"The Engaged University: The Ideas of Ernest Boyer"

by Tony Palmeri

January 25, 2002


What is the role of a university in society? What are the responsibilities of college professors? What is scholarship? What is engaged scholarship? On most college campuses, there exists little consensus as to how to respond to such questions. Indeed, on most campuses such questions are rarely discussed.

In the 1980s, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching attempted to study in a systematic way what college faculty believe about their vocation. One result was the release of The Condition of the Professoriate: Attitudes and Trends, 1989 (Princeton University Press), a summary of survey data obtained from over 5,000 faculty employed at a variety of institutions from Two-Year Community Colleges to Research Institutions. Significantly, in response to the question "Do Your Interests Lie Primarily In Research or in Teaching?," 70% of faculty at all institutions (and 77% at institutions like UW Oshkosh) said that their interests lie in teaching or lean toward teaching. The survey also showed that while more than 60% of faculty felt that teaching effectiveness should be the major criterion used in promotion and tenure decisions, more than 50% of professors at all institutions said that it is difficult to get tenure if the professor does not publish. At comprehensive institutions like UW Oshkosh, almost 70% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with reservations to the statement "In my department it is difficult for a person to achieve tenure if he or she does not publish." If the survey were taken again in 2002, that number would most likely be much higher.

Another and more important result of the Carnegie Foundation's efforts was the release of Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (published in 1990 by the Carnegie Foundation). Dr. Boyer, former Carnegie Founation President who passed away in 1995, was concerned that the values of the research university (e.g. UW Madison) were becoming the standard to which all higher educational institutions aspired, resulting in a devaluation of teaching and professional service, lowered faculty morale, and a general disengagement of the university from the world outside the campus. In place of aspiring to be a research institution, Boyer argued that "we need a climate in which colleges and universities are less imitative, taking pride in their uniqueness." (p. xiii).

Scholarship Reconsidered provoked much discussion upon its release, and throughout the 1990s it was around the world the topic of numerous symposia, workshops, and faculty/administration retreats. On the UW Oshkosh campus, new Chancellor Richard Wells recently sponsored "The Engaged University: The Ideas Of Ernest Boyer", a two-day workshop dedicated to reflecting on Scholarship Reconsidered and a shorter Boyer piece called "The Scholarship of Engagement." The workshop was held on January 22 and 23 of this year and featured brief reflections on Boyer by Chancellor Wells and UW Oshkosh professors Marguerite Helmers (English), Linda Hartenian (Management & Human Resources), Margaret Genisio (Reading Education), and me (Communication).

In my remarks, I presented what I feel to be three major insights to be derived from Boyer's work. I spoke extemporaneously from an outline. Below is the outline with some brief explanations of the major points.

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I would like to focus on three of Boyer's insights that have applicability to our campus.

Boyer Insight #1: "Simply stated, what we have on many campuses today is a crisis of purpose." (Scholarship Reconsidered, p. 55).

A. At UW Oshkosh, the crisis reveals itself in:

Hiring new faculty and staff, participating in processes designed to renew and promote faculty, recruiting and retaining students, and engaging the surrounding community all should be invigorating activities looked forward to by all faculty. Yet absent a clearly defined and accepted campus mission, search and screen and renewal processes often degenerate into ugly departmental battles featuring disagreement over program needs and philosophy (and often if the department agrees, there is a similar battle with upper administrative levels), while student recruitment/retention and community engagement are treated by faculty as either activities to avoid like the plague or as activities which one does without expectation of external reward.

The situation described above is actually much worse at institutions like UW Oshkosh that are classified as "comprehensive." Boyer quotes Frank Wong, who referred to the comprehensives as "the ugly duckling of higher education." (p. 62). More than other types of institutions, the comprehensives are expected to serve multiple research, teaching, and service missions, resulting in a perpetual "identity crisis" that in my experience is played out in its most productive and destructive forms at the department level. The situation is at its most destructive when, as Boyer suggests, the comprehensive institution tries to "imitate" the research university and consequently stifles creative faculty work that does not fit into the narrow peer-reviewed journal article framework.

B. The crisis is reinforced by lack of knowledge of the history of academia in general and of our campus specifically:

Chancellor Wells spent much of the year 2001 promoting a vision of UW Oshkosh as a "responsive and progressive public service institution." I found it extraordinary that around the campus a significant number of faculty, staff, and students thought that this was some kind of "new" vision being espoused. Wells is surely advocating a contemporary version of the "service" campus that has new features, but as noted in the Noyes quote above, the concept of "service" has always been valued highly (at least on paper). Some of the negative response to Wells' attempt to rally the campus around the call for public service is the result, I believe of (a) the fact that it is difficult for most faculty to understand how "service" would be evaluated (unlike print-based scholarship, where we only need to count the number of publications and assess the quality of the journals in which they appear), and (b) the fact that over the past 10-15 years the campus has internalized the values of the research institution.

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Boyer Insight #2: "Specifically, we conclude that the work of the professoriate might be thought of as having four separate, yet overlapping functions. These are: the scholarship of discovery; the scholarship of integration; the scholarship of application; and the scholarship of teaching." (Scholarship Reconsidered, p.16)

At a research institution, much emphasis in placed on what Boyer refers to as "scholarship of discovery." That is, peer-reviewed research that represents the creation of new knowledge. Yet Boyer realized that even at research institutions, faculty are engaged in a variety of "scholarly" activities that do not fit into the narrow confines of the "discovery" category. Some faculty can skillfully synthesize scholarly works and make them accessible for others (an example of scholarship of integration), others like UW Madison professor Don Kettl can use their expertise to facilitate practical changes in the civic and other arenas (an example of scholarship of application), while all professors ought to be engaged in continuous critique and improvement of their classroom habits (an example of scholarship of teaching). On most campuses, what Boyer calls "scholarship of discovery" leading to publication is the only type that is regarded without question by department committees, Deans, and other reviewers as "scholarship." To this, Boyer responded that "It is unacceptable . . . to go on using research and publication as the primary criterion for tenure and promotion when other educational obligations are required. Further, it's administratively unwise to ignore the fact that a significant number of faculty are dissatisfied with the current system. Even more important, it is inappropriate to use evaluation procedures that restrict faculty, distort institutional priorities, and neglect the needs of students." (pp. 34-35).

A. Positive consequences of Boyer's enlarged perspective on scholarship:

B. Negative consequences of Boyer's enlarged perspective on scholarship:

  1. Clear goals. Does the scholar state the basic purpose of his or her work clearly? Does the scholar define objectives that are realistic and achievable? Does the scholar identify important questions in the field?
  2. Adequate Preparation. Does the scholar show an understanding of existing scholarship in the field? Does the scholar bring the necessary skills to his or her work? Does the scholar bring together the resources necessary to move the project forward?
  3. Appropriate methods. Does the scholar use methods appropriate to the goals? Does the scholar apply effectively the methods selected? Does the scholar modify procedures in response to changing circumstances?
  4. Significant Results. Does the scholar achieve the goals? Does the scholar's work add consequentially to the field? Does the scholar's work open additional areas for further exploration?
  5. Effective Presentation. Does the scholar use a suitable style and effective organization to present his or her work? Does the scholar use appropriate forums for communicating work to its intended audiences? Does the scholar present his or her message with clarity and integrity?
  6. Reflective Critique. Does the scholar critically evaluate his or her own work? Does the scholar bring an appropriate breadth of evidence to his or her critique? Does the scholar use evaluation to improve the quality of future work?

These are valuable assessment criteria, but they and other criteria have unfortunately been used as "hoops" and "hurdles" for untenured faculty to jump through or over. Contrast that with the situation that used to exist: I have had several senior faculty on the UW Oshkosh campus tell me that years ago, a faculty member would get a phone call from an upper-level administrator asking "would you like tenure?" Formal review of teaching, research, and service accomplishments was minimal.

Today, untenured (also known as "probationary") faculty have become almost literal basket cases, as they are expected to put together massive files of credentials designed to "prove" they have been effective teachers, researchers, and (less important) service providers. In some ways the massive file mentality is a Boyer legacy; he did advocate creation of credential portfolios designed to highlight faculty activities. The problem is that while most institutions latched on to the portfolio and/or massive file idea, they did not latch on to the equally important idea of creating a unique campus mission and purpose. Thus, the probationary faculty member's portfolio creation becomes a tortured exercise in trying to conform to the expectations of a mentor, a department chair, a renewal committee, a Dean, a Provost, and a Chancellor-all of whom may agree on expectations, but might not. Sometimes the Chancellor of an institution becomes a kind of "binding arbitrator" in a tenure battle featuring a department renewal committee (that is itself frequently divided) and a Dean that can't agree on appropriate expections for the untenured faculty member under review. It is true that each department has renewal, tenure, and promotion criteria designed to clarify expectations, but probationary faculty learn very early in the process that the criteria and the interpretation of the criteria are two vastly different things. They also learn that the unwritten criterion of "collegiality" (i.e. the idea that getting along with and playing sycophant to one's senior colleagues and administrators is ultimately the reason why anyone gets promoted) can make an immaculate portfolio almost irrelevant if s/he is perceived to have sinned against the Lords Of The Department Or Administration. The end result is that most faculty play it "safe" and try to stay out of political trouble while accomplishing that which they know all levels of review will recognize as worthwhile: the peer-reviewed manuscript in a reputable journal (with "reputable" defined as at least a 75% manuscript rejection rate).

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Boyer Insight #3: "I'm convinced that in the century ahead, higher education in this country has an urgent obligation to become more vigorously engaged in the issues of our day, just as the land-grant colleges helped farmers and technicians a century ago." ("The Scholarship of Engagement," p. 17).

Here, Boyer is espousing a vision of higher education that should be quite familiar to Wisconsin educators. The "Wisconsin Idea," a model of linking the campus to the state, is based on a vision of faculty as public intellectuals actively engaged with issues of the day and with the community in which they live. Today there exist serious barriers to such engagement.

A. UW Oshkosh internal barriers to vigorous engagement:

Distinguished Columbia University Journalism Professor James Carey has recently expressed similar support for "engaged" scholars and scholarship, but he adds that "the first engagement must . . . be with the university itself and the production of public life within the university. Without that accomplishment there is no chance that there will be a public life outside the university or that faculty and students will be equipped to participate in it, other than as condescending experts. At the moment there is no public life within the universities . . . Nor is there a discursive public sphere; that is, a place or forum where public debate exists on the nature and purposes of the university. Without such a public sphere, without the means of representing a common life, students never see public life in operation let alone prepare for it themselves." (James Carey, "The Engaged Discipline," The Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture presented at the November 2000 meeting of the National Communication Association in Seattle; published by Allyn and Bacon).

UW Oshkosh suffers from the limited public intellectual life described by Boyer and Carey. Additionally, the campus' internalization of the habits of research universities over the past 10-15 years has resulted in disengagement as an acceptable norm. I do not use "disengagement" in a negative way. If the main occupation of a faculty member is to produce the scholarship of discovery, or even to produce peer reviewed articles representing other forms of scholarship, then s/he has to be disengaged to an extent. Real engagement takes time and emotional commitment, the time and emotional commitment that most untenured faculty in a research university must expend on preparing manuscripts or other acceptable objects if they wish to keep their jobs.

B. UW Oshkosh external barriers to vigorous engagement:

The 1960s and 1970s demonstrated that students could have a powerful impact on making the campuses into places of vigorous engagement. As the cost of higher education increases (UW students are facing the potential of permanent 10% annual increases in tuition), I am concerned that engaged students are being "priced out" of the university. Moreover, it is not clear that the current Wisconsin legislature or UW Board of Regents are ready to support a truly engaged campus dedicated to addressing in a serious way problems such as corporate abuse of working people and the environment. There is an element in the current legislature and Board that appears to define university engagement as aiding corporations regardless of what the particular corporation does state wide or globally. It will be interesting to see how the legislature and Board of Regents responds to UW Oshkosh if and when we do become a community of engaged scholars.

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I think it is appropriate to close with the final paragraph from Scholarship Reconsidered:

"American higher education has never been static. For more than 350 years, it has shaped its programs in response to the changing social context. And as we look at today's world, with its disturbingly complicated problems, higher learning, we conclude, must, once again, adapt. It would be foolhardy not to reaffirm the accomplishments of the past. Yet, even the best of our institutions must continuously evolve. And to sustain the vitality of higher education in our time, 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." (p. 81).

Final Thought: I cannot define the "scholarship of engagement," but as Justice Potter Stewart said of hard-core pornography, I know it when I see it.

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