Tufts President Larry Bacow holds an annual symposium for Tufts faculty, students, and staff and various nonprofit leaders, government officials, and residents of the communities in which we work (Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts, plus Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood). Today’s symposium attracted more than 100 participants and was focused on research.
I like Bacow’s framing: The University has two “products”: educated graduates and knowledge. Some of the knowledge we can and should produce can be generated privately: he mentioned pure philosophy. as an example. But some faculty must create knowledge in partnerships with communities, because of the nature of their research. For example, one cannot envision, develop, and implement an experimental “treatment” to address a social problem without serious input from people in the communities affected.
Mixed groups worked at small tables to discuss fictional scenarios involving research. (For full disclosure: I had written those scenarios.) At our table, the fictional story began with a nonprofit service agency that had done no evaluation before it approached Tufts for help. Colleagues at my table rejected this premise. They argued that community organizations inevitably evaluate; it’s just that their evaluations may not be formal or explicit. That was interesting feedback for me, because we are approached at least once a month by nonprofits that say, “We have never done any evaluation; can CIRCLE help us?” I’m thinking that a good response may often be, “You have evaluated, and we should start with what you have learned already.”
Two important practical challenges emerged. 1) Universities tend to capture the lion’s share of funds, especially overhead, from joint grants. And 2) it is very hard to get tenure for the kind of patient work that community partnerships require.
On that second point, I think the best advice comes from Imagining America’s report, Scholarship in Public. These are some key points in that report: 1) There is a huge range of quality in community research, and by no means all of it should be rewarded; we need standards of excellence. 2) Community research often takes the form of multi-part projects or programs. Tenure committees should evaluate whole projects, not publications. 3) The issue of promotion is especially sensitive because faculty from minority backgrounds are the most likely to do community-based research.