Transforming the Academy: The Urgency of Recommitting Higher Education to the Public Good

In his 1990 book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Ernest L. Boyer set a stage of precedents for what we now see as the pressing challenges for higher education, particularly as we urgently and collectively strive as a community of scholars to (re)commit higher education to the public good. Consider the following points from that groundbreaking treatise:

  1. “A new vision of scholarship is required, one dedicated not only to the renewal of the academy but, ultimately, to the renewal of society itself.”
  2. “Now is the time to build bridges across the disciplines, and connect the campus to the larger world. Society itself has a great stake in how scholarship is defined.”
  3. “The conclusion is clear. We need scholars who not only skillfully explore the frontiers of knowledge, but also integrate ideas, connect thought to action, and inspire students.”
  4. “One last point. This report has focused largely on faculty members as individuals. But professors, to be fully effective, cannot work in isolation. It is toward a shared vision of intellectual and social possibilities—a community of scholars—that the four dimensions of academic endeavor should lead.”1

Transforming the academy, as Boyer asks us to do, is a hard problem, requiring both cumulative work and all hands on deck. This approach is the opposite of what we often lionize as “disruptive innovation,” which involves a search for quick outcomes-focused approaches to reversing what Charles Tilly called the “durable inequalities” of our world.2 But the elite, detached, monastic model of the university developed over generations, and we will not counter it with a model of engaged, inclusive, anchor institutions overnight. In the same vein, the architecture of segregation and durable inequalities are just that—architected to be durable—and so the promise of the university as an engine of social mobility and social justice (that is, for equitable growth in communities) will only be fulfilled brick by brick, scholar by scholar, generation by generation.

Universities as public goods

Boyer—who served as chancellor of the State University of New York, as US commissioner of education, and as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—called for “a new American college that is connected and committed to improving, in a very intentional way, the human condition.”3 Taking off from this appeal, I’d like to consider how close institutions of higher education can get to being public goods, if not in a purely technical sense, at least in the spirit of an aspirational metaphor. In economics, a public good is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, meaning one person’s consumption of the good does not prevent or make it impossible for another person to consume it. A public good is also non-rejectable—once it is supplied, people cannot refuse it.4 Therefore, although technically “higher education is not a pure public good,” as Sandy Baum and Mike McPherson have written, clear positive externalities benefit the public beyond those for whom it is also a private good.5

Today, the public needs us to be much closer to a public than a private, purely market-driven good. This is true both in terms of access for more of the talented public (to the university) and in terms of contributions (beyond the university) by our community of scholars—producing positive externalities, benefitting the collective good beyond just those who pay for it.

By contrast, recent national public opinion polls suggest that the current public view of higher education is that it both excludes too many (making it exclusive) and hoards opportunity only for those connected to it (making it rivalrous). In turn, therefore, if we can move closer to the public-good end of the continuum by opening more, working in public more, and benefiting the public more, we may actually help defuse some of the legitimacy crisis reflected in those polls. So how do we transform our institutions, our mores, our practices, our disciplines, our student bodies, our professoriate to be in line with this model?

Four aspects of transformation

Boyer argued that universities are actually often driven by external concerns, just the wrong ones. One need only think of the ranking wars, the narrowly defined dimensions of merit for students and for faculty (both as defined by standardized tests and by disciplinary norms) to see how much we fall prey to what social psychologists call an “exclusion mindset” of competition, distancing us further and further from the full public. Moreover, this seems exactly what needs changing if we are to realize in any way the idea of universities as institutions that provide some good to everyone.

We need institutional transformation (from the outside in), as Boyer argued, to transcend boundaries within the academy and between the academy and the world, with an eye toward the collective work to advance equity and impact and cement the identity of our institutions—each in their own way—as indispensable partners in improving the human condition.

I suggest that there are four inextricably intertwined aspects to the necessary transformation, all aimed at the public good. First, we need to diversify the student body and faculty (building a critical mass of representation). Second, we need to recognize and reward publicly engaged scholarship (giving, as Boyer said, “scholarship a richer, more vital meaning”). Third, we need to cultivate genuinely reciprocal, sustained relationships between our universities and our communities (as stable, committed anchors of equitable growth and opportunity). Fourth, we need to learn to overcome our competitive instincts and collaborate across an ecosystem of institutions, organizations, and sectors (all committed to a movement of change).

Resetting our institutional tables

Institutional transformation begins with who is sitting at the various tables of our institutions, which simply must include a genuine representation of the public. At both the student and faculty levels, the trend has been to look for “exceptional children” rather than recognize the massive demographic shifts and the accompanying imperative to genuinely reset the homogeneous tables we typically set.6 As the late Katherine Phillips compellingly urged, it is time to ask why we so passively accept homogeneity as the default norm for our institutions, when we endlessly ask for justifications of the value of diversity.7

The need to reset the full table of representation at the student level is urgent and especially poignant as higher education is such a critical lever for social mobility.8 Our institutions, even our major public institutions, simply are not meeting the mandate.9 Not surprisingly, public distrust is growing, as too many low-income students and students from communities of color—all of whom face systemic obstacles in the way of cultivating their many talents—are being repeatedly sidelined by business as usual. We need to get serious, quickly, about resetting the student table in higher education as the composition of America dramatically changes.

The need to substantially reset the table at the faculty level is equally urgent. Even in the face of genuine proclamations of commitment to diversity, and even as, for example, the STEM fields produce a reasonably diverse potential talent pool for the professoriate in many disciplines,10 we have seen painfully slow shifts in the composition of the professoriate. Small numbers of diverse faculty (along many dimensions, but certainly along gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and nationality) leave underrepresented students without sufficient role models and mentors to encourage belongingness, and, as critically, underrepresentation leaves diverse faculty endlessly subject to the scrutiny of “solo status” and “stereotype threat” in their departments and disciplines.11

Inclusion of a new, more public-facing diverse demographic in the up-and-coming professoriate adds enormous value for publicly engaged scholarship. As George Sanchez argued in his piece on civic engagement and the retreat from inclusiveness, “The very ‘public’ in the United States we will seek to engage in community partnerships will shift dramatically, and will look less and less like the faculty in our colleges and universities over the next 25 years.”12 If we do not assertively recruit and reward this active and engaged talent pool, and do it soon, as immigration and birthrate trends make obsolete our normative professoriate, we will fall short as authentic partners in evidence-informed social change.13

Recognizing publicly engaged scholarship

As we genuinely reset the table of our campuses to represent a much broader and more diverse public, we should expect and welcome an expansion of the ideas, interests, questions, and innovations that become the focus of scholarship and pedagogy. As Boyer argued, “It is our central premise, therefore, that other forms of scholarship—teaching, integration, and application—must be fully acknowledged and placed on a more equal footing with discovery.”14 This is particularly true as more questions of public interest, seen through more varied lenses, are brought to the table for consideration, and a diverse “community of experts,” including frontline community partners, is engaged in the cocreation of knowledge. We are also, then, likely to expand our default definitions of what constitutes “discovery.”

The expansion of what counts as knowledge and productive scholarship also requires a genuine mindset shift, as we need to pay as much attention to questions of importance that emanate from the “outside in” as to those seen as internally critical by our disciplines. We need to shift from the tendency to privilege what others in the field have found as interesting to what the public wants to know. As a social psychologist, I have seen my field somewhat obsessed of late with the quick answers about social behavior that an MRI produces, and I say this with no animus in mind. By contrast, I look to the great tradition of Kurt Lewin and action research that emanated in part from the burning need of a shocked public to understand the intricate and hard-to-measure dynamics of group behavior in the wake of the Holocaust and the fascist domination of continental Europe.15 This tradition involves anything but quick, hard-and-fast answers, and, as Lewin noted, the best way to understand something is to try, difficult and time-consuming as it may be, to change it. Accordingly, we would all do well today in this divisive national and global moment to pause and think deeply about what the public needs us urgently and patiently to study and to teach the next generation.

We also need to re-envision how we produce scholarship, who produces it, and where it lives on. While the lone genius has never been the model of how we actually produce scholarship, especially in fields like STEM, the reward system in the academy still acts as if that myth is reality. We cling to it in promotion and tenure evaluations, looking for instances when the scholar “really” was the lead contributor. Moreover, there is a parallel to the hegemony of “inside-out” evaluations of quality and interest (discipline to the world versus world to disciplines) in who we consider an important scholarly partner in cocreation. This is a debate, for example, frequently seen as scholars evaluate, reward, and support community-engaged science, which increases the inclusive representation of scientists and improves the science produced.16 Analyses of climate change effects provide a trenchant example of the value of broadening our understanding of who, how and where knowledge/discovery occurs, as vividly demonstrated in recent work at the National Science Foundation in which indigenous populations play a key role in understanding the “new Arctic.”17

Similarly, where the scholarly product appears also figures in the valuation of its worth, as seen in the comparison between peer-reviewed articles in top journals and K–12 curricular modules or policy reports for community use. We see the value of a wide range of scholarly products all the time, even if promotion and tenure committees may still lag behind in fully embracing it.18 Placing, as Boyer desired, other forms of scholarship on an equal footing by necessity must mean that we expand our appreciation of what scholarship looks like and where we see it in action.

Anchor institutions as community collaborators

Fully realizing the anchor institution model requires a thorough change in attitude, shifting from the university (and those in it) as the leader, expert, and progenitor of solutions to being a coequal partner with our community. It requires responding to suggestions from all sectors—cultural, business, government, community—about critical issues to work on, and being willing to see the challenges through a broad racial and economic equity lens of systemic discrimination.

Moreover, to reckon with history, we need to be willing to step forward as place-based institutions and understand the specifics of the (racialized) inequality map of our communities. For history plays out differently in each place, as we see if we compare the narratives today between urban and rural communities, even as shared economic insecurities should unite, not divide, the largely white rural and black and brown urban centers. Not to forget, as we too often do, the particulars of the narratives of our many indigenous Native American communities profoundly affected by the racist history of our country.

Much as colleges and universities have traditionally adopted a distanced relationship with their communities, veering more to the monastery than the marketplace, we have been especially allergic to tackling the thorny questions of local racial equity (broadly defined) at home.19 This is true even as many of our disciplines rightly support and reward such efforts abroad, as seen in the recent, uplifting award of the Nobel Prize in economics to three economists who study solutions to inequality in global contexts.20

Creating ecosystems for impact

As potentially trusted agents of opportunity and equitable growth, universities as anchor institutions also best serve the public good when we eschew the goal of competitive, individualistic success (embedded in the rankings war, for example) and embrace a collaborative model of “stackable institutions” to maximize impact. As Boyer noted, “The team approach, which seems so necessary for individuals, applies to institutions, too.” He also called for “diversity with dignity in American higher education—a national network of higher learning institutions in which each college and university takes pride in its own distinctive mission and seeks to complement rather than imitate others.”

This fourth dimension of institutional transformation into actors within an ecosystem inevitably means even more democratization of higher education. This calls for working together across the continuum of educational impact (pre-K–20) and across types of institutions (school districts, community colleges, univer­sities), as well as across sectors (private-public, educational-business-nonprofit), and across locations (schools, prisons, neighborhood centers, libraries) to enlarge the circle of opportunity. Additionally, as we broaden this reach, we redefine place-based work as expansive not only in its networks of actors and institutions but also in the resonance of its implications, from local to national to global. We are seeing this resonance, for example, in the engagement of global partners in the Anchor Institutions Task Force and the Talloires Network of community-engaged institutions.21

An equitable growth identity

The work that we have been doing at Rutgers University–Newark is an attempt to tie all four aspects of transformation together via an institutional identity as an anchor institution committed to creating social mobility and public impact as two sides of a single coin—equitable growth. When we are at our best, we hope this equitable growth identity permeates top-down and sideways in the institution and in the community. It informs the diversity of the backgrounds of the academic leadership we hire and the publicly engaged faculty members whom departments recruit. It underlies the commitments we make to hiring local citizens and procuring our goods from local women-, minority-, and veteran-owned businesses. It energizes the research centers we support, including those providing data and new models to city hall and those using evidence-based research to advocate statewide for social justice. For example, this work includes support of undocumented populations, of those entangled in the criminal justice system, of the need for diverse and inclusive public schools.22 Our faculty and staff work tirelessly with partners from all corners of the city, including the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, the city’s Equitable Growth Advisory Commission, the Newark 2020 Hire-Buy-Live Local Collective, the Newark Public Safety Collaborative, and Express Newark, a university-community arts collaboratory, located in a 50,000-square-foot space for cocreation in downtown Newark.23

Highlighting the voices and legacies of the citizens of Newark is a large part of what we need to do as cocreators of change in a seamless two-way street between Rutgers–Newark and the City of Newark. This is so clear when our faculty, students, and staff team up with the Newark Public Library and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in our Campus Center for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (supported by the Association of American Colleges and Universities)24 to hold intergenerational dialogue circles and community artists’ events in the Healing Sounds of Newark program all around the city.25 It is what happens when the archivists of our world-renowned Institute of Jazz Studies and our creative writing faculty and graduate students team up with the jazz artists and arts presenters of Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the educators of Newark Public Schools.26

It is often all about raising the voices already there, which brings me to the kinds of major commitments that travel the other direction of the two-way street—from the community into the university. Our team has been very deliberate in trying to set and reset our institutional table to bring the broad public inside, as well as taking our show “outside” (even as we eschew those geographical boundaries). For example, when we made a significant institutional commitment to create a “revolutionary” Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC), it was dedicated to local citizenship in a global world and accordingly recruits a highly diverse set of students on the basis of their social justice leadership potential to engage and change the equity map locally, nationally, and globally.27

These future leaders include local citizens (61 percent are Newark residents) from a city with an ethnic-racial makeup tied to generations of American migration and immigration from all over the world. They include those journeying on a pathway at odds with higher education’s usual strangleholds of intergenerational wealth and privilege, as 76 percent of the HLLC students are eligible for Pell Grants, 46 percent are first generation, and 30 percent transferred from community colleges. These students bring the authentic knowledge of lived experience, including but not limited to having been in prison, living with the fears of an undocumented family, representing faith communities often shunned as outsiders, aging out of foster care, and raising families of their own.

It is important to note that these students are not rare birds fitting the “exceptional child” model. Instead, we see such local talent with global roots and vision for an equitable future all over our region. Our Rutgers University–Newark Talent and Opportunity Program (RU-N to the TOP) financial aid program (providing last-in full tuition and fees scholarships to any Newark resident or New Jersey community college associate’s degree transfer student with an adjusted family income of $60,000 or less) has helped Rutgers–Newark increase the representation of students from Newark to 14.5 percent of undergraduates (a hundred percent increase since 2013). Our multifaceted institutional programs for financial aid and legal and social support of our undocumented students are in line with New Jersey’s landscape as the third-most immigrant-dense state in the nation. We have substantially grown the support and opportunities for New Jersey Dreamers with the on-the-ground advocacy and engagement of students, faculty in our legal clinics, student affairs staff, and partners in the immigrant rights advocacy community.28

Similarly, our New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program, coordinating multiple “stackable institutions” across the state to teach in six New Jersey prison facilities, is also bringing generations of formerly incarcerated students to gain bachelor degrees at Rutgers. Working together with nonprofit groups like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Vera Institute of Justice, our publicly engaged faculty and staff in NJ-STEP advocate for voting rights, train re-entry entrepreneurs, and push the state and our nation to step up to the plate and provide equitable growth pathways, especially for those from communities of color disproportionately experiencing the criminal justice system.

Blurring the line between private gain and public good

As we create this ecosystem of educational opportunity and anchor institution engagement, the line between private gain (for some) and public good (for all) blurs, as does the false distinction between education for a career and education for citizenship, between scholarship and service, between research and pedagogy, and between local and global. Indeed, Boyer argued that higher education had a responsibility to enable students to live responsibly: “This point, properly understood, warns against making too great a distinction between careerism and the liberal arts, between self-benefit and service.”29

Ultimately, if we succeed in intertwining these four aspects of a model of a university aimed toward maximizing the public good, then we will come closer to what Boyer envisioned in Scholarship Reconsidered. As he said, “A new vision of scholarship is required, one dedicated not only to the renewal of the academy but, ultimately, to the renewal of society itself.” It also means that the aim of equitable growth in communities is to spread the map of opportunity as widely as possible, redefining quality and merit as inclusive (not exclusive) and recognizing the dynamics of progressive growth that takes a windy road toward progress in the face of entrenched institutional practices and historically defined community challenges. This is hard but worthwhile work, and I deeply believe that we owe it to Boyer and our current and future students to try to make it happen. 

Notes

  1. Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and John Wiley & Sons, 1990).
  2. Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).
  3. Ernest L. Boyer, “Creating the New American College,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 9, 1994.
  4. “Economics A to Z,” Economist, accessed March 23, 2020, https://www.economist.com/economics-a-to-z/.
  5. Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, “Is Education a Public Good or a Private Good?” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2011.
  6. See William H. Frey, Diversity Explosion: How Racial Demographics Are Remaking America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2015).
  7. Katherine W. Phillips, “What Is the Real Value of Diversity in Organizations? Questioning Our Assumptions,” in Scott E. Page, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 223–45.
  8. See Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper no. 23618, July 2017.
  9. See Anthony P. Carnevale, Martin Van Der Werf, Michael C. Quinn, Jeff Strohl, and Dmitri Repnikov, Our Separate & Unequal Public Colleges: How Public Colleges Reinforce White Privilege and Marginalize Black and Latino Students (Washington, DC: Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, 2018).
  10. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering (Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2015).
  11. Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (New York: Norton & Company, 2010).
  12. George J. Sanchez, “Crossing Figueroa: The Tangled Web of Diversity and Democracy,” Foreseeable Futures, no. 4, Position Papers from Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, from 2004 Dewey Lecture, University of Michigan.
  13. Stephanie A. Fryberg and Ernesto J. Martinez, eds., The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues on Diversity in Higher Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
  14. Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered.
  15. Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts: Selected Papers on Group Dynamics (1935–1946), ed. Gertrude W. Lewin (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948).
  16. Ira Harkavy, Nancy Cantor, and Myra Burnett, Realizing STEM Equity and Diversity through Higher Education Community Engagement, January 2015. See also Biennial Report to Congress 2017–2018, Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, https://www.nsf.gov/od/oia/activities/ceose/reports/CEOSE_ReportToCongre....
  17. The NSF program on “Navigating the New Arctic” calls for proposals with diverse community partners and the reports to our CEOSE Committee on the New Artic work were very encouraging in including indigenous populations. See “Navigating the New Arctic,” National Science Foundation, accessed May 26, 2020, https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=505594.
  18. See Julie Ellison and Timothy K. Eatman, Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University (Syracuse, NY: Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, 2008). See also Nancy Cantor and Steven D. Lavine, “Taking Public Scholarship Seriously,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 9, 2006.
  19. See Nancy Cantor and Steven Schomberg, “Poised Between Two Worlds: The University as Monastery and Marketplace,” EDUCAUSE Review 38, no. 2 (March/April 2003): 12–21.
  20. Jeanna Smialek, “Nobel Economics Prize Goes to Pioneers in Reducing Poverty,” New York Times, October 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/business/nobel-economics.html.
  21. See Sjur Bergen and Ira Harkavy, eds., Higher Education for Diversity, Social Inclusion and Community: A Democratic Imperative, Council of Europe Higher Education Series no. 22 (Council of Europe, August 2018); “The Talloires Network,” Tufts University, accessed March 30, 2020, https://talloiresnetwork.tufts.edu/.
  22. “The Inclusion Project,” Rutgers University–Newark, accessed May 26, 2020, http://theinclusionproject.rutgers.edu/.
  23. See a summary article on many of our anchor institution engagements, “Tackling ‘The Two Americas’ with City-Wide Collaboration in Newark,” Journal on Anchor Institutions and Communities 2 (2019). See also, Express Newark, accessed May 26, 2020, https://www.expressnewark.org/.
  24. “Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, accessed March 26, 2020, https://www.aacu.org/trht-campus-centers.
  25. “Healing Sounds of Newark,” Events, Rutgers University–Newark, March 22, 2018, www.newark.rutgers.edu/events/healing-sounds-newark.
  26. “Listen Up! NJPAC, Rutgers-Newark to Amplify Newark Voices through Jazz and Poetry with $1.5 Million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant,” News, Rutgers University–Newark, October 3, 2019, https://www.newark.rutgers.edu/news/listen-njpac-rutgers-newark-amplify-....
  27. See David Kirp, “An Honors College That Honors Grit,” New York Times, May 22, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/22/opinion/honors-college-rutgers.html. The piece featured the Honors Living-Learning Community, concluding, “Imagine what would happen if this model went nationwide.” See also “Where Academic Excellence Requires Passion for Social Good,” PBS NewsHour, October 16, 2018, https://www.pbs.org/video/rethinking-college-1539725787/.
  28. “Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project (RICAP),” Rutgers University–Newark, accessed March 26, 2020, https://law.rutgers.edu/rutgers-immigrant-community-assistance-project-r....
  29. Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered.

Nancy Cantor is chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark. This essay is adapted from her keynote address presented upon receiving the Ernest L. Boyer Award from the New American Colleges and Universities at the 2020 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results