a university’s impact on society

An important discussion is underway at Tufts about how to enhance and evaluate the university’s impact on society. Here is my emerging view:

A university can have “impact on society” by doing things that benefit people outside of academia. For example, Tufts veterinary scientists contributed to eradicating rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, which had caused suffering among nomadic peoples around the world. We should be proud of that kind of impact.

But a different kind of impact occurs when faculty, students, and staff engage with people outside the university in productive dialogues or collaborations that benefit both sides. I see three reasons to emphasize that kind of “impact” in our strategic planning, even as we continue to celebrate and support academic work that simply benefits society.

First, participating in and strengthening public dialogue is a moral imperative. A university has no right to define good impacts unilaterally, to choose priorities for any society, or to select appropriate means to attain desired outcomes. These are questions of value, and other people (from Medford, MA to the globe) must help to decide them. But because we handle ideas with sophistication, we can strengthen the public dialogue.

Second, “impact” encompasses the whole university if it is understood as intellectual and practical engagement with society. Liberal arts professors are unlikely to discover the equivalent of the rinderpest vaccine–a concrete benefit that can be transferred from the university to society. But liberal arts professors and students certainly contribute to public dialogue and debate.

Third, if impact is defined as public engagement, it is a comparative strength of Tufts. To be sure, many fields–from bioethics to international development, from museum studies to city planning–are now focusing on public dialogue and collaboration. Therefore, most universities now employ people who are interested in engagement. But Tufts is particularly rich in such work. This highly selective list of examples could easily be expanded:

  • The Tufts Community Research Center has won several large federal grants for sophisticated science. TCRC has a unique governing committee composed equally of Tufts faculty and community leaders; all of its projects involve collaborations with community groups, and many of its research grants originated with ideas from NGOs.
  • Classic professor Gregory Crane, editor-in-chief of Tufts’ Project Perseus and a pioneer in the digital humanities, has shown that classics offers excellent opportunities for diverse people to construct new knowledge together. For example, Crane enlists Muslim seminary students in the Middle East to help annotate the classical Arabic texts that are essential for our understanding of Greek sources.
  • The Lincoln Filene Center for Community Partnerships within Tufts’ Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service cultivates durable and reciprocal partnerships with NGOs and public agencies in Medford, Somerville, and Boston’s Chinatown. These partners then collaborate with Tufts on teaching and research projects.
  • The Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development, the School of Dental Medicine, and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service are among the departments, programs, and schools at Tufts whose formal mission statements highlight public engagement.

If this analysis is correct, it raises some interesting questions about how to encourage, strengthen, and assess “impact” across a whole university. I don’t have the answers, but I would want to head off several misconceptions.

First, impact is not simply about expanding the scale of our engagement. We do not necessarily want more of our faculty to become “talking heads,” influencing public discussions through the mass media. That can be valuable, but it is not appropriate for everyone. Engagement is important at all scales and in many venues.

Second, engagement is not “service,” understood as an additional requirement above research and teaching. Engagement is a dimension of research and teaching that can strengthen a scholar’s core work.

Third, engagement does not mean the same thing across a university that promotes the liberal arts, the applied sciences, and several professional disciplines. But engagement can have significant (if diverse) meanings for all those parts of the university–and can help bring them together.


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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.