U. of Michigan, Others Exploring Faculty Public Outreach Issues

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Climate change is at forefront of scientific issues, prompting some universities to re-examine faculty members’ roles in public outreach, social media, and social activism. A University of Michigan initiative samples faculty attitudes.


ANN ARBOR, MI. — Some faculty members at the University of Michigan are spearheading an effort to better understand their colleagues’ approaches to public engagement. It’s part of a move occurring at various universities to get faculty to participate more in public discussions so their research has greater impact.

Andrew Hoffman, a professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, says he thinks silent scientists have been a major culprit when it comes to combating climate change science denial. He’s grown frustrated at what he sees as climate skeptics’ undue influence on public understanding of climate change, and resulting political inaction.

Too many scientists “who know the topic are afraid and have no incentive to engage in this discourse,” Hoffman says. That’s a view he shares with many other academics and with what also appears to be a growing attitude among climate scientists.

University Seen Under-Valuing Faculty Outreach Efforts

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U. of Michigan’s Andrew Hoffman fears too many scientists ‘are afraid, have no incentive to engage.’

Hoffman spearheaded a survey this past November to take the pulse of the university’s academic community on engagement in public dialogue and needs for more training. Ninety percent of the 330 faculty respondents said they agree that their public engagement can help inform public discussions, and 86 percent agreed that academics should be a part of such a process. Yet only 35 percent said they think the university adequately valued such public outreach. (To avoid stuffing digital in-boxes, the survey sponsors distributed the questionnaire to just some of the university’s 6,200-plus faculty members.)

“Scientists don’t see it as part of their job to engage in the public and political discourse for legitimate reasons,” Hoffman says. The survey will be followed by three faculty brown bag discussions and eventually, if sufficient support exists, a national conference on the topic.

Bradley J. Cardinale, an associate professor and director of the Conservation Ecology Program at Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, says he thinks scientists have a responsibility to speak out more. But he points out that tenure and promotion are based on publication in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, not on clever tweets or heavily trafficked blogs.

Challenges: Supporting Junior Faculty, and ‘Real World’ Issues

Cardinale said he thinks the university should better support junior faculty wanting to be active in public outreach on issues related to their research, giving credit for blogging and social media work. The question he says, is “how does a university maintain its reputation as a good, scientific institution when it gives people credit for blogging?”

David Uhlmann, director of the university’s Environmental Law and Policy Program and a survey steering committee member, said he sees an unhealthy tension between an over-emphasis on research and publication in peer-reviewed journals and some types of public policy engagement.

“Academics tend to isolate themselves from the real world too often, which leaves everyone less well off,” Uhlmann said. “We want to bring the real world into the academy and the academy into the real world.”

Getting Faculties More Engaged Across the Country

Michigan isn’t alone among universities exploring better ways to get faculty members more engaged with the public and policy makers on issues like climate change.

“The rules have changed,” said Kathleen Dean Moore, a philosophy professor at Oregon State University. “Everybody needs to be out there engaging,” she said in a telephone interview. She said her work focuses on empowering “scientists to work effectively in the public realm by linking them with the humanities people.” She said Oregon State is hiring a director of Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiatives, in part to help provide scientific and technical students the arts and humanities-based skills needed to increase their ability to work effectively with the public.

Moore said in a phone interview that she feels strongly that universities need to change their models and rewards systems. “When a person speaks in a public forum, that should be a matter of scholarship as much as if they’re speaking in a professional meeting,” she said.

As the first dean of the five-year-old College of the Environment at the University of Washington, Lisa J. Graumlich says she, too, is committed to working with faculty to change the traditional promotion and tenure requirements. Her goal is to ensure that public engagement becomes imbedded in the entire college. On several occasions, she’s gone to bat for faculty members who have been leaders in engaging the public on a range of environmental issues. She’s created a College of the Environment Public Engagement award which has the same cache as research and teaching accolades.

Strong Signal: Dean ‘Will Fall on Sword’ for Public Engagement

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Dean Lisa J. Graumlich of University of Washington: Working with faculty to change traditional promotion and tenure requirements.

“The signal that is sent to the unit is that the dean will fall on her sword to support somebody who does public engagement,” Graumlich said in a telephone interview. Graumlich has conversations with new faculty hires to help ensure their work has a component related to engagement. New faculty members are offered appropriate training and mentorship, and while public engagement alone isn’t enough to get tenure, it has become an important component, she said.

Laura Huenneke, a provost at Northern Arizona University and Chief Academic Officer, said she has informed department chairs and deans that she supports faculty members’ becoming more active in public communication. In a telephone interview, she said she is careful to discuss appropriate boundaries concerning advocacy.

Nancy M. Targett, dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and the Environment, said more robust “broader impact” requirements for National Science Foundation grant applicants provide incentives for public engagement. “So faculty are being driven not only by institutions, but for their own good are being driven by funding agencies,” Targett said in a telephone interview.

And “that’s helping to change the culture.” Generating more grant money for research is a metric clearly prized by universities. “You’re seeing a lot of examples where it’s helping to drive the research productivity and success, and therefore it gets integrated into tenure,” she said.

Targett said graduate students are also a big factor, as many are facile with blogging and Twitter in instruction. She is moving now to hire a digital communications specialist to support faculty wanting to more broadly distribute their messages via social media.

To Targett, universities not seriously considering public engagement “will be left behind.”

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi.
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