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CAES Strategic Plan 2020: Committee Resources

Is It a Bridge Too Far?

By Sam Cordes, Purdue University

Good morning everyone.

Thank you Ted (Alter) for that kind and generous introduction…I am glad you kept it at the professional level and didn't get into some of the things about me that you could have shared.

I want to begin by acknowledging the leadership of Penn State in organizing and sponsoring this very important conference. The kinds of conversations that are occurring here today (and yesterday) are very important if our land-grant universities are to have the same legacy 150 years from now as we can point to during the first 150 years.

As much potential as we have to help with the resolution of today's wicked problems, will we be able to do so… least in a meaningful away that goes beyond nibbling around the edges? I hope the answer to that will be ― yes, but it is not obvious to me…because it appears to me that we have enormous institutional inertia or ― path dependency at work; and it is possible the obstacles we face may represent ― a bridge too far.

Before delineating some of these obstacles, let me note that I was not able to be here yesterday...and the program focused primarily on the history of the land grant universities…and by people much more knowledgeable about that history than am I. However, my superficial reading of that history is that there are a couple of parts of the legacy that are not well understood. Although most everyone knows that extension is an integral part of the original land-grant vision, I am not sure it is well known today what those early visionaries and pioneers (1) meant by extension and (2) their motivations for the kind of extension functions and activities they envisioned.

Again, my historical knowledge is thin, at best, but my reading of the literature tells me that the early visionaries did NOT see or subscribe to that much of what has become mainstream extension thinking over the years.

And, by mainstream extension thinking, I refer to the notion of the ― expert based model where the paradigm involves a technical answer or fix from campus or off campus personnel around VERY NARROWLY DEFINED questions of fertilizer application rates, etc. This arms length, expert based model fits nicely with the notion of ― unbiased science and the dominance of the positivistic view of science and the downplaying of the normative role.

Nowhere was this expert based model more evident than in the tag line for Purdue Cooperative Extension which we changed not long ago. That tag line was: ― Knowledge to Go!…the metaphorical equivalent to me of a drive through lane at a fast-food restaurant. Now, if we can only exorcise during the next two months two other terms ― delivery and ― outreach from our land-grant lexicon I will become a VERY happy professor emeritus.

At any rate, our land-grant and extension visionaries from the past did NOT subscribe to the expert model. For example, C. B. Smith and M. C. Wilson, writing in 1930 state:

―...the agent of the government does not come to the farmer with a program or plan all worked out in advance but that he or she and the people, working as partners, develop the plan together and carry it out together. The government contributes technical knowledge, based on its continuing researches; the farming people contribute from their local knowledge and experiences, each supplementing the knowledge of the other and both the stronger for the association….important and helpful knowledge is resident in every community that, if generally applied, would greatly improve agriculture there. This local knowledge may be as significant for the up building of the community as anything the government may bring in from the outside. The county agent and other extension forces find out and spread this local knowledge.

The second part of the historical story or legacy that is also not well known, even by those who are very knowledgeable and supportive of extension, is the raison d'être that drove the early extension visionaries. The community-university partnerships they envisioned were not simply to improve the living and economic conditions of the public, albeit that was an important consideration and motivation. Instead, it was to further democracy in its broadest definition or formulation. Your next speaker, Scott Peters, who is the real historical authority on what I am not really doing justice to, summarizes the views of Smith and Wilson by noting in his terrific recent book, as follows:

―’Smith and Wilson believed that the deeper significance of extension work…was its results in developing people, in drawing them out and enlarging their vision through engaging them in cooperative work. Involvement in such work would result in a larger social and recreational life...pride of occupation, growth in education and culture, and a satisfying feeling of greater responsibility and power’.

And, Kenyon Butterfield, writing nearly a dozen years or so before Smith and Wilson stated:

―The trained expert serves democracy only as he does the work of democracy, advances its interests, works its will. The expert must be a real democrat [a small ―d, of course]. His obligation is to the greater society, not to any small or exclusive group of society; or if he works with such a group, always as the ambassador of the mass, the protagonist of the common weal …to give men and women a vision of the new social order; to equip them with the tools that they may forge for the common man a new freedom out of the shackles of ignorance as well as out of the chains of injustice; to send them forth as persons who know the meaning of life and its toil as well as they know the technique of their chosen calling these are the very secrets of power for our Land Grant Colleges and Universities in the new day.

I think it is also important to acknowledge that the argument can be made—as it was made by the pioneers I quoted—that the real value of the land-grant university, especially engagement, goes beyond solving our wicked societal problems but goes to the core of supporting and sustaining democratic principles and values that are at the very heart of our national heritage, character and future.

So, I think it is important that we acknowledge that our land-grant forefathers would probably see the theme of our panel—engaged scholarship and respond with a simple word: DUH!!!! It is clear to me that what we are talking about as ―engagement and ―engaged scholarship today is exactly what much of our extension work was once all about. The question is whether it will move from the endangered species list to extinction….or if it will prosper to the extent it will become viewed as an invasive species. I hope for the latter but fear for the former.

So, let me lift up 10 obstacles or factors that are among the more obvious in causing us to have difficulties in reclaiming our heritage of true and robust engagement. However, I also believe these 10 factors are in some sense more symptomatic of the problem, rather than ―root causes. Most of them will not be new to you and I will not spend a lot of time on them…but will tick them off fairly quickly.

I will then close by sharing a few thoughts on what can be at least modestly helpful in avoiding a doomsday scenario.

  1. Obstacle #1. Tenure and Promotion Criteria. On the surface, tenure and promotion are arguably the most difficult obstacles. The reasons are many but the bottom line is this: if extension and engagement are NOT recognized and rewarded then there will be less of it than would otherwise be the case. In these situations, young faculty who may have a calling to engagement will be steered in other directions and by the time they achieve tenure may have lost their zeal to ―make a difference‖ through engagement. Even when institutional guidelines change and attempt to recognize the scholarship of engagement the effect may be minimal, given the tenure and promotion power is typically decentralized to faculty committees in individual academic departments.

  2. Obstacle #2. Disciplinary Myopia. This obstacle is very much related to the power of department based tenure and promotion processes. Typically, academic departments reflect the views of their disciplines…….and it is a rarity for most academic disciplines to give more than lip service to the scholarship of engagement within their discipline. And, should an academic unit in any particular university buck the disciplinary trend and be very supportive of the scholarship of engagement in the tenure and promotion process, this will not necessarily carry the day. Why? Because if I am in a disciplinary department that is out of sync with the norms of my discipline I will be fine as long as I stay in my present university. However, I will have also limited my geographic mobility in that my credentials will not be saleable to my disciplinary peers at other universities.

  3. Obstacle #3. Lack of Respect or Appreciation for Local Knowledge. Most of the disciplinary training emphasizes the role of science or disciplinary based information. Engaged scholarship starts from a VERY difference premise… of a collaborative partnership in which local knowledge and expertise is honored, respected and valued…….and from the value proposition that the faculty have at least as much to learn and gain from their community partner as they are able to provide to the community partner.

  4. Obstacle #4. Not Having the Skills to Carry Out Engaged Scholarship. Even if there is respect for local knowledge and a willingness to collaborate by faculty…..the actual process of deep collaboration and how to effectively engage the community or nonacademic partner is not a skill that many faculty have. This is not rocket science…it is much more difficult than rocket science. Building trust and collaboration and a sense of shared ownership can be arduous, frustrating and complex; and many, if not most academics, are ill-equipped to do so. Too often, the well-intentioned mindset is to do something ―for the community or ―to the community…..rather than ―with the community.

  5. Obstacle #5. A Preoccupation with Rankings. Every fall almost all university presidents, and others, await the latest U. S. News and World Report of college rankings, although we all know there are a zillion problems with these rankings. By the way, and as an aside to the theme of this conference, last fall, the Wall Street Journal surveyed 479 of the largest public and private companies, nonprofits and government agencies to find out where they go to recruit and hire. Penn State ranked #1…..and we were pleased that Purdue ranked #4. Indeed, of the top 25 universities, only five were private universities and of the 20 public universities, 14 were land-grant universities.
    Now, back to the U. S. News and World Report and similar types of rankings. Nowhere in these rankings at least to my knowledge—is there anything that even hints of engagement type metrics. So, instead of measuring what we value, we end up valuing what we measure.

  6. Obstacle #6. It REALLY IS All About Us. This is closely related to the disciplinary myopia and rankings obstacles I have already noted. In nearly four decades at five different land-grant universities I do not think I ever recall a strategic discussion beginning with the following premise: ―How would such and such serve the public interest?‖ To be fair, the notion of serving the public interest has often emerged but only after first figuring out what something will mean for the reputation of the department , help position the college, or how it will help further some institutional goal. I have often wondered what would happen if all of our strategic discussions—regardless of what level within the university—began with the following question: What decisions and choices that we are discussing here today will best serve the public interest?

  7. Obstacle #7. The Era of Big Science. The growth during the past few decades in Federal research dollars through NSF, NIH and other agencies has had the unintended consequence of drawing time and attention away from the engaged scholar, especially when that engagement is place-based around local and regional issues. Again, I congratulate Penn State for scoring the mother of all ―big science‖ grants less than one year ago: $129 million from the Department of Energy. I don’t begrudge that, especially since Purdue is a major collaborator…but I simply point out that these types of dollars have a way of catching the eye of faculty and administrators in ways that the smaller potatoes that support the engaged scholar do not.

  8. Obstacle #8. Narrow Measure of Success and Accountability. No one can argue against accountability but what can become problematic are the measures or metrics for success and accountability. This obstacle has already been touched upon when I discussed the rankings game and some of the other obstacles. But, just suppose for a moment, we wanted to go back to our roots and link our work to the vision of the land grants as articulated by Butterfield, Smith and Wilson, which was that of ―building democracy. In extension—when we use the Logic Model to guide our work—we try to focus on outcomes, not activities and outputs. But, even our high level extension outcomes, which are almost impossible to measure, are a far cry from what Butterfield et al had in mind for our land grants. Think of some of the ―outcomes those visionaries had in mind:

    • A larger social and recreational life
    • Pride of occupation
    • A satisfying feeling of greater responsibility and power
    • A new freedom [from] the chains of justice

    Measuring such outcomes is certainly beyond my capabilities but perhaps we have evaluation experts who can do so. If not, then we will continue to go to the least common denominator of valuing what we can measure, rather than measuring what we value.

  9. The last two items on my list of obstacles I credit to an email exchange I had with two of Hiram's colleagues at Michigan State: Burton Bargerstock and Diane Dobeneck. The first one relates to my point about ―big science. Hiram's colleagues pointed out to me the obvious: as state investments in higher education have tightened, public universities become more focused on revenue streams that bring in large indirect cost payments. That may discourage faculty from engaging with funders such as community organizations, nonprofits and foundations who may be unable or unwilling to pay the standard indirect cost rate.

  10. The other insight shared by Burton and Diane is the lack of understanding about engaged research by Institutional Review Boards, or IRBs. The entire IRB is of course rooted in the arm's length relation between the researcher and his or her ―human subjects. When the research paradigm is of a different type such as participatory research or action research then the basic foundation of the IRB process doesn't make sense. After all, it is not possible to be both a ―partner and a ―subject…at least I know that wouldn't work very well in my marriage!!

We can joke about this, but the power of our terminology whether it is delivery, outreach or human subjects—is powerful and telling in terms of the obstacles we confront.

Overcoming these obstacles is no small task…..and I think it will require what I think of as ―swarm innovation‖…in contrast to some single big ―ahha moment. Fundamentally, we are talking about a cultural shift within our disciplines, professions and throughout our higher education culture. I don’t think that type of cultural change happens overnight or very quickly…but the question is whether or not we are even headed in the right direction and whether or not it can happen at all.

And, what is needed is NOT for every faculty and staff member to become involved in engagement. Indeed, there are a number of extremely bright and capable faculty at Purdue who I would bribe to stay on campus, IF I heard they were going to become involved in community based engagement activities. After all, the first credo of engagement is: ―Do no harm.

Instead, I think what we need is a cultural and organizational shift that is simply more pluralistic in nature and recognizes and rewards those individuals and institutions that choose to invest considerable resources in engagement and engaged scholarship. However, that type of cultural shift will not come easy, if at all.

Let me tick off six rather modest aspects of a swarm innovation strategy that I think increase the probability of such a cultural shift…and to stimulate your thoughts and discussion about the same.

  1. Continue conversations like we are having here at Penn State, including the proud historical legacy represented by engagement…and what an exemplary and high calling that is. Make sure these types of conversations are happening throughout our institutions.

  2. Recognize, reward and celebrate those faculty and staff who are making a direct difference in the lives of individuals, organizations, businesses and communities. Scott Peters' book—Democracy and Higher Education—includes an incredible and inspiring profile of contemporary faculty members at Cornell who have embraced engagement with a vengeance. Similar stories exist at all of our campuses.

  3. Challenge the presumption that engagement cannot generate revenues for the institution. For example, about five years ago my shop was successful in securing one of 13 nationally competitive grants for a program titled Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development or WIRED. We were the only one of the awardees that was based within an institution of higher education and my guess is that few institutions of higher education even had this opportunity on their radar screen. The funder—the U. S. Department of Labor—ultimately saw us as their most successful grantee. The award was for $15 million and I believe this was the largest single grant received by Purdue in that particular year.

    Moreover, this grant has led to products that continue to provide an ongoing revenue stream. For example, through the WIRED project, Purdue's Technical Assistance Program, in collaboration with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, created the first ever Green Manufacturing Specialist Certificate program. More recently, this certification program has been made available online and workers and students from all corners of the country are signing up @ $195. As another example, we incubated a weeklong entrepreneurship academy for high school students in conjunction with the Purdue Research Foundation which owns and operates our technology parks. That has led to the franchising of that program to other universities and a commensurate revenue stream.

  4. Help future faculty (i.e., today's graduate students) and contemporary faculty learn both the art and science of engaged scholarship. For example, on the research or science side, we can train tomorrow's students in how to do participatory and action research. After all, we teach them—indeed, typically require them—to take other types of research courses, such as statistics on in the case of my chosen field, econometrics.

    The ―art side of the engagement enterprise involves understanding and practicing the skills, mindset and values of engaging in community partnerships and deep collaborations. After all, collaboration can be thought of in our competitive society and institutions an ―unnatural act among nonconsenting agencies and institutions‖. When we received our WIRED grant, we were naïve and put out a call for faculty to submit projects for our consideration. That generated somewhere around 20 proposals from all corners of campus and we rejected every single one of them. We then went back to the drawing board and conducted workshops on what really needed to be done in a collaborative fashion as part of this grant and how to work with various communities, the region and other partners such as our community colleges. Lo and behold we then received some outstanding proposals that became real difference makers.

    Another part of this equation is to instill in graduate students and faculty the need to respect local knowledge and its potential value.

    We also need leaders in our profession to step up to the plate and demonstrate such appreciation. My current hero in this regard is Dr. Donald Lindberg, Director of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. About a month ago, Dr. Lindberg spent two days at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota in a dialogue with nine Native American medicine men. If the Director of the National Library of Medicine feels there is value in local knowledge, even if it has not gone through the Westernized lens of medicine, then it is good enough for me to think that I might have something to learn from those in local communities and who are not part of mainstream economics.

    As an anecdote to the dialogue Dr. Lindberg had with the medicine men, I like this exchange the best. Dr. Lindberg asks: ―And how long do you spend with your patients? The reply: ―As long as it takes, maybe hours, maybe days.

  5. Support and enhance an institutional learning network that can focus on the scholarship of engagement, best practices and other related topics and opportunities. I have been encouraged in the past decade or so with developments along these lines, with much of the leadership provided by those of you in this room, including Hiram and Ted. I think, for example, of the Journal of Higher Outreach and Engagement and the National Outreach Scholarship Conference, now in its 12th year which will be hosted this fall by Michigan State University.

    Let me also suggest that some of the best ―best practices of engaged scholarships are not limited to our land grant universities. In some ways, I think regional public universities have a bit of an edge in this regard in that they have not been as susceptible to the ten obstacles I delineated earlier in my remarks and institutional innovation is often easier to experiment with and implement in smaller units of higher education that tend to be more nimble. Indeed, we may have the most to learn from institutions such as the University of Northern Iowa, Fresno State University and the University of Northern Kentucky.

  6. The need to think beyond geography. Most of my remarks have focused on place-based engagement. I have done so because that is the frame of reference for most of my work. However, we need to be careful that we NOT link the scholarship of engagement only to place-based efforts. For some faculty a community of interest, not a community of place, is where the action is. For example, a faculty member who is focusing on supply chains and logistics may work closely in a collaborative, engaged partnership with national and international networks of business people, associations and organizations.

These six tactics are only a small part of a much larger portfolio that we could generate as part of a swarm innovation strategy…and I hope other nuggets will be added during our dialogue.

Ultimately, we are talking about institutional innovation and I worry about what I see and hear in response to reduced public support for higher education and the commensurate gnashing of teeth.

First, it is important to look twice before we glibly say there is reduced public support for higher education. For example, in our state and I think many others—the community colleges are doing just fine, thank you…with fairly rapid increases in their state appropriations. I think that is because the public, and those who represent the public, can see some tangible, direct and localized benefits from community colleges.

Did I just say: tangible, direct and localized benefits??? Does'nt that sound a lot like something that comes from engagement…at least place-based engagement? I believe the public is willing to invest more in higher education, even in tight budget times, if they can see tangible benefits. I observed this happening in Indiana this year. The Indiana Higher Education Commission and the Governor proposed fairly flat funding for our four year institutions…but proposed a 15% cut in line items that included Cooperative Extension and the Technical Assistance Program. However, after our General Assembly weighed in they turned the tables upside down: they not only fully restored the 15% but reduced the budget in other areas, albeit only slightly. I think there is an important message in that little story. Indeed, many research universities should consider whether or not it might be in their enlightened self-interest to make engagement a higher priority.

Finally, in response to tighter budgets, I see considerable efforts at ―reform…but I want to make a distinction between reform and transformation. Reform is likely needed but it tends to focus on such things as accountability, transparency, administrative efficiencies, and structural changes such as combining programs or consolidating academic units. Transformation is different from reform. Transformation involves deeper cultural and systemic issues and changes and a special kind of shared leadership model is needed to bring that about.

I hope everyone in this room will be part of that shared leadership…and if so, we will realize that it really was NOT…a bridge too far.