to underserved communities.

Reframing how the academy conceptualizes and engages in public outreach is of critical importance to our nation’s health, and it is time for colleges and universities to rise to the challenge.

Daniel Blake is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a research associate with the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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