Civic Engagement Lecture Explores Ways to Connect Academic Research to Communities

The most successful universities connect civic engagement to community building and view communities as assets to be identified, leveraged and developed, Earl Lewis said Monday at the Duke University’s third annual Civic Engagement Distinguished Lecture.

“Universities too often do not see community leaders as potential sources for collaborators,” he said. Instead, off-campus entities are viewed by faculty, staff and students as either problems to be solved or people to be served. 

Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, spoke to group of invited guests at the Sanford School of Public Policy.  After a brief talk on “Engaged Scholarship for the Public Good,” Lewis joined Laurie Patton, dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School, for an informal conversation on public and strategic scholarship in higher education. The event was hosted by Duke’s Office of Civic Engagement (DOCE).

“We think that the intellectual work that is done in this university does not know its meaning until it finds its way into the community,” Duke President Richard Brodhead said in introductory remarks.

Brodhead is a member of the board of trustees of the Mellon Foundation, which provides nearly $3 million in grants annually in support of arts and humanities scholarship. He also recently co-chaired the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which produced the “Heart of the Matter” report arguing for the importance of the humanities as part of a liberal arts education.

Patton initiated the discussion by recognizing the varied spheres of the three panelists: Lewis, the humanities; Brownell, the social sciences; and Patton, the arts and sciences. “Can we make a new relationship of values between our three mandates?” Patton challenged fellow panelists.

Foundations should consider funding long-term projects that support sustained engagement between a university and its community partners, Lewis said. Often, universities are criticized for cost-inefficiency and waste. Institutions need to make room for these inefficiencies, Lewis suggested, because research is time-consuming and innovation is often achieved through seemingly circuitous routes.

“We need to defend our right to be inefficient,” Lewis argued. “Creativity cannot be forced to fit into a 9 to 5 schedule.”

“What if Duke put a two-year moratorium on faculty producing new research?” Brownell asked. “What if we focused our attention and resources on synthesizing existing bodies of knowledge rather than producing new ‘original’ ideas that never have a chance to germinate, to be applied and disseminated?” The goal of such an experiment, Brownell said, would be to see “the great research produced by our faculty have a greater impact in promoting positive change in society at large.”

One of the grand challenges of the 21st Century will be to look beyond the artificial boundaries between university and community, bringing together experts from within and outside of the university to solve society’s problems, said Lewis. This will require university members’ willingness to learn from community members.

“If you spend enough time with folks outside the university, they will teach you that they have a certain level of expertise related to particular questions,” Lewis said.