Diversity and Democracy

Cultivating Growth at the Leading Edges: Public Engagement in Higher Education

"Out of the box is that magical place where talent—pure talent goes—to live and thrive and breathe."

—Lionel Richie

In this issue of Diversity & Democracy, David Hoffman, Craig Berger, and Beverly Bickel from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) point to what they call "the visionary's dilemma." They ask: "How can a movement gain traction when the dominant culture's theories, knowledge, politics, and conventional mechanisms for social and institutional change reflect the status quo?" Meanwhile, from their vantage point at the University of Massachusetts Boston, John Saltmarsh and his colleagues wonder: Should relatively young institutions "try to improve their status by conforming to traditional norms that confer prestige on research institutions"? Or should they "place themselves on the cutting edge of academic innovation and thereby risk being devalued by the broader academic establishment?"

These challenging questions suggest two images: an image of being limited or boxed in by the status quo, and an image of a cutting or leading edge that promises to break out of and ultimately transcend current limits. These images are both present in one version of "the story of now" in American higher education, to borrow from Marshall Ganz's public narrative framework (Ganz 2010, 522–27). In this version of the "story of now," many scholars and administrators at higher education's leading edges hold deep commitments to public engagement, seeing it as a way of securing equity, justice, dignity, and reciprocity; of advancing an ethos of full participation (Sturm et al. 2011); and of supporting cultural practices that align with the idea of democracy as a way of life. But while scholars and administrators with such commitments are growing in number, they often find themselves in conflict with various aspects of a powerful status quo that threatens to overwhelm, push out, or co-opt them.

How will this story play out? What should those at the leading edges do? Where should those of us who care about higher education's future and its role in public life place our bets—and our time and energy—for constructive and sustainable change? How in the face of a powerful status quo might we approach the four interlocking challenges to public engagement in higher education that Robert Weisbuch, writing for this issue of Diversity & Democracy as a member of Imagining America's Presidents' Council, identifies in his essay: achieving economic feasibility, championing the applicability of the humanities in particular to the public good, building coherence and permanence, and institutionalizing engaged learning?

The Important Role of Leading Edges

The authors of the essays in this issue of Diversity & Democracy offer insight into how we might answer the questions outlined above. Beyond theories and opinions about what could or should be, they show us how people are already contributing as agents of change, both shaping and living out a "story of now" that arcs toward rather than away from constructive transformation. In sharing the theory and practice that constitutes their work, they offer a new sense of possibility. They bring strategic and imaginative energy to bear on our work of advancing diversity and democracy within and across every discipline and every field of inquiry, on and off our campuses. They both represent and illuminate what is happening today at the academy's many leading edges.

Leading edges play an important role within every domain of society. The spaces they occupy are precisely those where success and failure meet, where strategically focused risks can lead to advancement. The enterprise of advancing our leading edges is both intense and unending. It cannot be accomplished through complacency and resignation, which far too often mute our awareness and silence our critical impulses. In order to catalyze a culture focused at the leading edges of higher education, innovation must wrestle tradition, elevating purpose and activating ameliorative practice. The risk and enigma that characterize growth of this kind are palpable.

Increasingly, the leading edges of knowledge production (broadly defined) are located, nurtured, and nourished in the "out-of-the-box" environments described in our epigraph. In these environments, ideas enter concrete spaces where not only talent, but also bold and visionary commitment lives and thrives. Publicly engaged scholarship provides an interdisciplinary vehicle within the academy for the creation of leading edge spaces. IA is committed to encouraging and facilitating engaged practices, building on and drawing out the power of the cultural disciplines for knowledge making and social progress.

But what do we mean when we talk about publicly engaged scholarship, teaching, and learning? For IA, publicly engaged scholarship is defined by partnerships that join the knowledge and resources of higher education with those of the public and private sectors to enrich research, creative activity, and public knowledge. Such scholarship is a means for enhancing curricula, teaching, and learning; preparing educated, engaged citizens; and strengthening democratic values and civic responsibility. At its best, it can address and help solve critical social problems in ways that contribute to a larger public good.

This issue's contributors add their voices to those of many other citizens of academe who are compelled by the possibilities of publicly engaged scholarship as a way of realizing the democratic promise of higher education in twenty-first-century society. We believe that publicly engaged scholarship can serve as a means of not only tapping but also enriching the practices and expertise of every discipline and field. Such scholarship encourages transdisciplinary collaborations for public purposes and ends, not only between scholars and their professional peers, but also with "communities of experts as complex as the challenges we face today" (Cantor, Englot, and Higgins 2013, 21). This perspective on knowledge making facilitates what our colleague and friend Nancy Cantor calls "Scholarship in Action," "where students can experience the evolution and refinement of theory in practice by encountering the world's challenges in all their messiness" (Cantor, Englot, and Higgins 2013, 21).

Imagining Transformation "Outside of the Box"

The people and ideas at the leading edges of the engagement movement in American higher education are building on pioneering work that has been growing and evolving for several decades. They (and we, as we count ourselves among them) are engaging in an important process of shifting the languages and practices of public purpose and mission in the academy. This ongoing process involves a slow but marked movement away from discourses of service and outreach to and for people as customers or clients, toward discourses of engagement with people as agents working toward our highest ideals and aspirations (Boyte 2015).

Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA) was born out of this process of transformation. In the face of their own discontent about the traditional boxes of academe, Founding Director Emerita Julie Ellison, former National Advisory Board Chair David Scobey, and their colleagues embraced an out-of-the-box strategy while exerting a contagious sense of agency. Building on but also reworking traditional professorial roles in the cultural disciplines, these scholars leveraged their networks and organized to bring their larger sense of public purpose and connection to the White House Millennium Council (established under an executive order issued by President Clinton), which in 1999 hosted a series of national meetings under the banner "Honor the Past—Imagine the Future." Through the leadership of a committed group of university presidents led by Lee Bollinger, then at the helm of the University of Michigan, and with the support of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, IA grew out of these meetings. At the time of its founding, IA's National Advisory Board designed a model where IA's central office is itinerant, moving between institutions that seek to deepen their commitments to publicly engaged scholarship with special emphasis on the cultural disciplines. Initially hosted by the University of Michigan, IA's central office has made its second home at Syracuse University since 2007 and will transition to another home in 2017.

IA supports and advances the civic aspirations of scholars from the cultural disciplines who yearn for a more satisfying and engaged public life. But what are the particular roles of the arts, humanities, and design in the civic engagement movement, and what challenges exist in how these disciplines perceive themselves? What is the "story of now" for these disciplines as it relates to the potential role of higher education institutions in advancing impactful scholarship in our democracy?

The humanities, arts, and design fields have particular power to open up discourses and rebuke the typical academic aversion to deep channels of human interaction and embodiment—channels that tend to activate agency in a range of manifestations. Asserting the power of these fields, IA Assistant Director Jamie Haft writes that "humanities, arts, and design give us the human story in its full complexity, helping us as individuals and as a species understand who we are and where we've been" (Haft 2012, 13).

IA's programs, research groups, and projects are exploring and advancing the roles that arts, humanities, and design fields can play in higher education's public engagement movement. For example, IA's newly launched Commission on Publicly Engaged Design (CoPED), co-led by James Fathers and Marc Norman, is developing a robust research and action agenda for IA that will open up a long-term effort to advance leading-edge practices and theories that are emerging in diverse areas of design. IA Assistant Director Jamie Haft is providing important leadership with our Presidents' Council, which offers opportunities for leaders of engaged universities to participate in critical discourse about how publicly engaged scholarship that draws on arts, humanities, and design can addresses the key social and economic challenges of our time.

Under the leadership of its second director, Jan Cohen-Cruz, IA developed a vision, mission, values, and goals statement that further clarified our aims. Jan did much to advance IA's emphasis on community-engaged arts practices, perhaps most notably through the establishment of the DREAM3 Freedom Revival (DFR), the brainchild of IA Associate Director Kevin Bott (see http://dreamfreedomrevival.org/). The DFR creates original, participatory musical theater to draw citizens of Syracuse, New York, and the surrounding region into conversations about important topics such as hydrofracking, the rights of women, corporate personhood, the closing of a local senior center, and the relationship between the city and local colleges and universities. Each performance engages audience members by seeking their input during topical comedy sketches or by inviting them to "testify" before their neighbors about something happening in their community and share ways to get involved. Also developed by IA director emerita Jan Cohen-Cruz, Brian Lonsway, and Kathleen Brandt, Public: A Journal of Imagining America breaks new ground as a hybrid online multimedia journal and archive, with innovative web interfaces for accessing peer-reviewed multimodal scholarship and creative work.

IA's current leadership model is yet another out-of-the box expression, as we are the first faculty co-directors of the consortium. The current moment in IA's development has called us, as two directors with complementary skills, networks, and vision, to model the collaboration that must be the cornerstone of publicly engaged scholarship in practice. We have sought to extend the momentum of our predecessors by thinking deeply with IA's staff and National Advisory Board about what it means to move from building an organization to situating that organization within the movement of community engagement and publicly engaged scholarship. We are working with our stakeholders to develop a theory of change that helps us take stock of the consortium's transformative potential. We have taken a hard look at how we are organized, and we are asking challenging questions and taking the strategic action necessary to accomplish our mission, vision, values, and goals.

Emerging Voices in a Chorus for Democracy

Since its founding, the Imagining America consortium—which now includes over one hundred colleges, universities, and community-based partners—has added meaningfully to the ferment occurring at the nexus of knowledge production and community engagement in higher education. We believe that it is not possible to affirm and bolster the role that humanities, arts, and design fields play in knowledge production and cultural power without our eyes wide open to the nagging and persistent challenges to equality, diversity, and inclusion that are occurring across the United States.

In recent months, these challenges have been on prominent display. Citizens have literally taken to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the nation to protest what has been understood by so many as the clearest revelation of persistent and deep-rooted social inequality in our system of law enforcement resulting in the loss of precious human life. University students have organized sit-ins for diversity and transparency at our own host institution, Syracuse University. And students have advocated to address sexual assault at the University of Virginia and other institutions.

This publication, Diversity & Democracy, has consistently been a venue for supporting critical conversations and communicating out-of-the-box thinking about diversity and inclusion in higher education. In doing so, it reflects the long-held priorities of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to ensure inclusive excellence and access to liberal education—including education in the arts, humanities, and design fields—for all students at US colleges and universities. IA celebrates this opportunity to join AAC&U in advocating for the maximum use of higher education spaces to strengthen the democratic ethos of our society. Indeed, American colleges and universities play a unique role in socializing students to pursue intellectual sophistication, critical thinking, and social justice as complementary endeavors.

We are placing our bet for the academy's future on the out-of-the-box leaders who are blazing new courses of learning and ways of knowing while challenging limits on and off their campuses. For example, IA's Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) scholars, several of whom contributed to this issue of Diversity & Democracy, represent the emerging citizenry of academe. These innovative thought leaders and scholars are conceptualizing expanded notions of scholarly artifacts, enhancing collaborative work among community and academic scholars, and forging innovative career pathways. Our confidence in them is not just wishful thinking: evidence from IA research on the aspirations and career decisions of graduate students and early-career publicly engaged scholars demonstrates that our hopes are well founded. Data gathered by Eatman (2012) and members of an IA research team challenge the prevailing view that "publicly engaged scholars are less concerned with the rigors of methodologically grounded, discipline-specific work." When asked what they hope to accomplish through engaged scholarship, 77 percent of respondents indicated the desire to "expand knowledge, methods and/or scholarship in the discipline"—a percentage not substantially different from that of respondents who expressed a desire to achieve the same "in the public" (40). These data challenge the dichotomy of scholar and activist that is so prevalent in the academy. It is critically important to listen to and learn from these emerging voices as we look forward to the future of transformative colleges and universities.

Our hope for the future is also based on the growing number of colleagues who are committing to the organizing work that publicly engaged scholarship and teaching requires. Colleagues at Emory University, for example, have demonstrated this commitment in profound ways by enhancing a model for institutes focused on "cultural organizing" that was initiated by IA headquarters in 2012. These institutes combine broad-based community organizing strategies, including one-to-one relational meetings and asset mapping, with approaches from the arts, humanities, and design, such as techniques based in public narrative and theatrical movement that mitigate the dominant disembodied ethos of the academy. Several community colleges have joined IA's ranks, bringing to the conversation about innovative community-engaged scholarship the wealth of knowledge and experience they have gained by conducting such work in an increasingly important sector of higher education.

Writing a New "Story of Tomorrow"

As those of us at Imagining America's headquarters prepare to move IA to its third host institution in 2017, our transition team, led by former IA board chair David Scobey, is seriously considering institutions that will use IA as a tool for advancing institutional engagement through publicly engaged scholarship. We want our next host institution to help us build spaces where the leading edges of transformation in the academy can break through. We are energized by our National Advisory Board's vision that IA headquarters would be itinerant, and we are excited about considering new models that will allow us to maximize our leverage for creating transformative change in higher education and in the broader community.

IA's story compels us to write a "story of now" for higher education that, like UMBC's BreakingGround initiative (described in this issue of Diversity & Democracy), will advance the work of "fostering human connections, encouraging new questions, and (re)awakening students, faculty, and staff members to their own hopes that their lives and careers will matter." (IA is pleased that UMBC will host our fifteenth national conference in October 2015.) UMBC is suggesting answers to the questions raised by Saltmarsh and his colleagues about what should be done—not just for relatively new public institutions, but across all of higher education.

We are committed to strengthening IA's power by building and expanding coalitions with partners like AAC&U, knowing that this will help us write the "story of tomorrow" that we envision.


Boyte, Harry C., ed. 2015. Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities. Nashville TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Cantor, Nancy, Peter Englot, and Marilyn Higgins. 2013. "Making the Work of Anchor Institutions Stick: Building Coalitions and Collective Expertise." Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 17 (3): 17–46.

Eatman, Timothy K. 2012. "The Arc of the Academic Career Bends Toward Publicly Engaged Scholarship." In Collaborative Futures: Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education, edited by Amanda Gilvin, Georgia M. Roberts, and Craig Martin, 25–48. Syracuse, NY: The Graduate School Press, Syracuse University.

Ganz, Marshall. 2010. "Leading Change: Leadership, Organization, and Social Movements." In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquium, edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, 509–50. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Haft, Jamie. 2012. "Publicly Engaged Scholarship in the Humanities, Arts, and Design." Washington, DC: Animating Democracy, http://animatingdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/JHaft%20Trend%20Paper.pdf.

Sturm, Susan, Timothy Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush. 2011. Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Community Engagement in Higher Education. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America.

Timothy K. Eatman and Scott J. Peters are co-directors of Imagining America.

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