the place of social impact in a university

social_impactTufts University has undertaken a strategic planning process, and one important development is a proposed revision of the traditional triad of teaching, research, and service. In the new scheme, “service” would be replaced with “Impact on Society.”

I served on a strategic planning committee devoted to “Impact on Society.” As someone who has advocated service and civic engagement since the 1980s, I welcome the turn to impact, because service is too often an afterthought and fundamentally un-serious. In practice, it means committee work or local volunteering that is disconnected from the academic mission of the university. Service never really counts for much in decisions about admissions and grading, hiring and promotion, or funding. Impact, in contrast, raises serious questions: What have you done for society? How much did it cost? Was the impact welcome? Was it good or bad?

Although I welcome the turn to impact, it does raise difficult questions that are now being debated on our campus. Here is just a sample:

  1. Isn’t everything we do “impact?” For example, don’t we have impact on society through all of our teaching and research? Put another way: what belongs in segment “e” of the Venn diagram above? Perhaps only clinical medical services and such policies as opening the gym to neighbors belong in “e.” In that case, the triad doesn’t really work, and we should return to calling teaching and research the core activities of the university, expecting both to have social impact along with other kinds of benefits (purely intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual, etc.). This suggests that the addition of “impact” is not very significant. Maybe it is just public relations, a way of claiming that our core activities have public value.
  2. On the other hand, does this triad imply that every department, every student, and every scholar must always be concerned about impact? What happened to the intrinsic purposes of research and the idea that universities ought to be shielded from utilitarian and pragmatic considerations? Is the “impact” circle in the diagram above too big? Does it threaten to swallow too much of teaching and research, to their detriment?
  3. Where do the humanities fit in the diagram above? This question especially interests me because my humanist colleagues seem most concerned about the turn to “Impact,” and also because I have written and thought a lot about reviving the humanities. It seems to me one might adopt any of these views: (a) The humanities belong in the parts of the Venn diagram not covered by “Impact on Society,” and should be protected as such. (b) The humanities have impact, especially on public deliberations about values, and their impact should be valued and expanded. Or (c) The university should maximize its impact, and that means less investment in English and musicology and more in public health and engineering. I reject (c), but (a) and (b) both have attractions even though they are mutually inconsistent. By the way, in listening to the debates about “impact,” I am struck by the great remove from which most non-humanists view the humanities. They tend to equate the humanities with the arts and creative disciplines, when humanists see themselves as analytical, theory-driven, empirical scholars.
  4. How does impact relate to engagement? Impact is unidirectional. The university has impact on society when Tufts scientists discover a cure for a disease. Engagement is reciprocal or bidirectional. Two people are engaged when they intend to marry one another. Two gears are engaged when they are locked together. Tufts engages with a community when there is some kind of exchange of ideas and mutual influence–ideally, when both sides change for the better. Will “impact” submerge “engagement?” Should all our impact take the form of engagement? Or should we have various kinds of impact, of which engagement is a subset?
  5. How is “Impact on Society” to be measured and assessed? It’s common enough to have bad impact, so we must decide which effects are excellent, acceptable, neutral, and bad. Normative evaluation is difficult because values inevitably conflict. Sometimes, colleagues invoke “social justice” as a goal, and I think they mean equity of material welfare. But we should also consider liberty, excellence, innovation, security, peace, growth and development, tradition, solidarity, sustainability (etc.). Any valid conception of social justice is a controversial amalgam of these competing values. Further, everyone claims to resist simplistic, one-sized-fits-all metrics. But if there’s any value to strategic planning, then one must be able to compare disparate activities on some kind of common scale. After all, a marginal dollar must be spent either on Tufts’ amazing Project Perseus or on “the technological reinvention of silk.” The same dollar cannot be spent on both. So how can we assess diverse activities with due attention to competing moral goals and still yield metrics that inform decisions?
  6. At what level should impact on society be expected, measured, assessed, and rewarded? Should each student and professor be asked about her or his impact? Should each department or school have a portfolio of activities, only some of which are meant to have direct social impact? Or should we be thinking about the whole university’s net impact?
  7. How should decisions about impact be made? The default is for the university to continue doing what it has always done except for some marginal changes: maybe the president and provost direct extra endowment funds to new purposes, and somewhat different criteria are used to select applicants for open faculty positions. Universities are extraordinarily resistant to more radical changes and rarely debate–let alone make–fundamental choices. That is good insofar as it protects against faddish ideas. We are still teaching philosophy after two thousand years even though people have periodically declared it dead–because they can’t practically get rid of the philosophy department. But if deeper changes are desirable, how can we make them wisely and effectively?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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