Futuring Paper – A Framework for the University at Albany's Outreach and Engagement Agenda: Advancing Strategic Goals and Opening the University's Front Door

Co-Conveners: Janine M. Jurkowski and Hal Lawson

Outreach and engagement, alternatively called “public engagement,” refers to the responsibilities of a public university to its surrounding communities—local, state, national, and international. The Carnegie National Classification describes engagement as “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities” such as partnerships with organizations or collaboration with individual constituents “for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity”. Such exchanges, explorations, and applications of knowledge and resources with public, nonprofit, and private sectors enhances research salience and veracity, enriches teaching and learning, prepares engaged citizens, and strengthens democratic values and civic responsibility.

The outreach idea extends this idea of public engagement. It connotes boundary-crossing priorities and boundary–bridging people and mechanisms such as partnerships and university-wide outreach and engagement centers. The outreach imagery deliberately conveys the idea that university faculty, students, and staff members will conduct research, facilitate teaching and learning, and provide valuable services in external settings.  Outreach thus counteracts the public image of the university as Ivory Tower, including the assumption that governmental and private investments in UAlbany will have little or no impact on urgent public needs and problems. 

Three goals characterize the growing international outreach and engagement agenda.
One goal is to promote a just, equity-oriented society by reducing education gaps, addressing social and economic disadvantage, and tackling complex societal issues that affect individual and family well being. Another goal is economic development.  A third goal joins the first two: Sustainable, equitable, and integrated social and economic development.

Strategic planning in support of UAlbany’s outreach and engagement can be guided by the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification.  This classification system clearly is the leading framework for planning and evaluation.  In 2015 alone, 240 higher education institutions received the classification. 2  Overall, 361 institutions now enjoy Carnegie recognition for their respective outreach and engagement agendas, and leaders of these institutions have identified the attendant benefits.  For example, they claim that this outreach and engagement classification is “useful in grant seeking, communicating with the community, and responding to constituencies for accountability purposes”1.  With the above rationale as the context, the remainder of this report is structured by the four questions provided for UAlbany’s strategic planning. 

Question 1: What forces are acting on public engagement (i.e., university outreach and engagement) today—internally within the region, and nationally?   For facility of analysis, external forces and factors are presented first.

External forces and factors, starting with the connection between external funding (grants, contracts, gifts) and outreach/engagement

  • Funders for grants and contracts have growing expectation for demonstrable short and long-term outcomes and impacts in real world settings. Grantors increasingly expect and demand formal partnerships with external communities, including both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary configurations.  Key points:
    1. Translation, dissemination, and uses of research in real world settings (from theory or laboratory to policy, program and practice)—for example, translational science, implementation science, dissemination science, interdisciplinary team science
    2. With due recognition of the limitations and constraints of various research-to-practice frameworks, the expectation and demand for design and developmental research in real world settings—whereby organizations and communities are research and development laboratories for the generation of new theories and the production of useful knowledge.
      • Growing emphasis on collaborative and participatory research—research with people; outcomes valued, relevant and impactful to constituents- a practical necessity that facilitates engagement.
      • Theoretically-sound and research-informed policy and practice advocacy—using expertise to advocate such as expert witnessing—service related to research expertise.
  • Politicians (state legislature, governor) have decreased state allocations, in part because it has not been clear that funding a university is a good investment (i.e., money to the university is viewed as an investment apart from urgent needs and problems).
    • There is a resource-generating, social marketing and promotion priority associated with outreach and engagement.
    • University can be seen as a partner to address social and other inequities that require knowledge, expertise, analysis, humility, evidence and action.

Social media

  • Social media has expanded communication of social, economic, and environmental problems—raises awareness. The university needs to be prepared to respond or risk being viewed as irrelevant.
    1. Social media makes local, regional and national problems closer to home and harder for the university to ignore.
      • It is useful for identifying societal needs—some too large and too much attention to ignore.
      • Students’ are informed by social media, interest increases and students or community may demand university plays a role, especially when the need is local.
    2. University can support communities that seek to link to social media and use it in new ways; by providing technology consults and possibly create apps.

Rebuilding UAlbany’s reputation in communities and with public/private partners

  • Ensure reciprocal relationships to counteract a history of one-way relationships with “university-only benefits.”  Local leaders remember past mistakes and exploitation
  • Trust-building and sustained efforts are needed on several fronts.
    1. Extent to which public perceives and believes that university faculty discharge their duties with the needs and interests of external constituencies as a priority.
    2. Preferred communities/organizations/companies- university gets a reputation/reinforces hierarchy of preferred partners this can maintain or worsen disparities.

Internal Forces and Factors

Time

  • Need to support investment of time for careful processes to do this work; balancing research, teaching, service for identifying, developing, maintaining, and sustaining relationships.
  • Need to consider time for reciprocal relationships and sustaining them. The university needs to provide leadership support and targeted professional and administrative staff support that work on public engagement and support faculty who are engaged. Harder for faculty to sustain engagement as needs of faculty and public partner change. Addresses grant focused engagement.

Infrastructure

  • The infrastructure to support public engagement and outreach is insufficient.
    1. Financial support for research, conferences, public hearings, etc.
    2. Tenure and promotion guidelines only vaguely reward it.
    3. Competing service demands of department, school, and university
    4. Support for building and maintaining partnerships; course planning.
    5. There are questions about whether the university is optimally organized/structured to engage sustainably with external constituencies. Lack of staff and financial investment, bureaucratic mechanisms like indirect and dollars-for-student allotment, RF policies and procedures all add time and barriers to public engagement.  
    6. One shot volunteerism, special programs, and time-limited funding are the norm
    7. Needs for senior faculty mentoring, coaching, and teaming arrangements.

Question 2: In 10 years, what forces will further shape university outreach and engagement?  What are the likely impacts on teaching and learning, administration, research, and student services? Which forces will accelerate change-as-progress and which ones will slow it down? 

University core mission to teach and innovate- Growing expectation that the university’s functions will yield useful knowledge that benefits broader society.

  • Engagement can be in service of changing demands of jobs and work extending to what undergraduate and graduate students need to learn; and what faculty members need to learn, prioritize in their teaching, and include in their research.
  • Growing diversity of students necessitates new ways to engage with local, state, regional, national, and international communities.
  • Increasing cost of higher education prohibits access for low socioeconomic and diverse populations, which recommends innovative outreach and engagement
    1. Staff members, students, and faculty from diverse demographics may be more culturally aware/competent, and often want to and can facilitate university engagement in those communities.
    2. Better loan repayment/forgiveness for students who participate in public engagement—help recruit more non-traditional, diverse students, helping the university achieve its enrollment goals.
  • Students are demanding more personalization-customization in degree programs, extending to engagement in external settings. (Some engagement proceeds via curriculum, others need not be structured with academic credit.)

Technology

  • Improvement in better information technology and software can facilitate engagement. If UA falls behind, engagement will not keep up with societal trends.

Infrastructure

  • Engagement is a long-term, resource generating investment:  Public’s current perception of engagement and investments has impact on reputation in 10 years.
  • It follows that investments in UA’s outreach and engagement infrastructure (e.g., specialist people, partnership centers) double as resource-generating investments.

Question 3: What are the strategic planning implications for the University at Albany (UA), particularly its’ students, staff and faculty?  What are the planning implications for specialized units (e.g., schools and colleges, academic departments, administrative departments)?

Policy priorities

  • Local, UA policies for engagement, including definitions, ethics, and strategies.
  • Needs for university-wide tenure and promotion policies
  • Quality assurance monitoring and accountability mechanisms
  • The priority for faculty orientations, morale, and career aspirations: Emergent concerns that many tenure track faculty see themselves as contract employees valued for research and publications, whereas contingent faculty are contracted to teach. Therefore both are not committed to investing time into other areas such as public engagement.

Data documenting outreach and engagement

  • Need to have faculty/staff reporting data that aligns with Carnegie Classification.
    1. Information used for recognition, rewards and accountability
    2. Used to promote engagement to change UAlbany’s current status as “the hidden gem.”

Recognition and Rewards

  • Faculty search job announcements can and should include requirement for outreach and engagement—albeit consistent with the particular field of study.
  • Recognize and reward faculty for strategic engagement. See public engagement as a booster for tenure and promotion, not a handicap that needs to be accounted for.
    1. Tenure and promotion reviews need to include credit for relationship building process; mindful that research, publications and student learning activities may come later.
  • Promotion and tenure deliberations must take stock of engagement-related differences among engagement-oriented, tenure track faculty members, using documented indicators of quality, impact, and professional reputation as the equivalent of conventional indicators (e.g., citation counts)
  • Funds for professional travel and development and discretionary raises for faculty and professional staff for contributions to public engagement.

Infrastructure- The “University at Albany front door” needs best practices, ethics, participatory principles and support for work. Invest in increasing access to university.

  • We need a single point of contact. A partnership institute serves as a network hub for public engagement in research, academic programs and service.
  • There is a growing need for mechanisms (funding; incentives) in support of interdisciplinary engagement. Increase money for CHEER grants and others.
  • Faculty volunteerism is declining because of growing workloads
    • Relying on contingent faculty for teaching means fewer full-time faculty with commitment to the university strategic goals and responsibilities outside teaching. Full-time faculty bear burden of service--time pressures and priority challenges impedes engagement.
  • Labs and private partnerships should not be at the expense of new initiatives focused on social and environmental and population research and learning.
  • Needs to consider how the location of the professional schools and colleges on different campuses constrains outreach and engagement; and how co-location of particular programs on the same campus can facilitate interdisciplinary outreach and engagement.

Mentors and Coaches

  • Need training how to do it for faculty, students and staff and training for the community (often they are used to be receivers rather than partners).
  • Mentoring engaged faculty to help others with interest and raise awareness of engagement—need to know existing resources and language for cultural sensitivity.

Marketing/PR – social media

  • Develop a much more visible presence in diverse local communities and generate publicity (increase public recognition) about all that the university does.
  • Communications people, faculty and staff at university and unit level need investments and training to be prepared to respond to and use social media.

Question 4: What innovations and timely opportunities promise to advantage UA in the future?  How can the strategic planning process maximize these advantages?

  • Common language, overarching framework  and values for public engagement
  • A university-wide leadership team, perhaps with an Institute for engagement which provides an organizational identity and provides a hub for resources and assistance.
  • Cross-boundary bridges and intermediary leaders:
      • Bridge-builders who connect the disciplines and other key aspects of university life (e.g., student affairs); and
      • Bridge-builders who connect university faculty, staff and students with external communities and constituencies.