Rewarding academics for engagement gains ground

The number of academics who step outside the ivory tower to engage with the community is growing and universities are using a variety of ways to compensate them for doing so. But institutions that recognise and reward this effort are still very much a minority and the reasons why they find it hard to do are complex.

Claire Snyder-Hall, an independent researcher in democratic theory in the United States, recently interviewed 40 academics mainly based in the US who are doing civic engagement.

Of these, 14 were not rewarded at all for their work, while 22 got “some form of general institutional reward in that they were able to integrate their community engagement activities into their teaching, research or institutional positions”. Only in four cases was civic engagement being rewarded as a separate activity.

The view from the top would seem to confirm this.

Lorlene Hoyt, director of programmes and research at the Talloires Network, has interviewed around 40 heads of universities and their deputies from 20 countries over the past two years, asking them about how they reward academics for civic engagement.

“Almost all have mentioned that it is a priority, but then they tend to wring their hands and say they don’t do it as well as they would like,” she says. “Out of 40, only one or two could point to significant progress with this.”

Why universities find it so hard to reward engagement activity by academics was one of the questions addressed in a special session at the Talloires Network Leaders Conference held near Cape Town, South Africa, on 2-4 December 2014.

A range of rewards

Institutions that reward civic engagement do so in a range of ways, some indirect, others more explicit. “One way is by making space for faculty to do it within their jobs instead of on top of their usual duties,” says Snyder-Hall.

Examples of this include academics who make civic engagement the focus of their research, others who are appointed to run a course which gives students opportunities to do civic engagement, or lecturers who use deliberative approaches in the classroom such as having students engage in the public debate on a current topic.

In the case of some newer universities, such as Ashesi University near Accra in Ghana, civic engagement is a stated part of the job description. “We don’t treat this kind of activity as separate from scholarship in general,” says the university’s President Patrick Awuah. “It is built into our curriculum.”

At older institutions, a change at the top can provide a boost and resources for civic engagement activities nearer the ground.

When Max Price became vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2008, he introduced four new strategic initiatives: on improving schools, poverty and equality, safety and violence, and African climate and development – backed by funding of R20 million (US$1.7 million) over five years.

“These four initiatives gave encouragement to a lot of small projects to launch or grow bigger,” says Sonwabo Ngcelwane, head of the Social Responsiveness Unit in the university’s institutional planning department.

Heads of universities may try to nurture civic engagement activity in smaller ways, according to Snyder-Hall. “Presidents often have small amounts of discretionary funding that they use to create small programmes and many have used it to signal to the university community that this is what they want to encourage,” she says.

Providing modest support such as reimbursing travel costs so academics can attend events and network is another example of this kind of indirect support. “In my experience, faculty get a lot of personal satisfaction from civic engagement so even a little institutional support can go a long way,” says Snyder-Hall.

Fellowships and awards

Some universities have brought in more direct ways of recognising and rewarding engaged academics. Institutions such as South Africa’s University of Venda have created institutional awards for outstanding practitioners of engaged scholarship.

This is also a popular approach in the United States, usually as vice-chancellors’ awards. “These not only confer prestige but are also something which helps faculty build their CV towards promotions,” says Hoyt.

The University of Pennsylvania in the US has created special fellowships. Its two-year Moorman-Simon Program allows academics to teach one course less during the two years they hold the position.

“This kind of course buy-out is also recognition that spending time in the community and interacting with a lot of people to do civic engagement takes time,” says Hoyt.

At the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, the Center for Public Policy, or CPP, combines direct and indirect ways of providing incentives for academics to engage in public policy debate. It holds a research contest every year and invites academics to write public policy and position papers on issues in public life.

“This is not a conventional research paper, we are asking them to think about how the government can improve what it is doing,” says the centre’s Director Ignacio Irarrázaval. Those accepted are paid US$10,000 to produce a 25-page proposal and US$2,000 for a shorter position paper.

The centre also organises a series of workshops and seminars to publicise the proposal. Irarrázaval describes the CPP approach as one of reducing the transaction costs that academics face for getting involved in public policy issues.

“We might have students marching on the streets about the quality of education and we have a big school of education and our professors are hidden inside it writing papers,” he says. “So I say to them I will organise a seminar, you will be heard by practitioners, I will push your paper in the newspapers. It is all about giving them prestige and visibility for their work.”

The CPP has also managed to convince university management to include the resulting policy papers in people’s academic curricula. “So these outputs are acknowledged by the university even if they are not given the same weighting as for a conventional academic paper. It acts as a message that the university does value this work,” says Irarrázaval.

The University of Cape Town has adopted a similar approach. Since 2010, its academics can score points for promotion or salary reviews for socially responsive work.

“But in a research-based institution like ours, what really counts is the research that you do, so the points awarded are still a lot higher for research and teaching than for engaged scholarship,” says Ngcelwane.

Why so difficult?

If many different approaches are available, why do other universities around the globe find it so difficult to follow this lead?

One simple explanation, according to Hoyt, lies in the fact that universities are institutions that are slow to change. “Even in countries such as South Africa or Mexico, where national legislation explicitly encourages universities to engage, they are still slow to take this on,” she says.

The fact that universities compete for students, staff and resources based on their score in research-orientated international rankings is another powerful reason.

“I have had academics who were appointed to a presidential committee on the energy problems of Chile,” says Irarrázaval. “They worked very hard on this, but when they came back to the university, the head of department only wanted to see what papers they had written on the subject.”

“Civic engagement is still on the margins of disciplines,” says Derek Barker, programme officer at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton in the US. “The traditional way that faculty may be rewarded is via peer-reviewed publications so it is not easy for the scholar to make the case that this should be paid for.”

Academics themselves are all too aware of this. “Most academics are trained to prioritise research and teaching,” says Hoyt. “So the lack of training and the perception that somehow civic engagement is not rigorous scholarship mean that even when there is institutional backing, academics may show resistance.”

How to assess

Including civic engagement alongside research and teaching in performance reviews looks like a promising way forward but, as institutions such as the Catholic University of Chile and the University of Cape Town have found, it comes with its own set of issues.

Assessing civic engagement in this way is new so academics may not be experienced in presenting their achievements in the right language. Similarly peer reviewers may not be experienced in reviewing it.

Peer reviewers may need to include practitioners from outside the university “but many academics might not accept an outsider as being authoritative enough to judge the quality of an output”, says Cape Town’s Sonwabo Ngcelwane.

Engaged scholarship is, by its very nature, extremely varied and could include anything from working with poor coastal communities to manage fish stocks, to giving expert advice to a parliamentary committee. It is also, by definition, work that takes place in real life settings far from the sterile conditions of a university laboratory.

Moreover the outputs of civic engagement can be very varied and sometimes maybe intangible. All of this means it is hard to fit engaged activities inside existing frameworks of assessment. And this raises the question of how to measure the quality.

Ngcelwane gives the example of Pierre de Vos. A University of Cape Town professor of law, he is also one of South Africa’s most popular bloggers and his commentaries on constitutional matters attract a readership of 25,000.

“He writes for a popular audience in a non-academic way,” he says. “Here is a local professor who is using his scholarship to engage with the public in a meaningful way, but how do you measure the quality of that?”

“When we talk to university heads, the first question that comes up is how are we going to assess civic engagement? How can we distinguish between what is quality and what is not?” says Hoyt.

“Unlike in a laboratory setting, you can’t control the conditions, so if for instance unemployment rates go down in your local area, you can’t be sure if this is due to your programme or if it is due to other factors that had nothing to do with it.”

Cape Town is developing a framework for evaluating engaged scholarship, adapting work already done by organisations such as the Carnegie Foundation in the US or the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework.

It is still at a very experimental stage – the idea is to test it via a pilot in the near future – but Ngcelwane believes this could be a very useful resource.

It is clear that there is still plenty to do in this emerging field of higher education. But the efforts of some universities to reward engaged scholars are starting to bear fruit.