This is because the issue revolves around a seemingly exemplary public scholar (Boyce D. Watkins) who is situated in another seemingly exemplary institution committed to public scholarship (Syracuse University). And yet, the process and outcome of this case suggests that public scholarship and the notion of an “engaged campus” function as “empty signifiers” that have been implicitly predefined and as such prejudged to “count” only in particular modes. This bodes ill for all who truly believe in and work towards higher education as truly a part of rather than apart from their local and global communities.
This case has national import exactly because “public scholarship” is, as I see it, a subset of a broader movement for community engagement in higher education—a set of loosely interrelated practices and philosophies such as service-learning, civic engagement, community-based research, and participatory action research—that link classrooms and communities and theory with practice towards meaningful and sustained public impact. Public scholarship, per se, has been written about by Jeremy Cohen (at PSU) and others and can be linked fairly directly to, for example, the American Democracy Project and the Carnegie Foundation’s voluntary “community engagement” classification. Indeed, Dr. Watkins has publicly linked his tenure case to his university’s principles for such “scholarship of engagement.”
He is not alone. The last decade has seen an ever-increasing awareness of and buy-in to community engagement. The most recent HERI survey of faculty, for example, found that fully 88 percent believe that colleges should be actively involved with local community issues and the majority feel it is “very important” or “essential” to instill a commitment to community service. Obama’s presidency has only quickened such discussions and put a large chunk of federal dollars on the table to support such service-minded practices in higher education.
Syracuse University, where Dr. Watkins has been practicing his public scholarship, certainly talks this talk. Dr. Nancy Cantor, the president and chancellor of Syracuse University, has invested an immense amount of administrative time and political capital to argue for deeply linking academic expertise with real-world issues through a “scholarship in action”. In a foreword to a policy document “Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University”, Dr. Cantor (with President Steven Levine of the California Institute of the Arts) writes that:
As university presidents and chancellors, we say we want creative scholars who
are also committed to the public good. So how can we create environments that
attract them? Their ranks frequently include faculty of color and women in
underrepresented fields—just the kind we’d like to have. So how can we steer
them away from the revolving door of recruitment without retention? Many faculty
members experience a frustrating clash between their intellectual goals, which
include pursuing community-based scholarship and art-making, and institutional
tenure policies. To draw and keep such talent...we need to look hard at the
culture of the academic workplace...The range of scholarly products has
expanded, as have the pathways for dissemination. If we care about higher
education’s engagement with its communities, the local impact—as well as the
national and international implications of faculty work—must be recognized. And,
if we truly want to encourage the integration of teaching and action research,
we must reward it at tenure time...Even such normally sympathetic fields as
policy studies and social sciences more often tend to discourage junior faculty
members from collaborative work that is interdisciplinary and publicly engaged.
How many times have we heard, “You’d better wait until you get tenure before you
do that”? We brag about the fabulous work of our engaged faculty—but can we get
them promoted?...To attract and keep a diverse faculty, we need flexible but
clear guidelines for recognizing and rewarding public scholarship and artistic
The problem is that such “flexible and clear guidelines” appear to be anything but. There are scant guidelines of what counts as community engagement or a rubric of how one might evaluate such public scholarship. (The only one I am aware of—The National Review Board for the Scholarship of Engagement—appears inactive.) While I am sure the Syracuse University tenure process was not capricious or arbitrary, their faculty manual does not mention how to review someone’s “scholarship in action.”
As such, public scholarship (and community engagement in general) appears to be an empty signifier filled by whichever group is able to wrest control over its definition. This empty signifier works exactly because it is positioned as abstract, neutral, and seemingly obvious. It is a grand narrative of an overarching philosophy and pedagogy that is able to span across and be embedded within all curricular and co-curricular programs and departments in the academy. An entire book series, for example, is devoted to showing how service-learning can be used across all disciplines. Engagement, likewise, is defined by the Carnegie Foundation as, in principle, spread across an entire institution. Yet it is exactly such a conceptualization that causes the community engagement movement to crash against a whole series of pedagogical, political, and institutional limits.
Thus even as the community engagement movement gains increasing visibility and currency in the academy, recent scholarship both within and outside of the movement has become more critical about its impact and sustainability. A recent summit of a who’s-who list of leaders and scholars in the community engagement movement noted that the movement has stalled, due, in part, to its being inadequately conceptualized and highly fragmented; it is, the attendees feared, on the verge of standing “for anything and therefore nothing.”
But that is actually not quite right. Community engagement has indeed come to stand for something. The problem is that this “something”—as an overarching, seemingly good-for-all practice—becomes a diluted and all-too-often innocuous vestige of the original transformational agenda. To take just one example (made all that much more relevant given this tenure case), Syracuse University has recently announced its first cohort of “engagement fellows.” These graduating seniors, the announcement states, “will participate in local projects that incorporate the principles of SU’s Scholarship in Action vision.” The projects include fostering a more cohesive downtown in Syracuse, enhancing sustainable living, and working with local youth on a “Say Yes to Education” initiative. These may be good and worthwhile examples of civic engagement; they are not, though, anything close to a radical or transformational vision as envisioned by the rhetoric of community engagement scholars and activists. And, if forthcoming research just coming out on the Carnegie Foundation’s “seal of approval” are right, neither are the vast majority of institutions deemed as being “engaged.”
I am not suggesting that those Syracuse seniors or most faculty members should be engaged in the practices and guided by the philosophy that has embroiled Dr. Watkins’ tenure case. What I am pointing out is that there is no meaningful or sustained academic discourse as to how we define our terms when we speak of public scholarship or community engagement.
This does not have to be the case. It is quite possible to have a field of study that is able to carefully, critically, and systematically investigate the sphere of democratic engagement and civic action as well as self-reflexively examine and determine its own boundaries, definitions, and norms of intellectual practice. It is possible, in other words, to discipline community engagement by developing “academic homes”—majors, minors, and interdisciplinary centers—where scholars can probe such ideas and practices. Psychology and sociology did this one hundred years ago for their respective fields of study. Women’s studies and Black studies did this thirty years ago. Jewish studies and global studies are doing this today. It is just as possible for a group of scholars to come together today under the umbrella of “community engagement” or some such term in order to focus on developing, critiquing, and expanding what it means to “do” community engagement.
This is not idle speculation. There are in fact several dozen such programs already scattered around the country that have developed academic and administrative structures, practices, and policies that foster sustained, immersive, and consequential outcomes for students, faculty, and the communities with which they work. For example, UC-Santa Cruz’s Community Studies department, Emory & Henry College’s Public Policy & Community Service program, Providence College’s Public and Community Service Studies, and UW-Milwaukee’s Educational Policy and Community Studies department bring together scholars across disciplines and departments to foster discussions—amongst themselves and their students—of what it actually means when we talk about and do things called “citizenship,” “democracy,” and “engagement.”
Being embedded in an academic program such as this goes exactly against the idea of “community engagement” as an empty signifier that seemingly floats across the higher education landscape. Rather, it allows dedicated and committed scholars to actually debate what scholarship in action may actually mean for students, communities, and their particular institution. In the end, of course, Dr. Watkins may not have wanted to be a part of such an academic program; and, even if he was, it may not have helped his tenure case. But what it would have allowed him to do is spend his time engaged in discussions with colleagues who, like him, thought long and hard of what it means to engage the public, in what means, and with what results.
The perils for public scholarship would then of course be different. But for all the discussion about the “public” nature of public scholarship, higher education still functions in highly non-public ways. Dr. Watkins is still evaluated by his peers (and not the larger public) on his academic (and not his public) work. It just so happens that by maintaining public scholarship and community engagement as seemingly universal and abstract signifiers, Dr. Watkins is actually left without any real peers who understand or can knowledgably engage with and critique his academic work. That is a shame not just for the tenure case of Dr. Watkins. It is a shame for all of us who are working to make the “engaged campus” a sustainable reality rather than pie in the sky.