jetinonga

This week our readings and discussion have turned my thoughts to the position of the public scholar and public scholarship in universities. Questions about how and whether community-engaged work and activism should connect with work in academic institutions seem to generate a variety of answers—and more questions. Is it a failure to separate our academic scholarship from our activism/work with a community? Will bringing them together damage them by undermining the credibility of one and “professionalizing or institutionalizing” the other (Bhattacharyya and Murji 1366)? Why do they seem so separate (for many of us) to begin with? Is working from an “objective” academic position limited by privileged point of view or is working in community that you are invested in limited by personal bias? Can public scholarship only happen “in the margins” and, if so, is that the ideal place for it?

In our readings, discussions of these issues around the place of community-engaged scholarship in the academy focused attention on existing power structures and on changes in the philosophy and structure of higher education systems. “Privatization,” “corporatization” and “marketization” adopted by some colleges and universities in the last few years has created an environment that forces community-based projects to work harder to justify their value, defend “radical spaces” and create lasting (rather than instrumental) partnerships with communities and community partners.

Pondering this situation, my mind kept returning to the news storm around the proposed revisions of the University of Wisconsin mission statement, known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” in 2015 as neatly embodying the tension between public scholarship work and some reformist visions for higher education. The revision of the statute was made by the state budget office, not the university, and it removed phrases like “serve and stimulate society,” “beyond the boundaries of its campuses,” “public service,” “the human condition” and “the search for truth” from the mission statement. The excised text was replaced by the single phrase “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”  These changes were hastily abandoned after a public outcry, but they also seem revealing in their specific shift from a focus on “public good” to generating profitable workers for the state.

Although the wording of the “Wisconsin Idea” is sometimes a little unidirectional in its relationship to groups outside the campus, as though knowledge will only flow outward from the university, a little cursory research into the projects this Idea has inspired seems to indicate that it has encouraged an exchange of knowledge with surrounding communities that has had a significant political impact. This interaction and outcome have a lot in common with the models for public scholarship that we have been forming and reading about as well. Reflecting on how the goals of the Wisconsin Idea actually extend to the “society” it refers to leads to more general questions about what exactly academic labor makes and does/should make and do. What is the divide between “thinking and doing” and “awareness and action” (Sudbury 12)? As Bhattacharyya and Murji ask, “What outcome or impact does academic labour have? Who does it reach or who is it intended to reach?” And how will we and our institutions measure this?