the Tufts strategic plan sets a new standard for the engaged university

Tufts University has undertaken a strategic planning process. The effort is interactive and collaborative, so no one can fully predict the outcome. But the organizers have released a document called the “Prelude to the Strategic Plan” and they invite comments.

I was one of many people who contributed to this draft by serving on a task force. The idea that most inspires me is the explicit move from the traditional triad of “research,” “teaching,” and “service” (with “service” always relegated to a distant third place) to a new trio of teaching, research, and “impact on society” (see p. 26). Impact implies actual consequences, not just service activities–and hence accountability for results. The new language also breaks down the traditional separation between academic work and service. The best way for a professor to have “impact on society” may be to conduct research and to teach. But if we promise to affect society, we will ask different questions about all our academic work.

Here are some important passages. The PDF provides embedded links after each section for comments.

Active citizenship is a core component of the Tufts culture across all campuses, and among undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty, and alumni. With the maturation of Tisch College, and the university-wide emphasis on impact, Tufts is positioned to extend its leadership in these key areas (p. 9).

The university should aggressively pursue multi-method opportunities to comprehensively assess the impact of the university on individuals and society. The results would not only be important in debates about the value of universities, but they would also help the university focus its resources on opportunities that have significant positive returns. … Individuals need to know that active citizenship and impact activities will be applauded, recognized, and rewarded in important ways (p. 9).

Active citizenship is about “knowledge-based ethical and purposeful action in support of, challenge to, or revision of the institutions of civil society.” …Active citizenship is an important part of a curriculum that integrates real world experiences. Students need to understand they are members of a complex social structure which in order to thrive must have contributions from all its members. Tufts has established engagement in this domain as core to its identity and to the experience of its students, faculty and staff (p. 14).

Assessment is a critical component of a Tufts education. … [There is an] opportunity to create comparative information about certain university-wide themes. Active citizenship, for example, is such a theme. Tufts will obviously not oblige all faculty to adopt such aims in their courses or, even if they do so, to do so in the same way, it may nonetheless be of interest to create comparable questions that allow for assessment of courses’ contributions to this area (p. 17).

Tufts should … ensure that the tenure and promotion criteria of all schools explicitly include metrics that capture the value of teaching and learning, research and scholarship and impact on society (p. 18)

To reflect citizenship as a defining feature of Tufts University, evaluation criteria can include the real world impact of research and scholarship. Where appropriate include assessment of the societal impact of the faculty member’s scholarship in addition to the assessment by one’s peers within one’s field (p. 24).

As a privileged seat of learning, contemplation, creativity and exploration, we embrace our public responsibilities of service and leadership. Through this, we are committed to enhancing our ability to have a positive impact on society, and to being accountable for doing so. That positive impact should improve the human condition and quality of life, in a just and equitable manner, while living within the limits of local and global ecosystems (p. 26).

In its Strategic Plan, Tufts will [replace] service with impact on society. Impact will include the previous elements of service, but will extend much farther to include a wide range of individual and institutional active citizenship (p. 26).

Impact is by no means limited to science and technology, but also includes the arts, humanities, and social sciences. … In the humanities and liberal arts, “impact” often takes the form of enriching public dialogue about important issues (pp. 27-8).

Looking ahead, Tufts can encourage the choice of new activities at all levels that plan for positive social impact. This requires that areas of intended institutional active citizenship should be actively communicated and promoted, embedding them as part of the University’s culture (p. 29).

Activities that do emerge or already exist need to be identified, tracked, measured and depending on their impact both internally and externally, and then be either promoted or pruned. Pruning is always difficult. A determination of which activities Tufts should promote or prune requires a comprehensive review of activities, taking into consideration the full range of both impact and cost (p. 29).

In addition to recognizing and rewarding present impact, it is important to invest in the professional development of our faculty, staff, and students, to bring societal impact, where appropriate, into the thinking around performance, promotion, and a holistic education. There are ways in which a standard of excellence as active citizens can be built into the faculty promotion system. (p 29)

Simply measuring practical outcomes does not equate with measuring impact. … How often published work is cited, for instance, is a proxy for its impact. While it can be tempting for the University to assess its impact in easily quantifiable and immediate ways, both this and more nuanced forms of measurement will uniquely distinguish Tufts from its competitors (p. 32).

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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.