As a front-line health care worker in Nova Scotia, Josephine Etowa noticed that what nursing schools were teaching students about evaluating a newborn’s health (did the baby have bluish skin? Or yellow skin, suggesting jaundice?) didn’t prepare them for the real world – which includes black mothers and their babies. Years later, the University of Ottawa scholar still works directly with patients as part of her research around how race can affect equal access to health care.

Etowa is what you would call a “community-engaged scholar.” While the debate over academic freedom and free speech at universities grabs headlines, there’s another important discussion happening within the orbit of these institutions. It’s about the freedom for scholars to be outward-facing, to be present in the community.

In my work, I deal with engaged academics every single day – the type who want to talk about their research outside of peer-reviewed journals, who are active on social and traditional media, who want to impact public policy and collaborate with people in other disciplines and sectors, and who want to connect directly with local communities. (The American scholar David Scobey, of the Graduate! Network, talks about having academics “on tap” for communities, rather “on top.”)

But metaphorically stretching one’s legs outside the lab or library, I was surprised to learn, is not always supported inside institutions – in fact, it can be career limiting.

Earlier this month, I attended a forum on community-engaged scholarship, organized by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Some of the participants were people who have made a tangible impact on public policy and how we debate key issues in Canada: Dalhousie University’s Jocelyn Downie, who has been a key voice on physician-assisted death, and the University of Ottawa’s Constance Backhouse, who focuses on sexual assault law, are just two of many, many examples.

Despite the fact that university presidents and the people who run university communication departments are only too happy to have their scholars out building a profile, the academic system is not set up to help them connect with the public. Writing a piece for Maclean’s or appearing on CBC’s The National doesn’t count toward tenure or get you a promotion: publish or perish is about peer-reviewed journals and books.

Time for public engagement is not often budgeted into a professor’s employment – scholars do this on top of their personal and academic responsibilities (I always feel a bit sheepish when I approach a busy prof to write something for me). The challenges are arguably tougher for some women in academia, whose pursuit of tenure or awards is already interrupted by maternity leave or childcare responsibilities.

So, who exactly is cramping their style? I learned that colleagues, not just department heads and deans, can react with hostility to co-workers who spend time outside the ivory towers. Pressure can be brought to bear on institutions by politicians or corporate funders who don’t like positions taken by scholars in the public sphere.

Meanwhile, some academics have no choice but to work in the community – Indigenous scholars are a key example – and might find their careers stalled for rocking the boat inside their institutions.

Of course, there are many types of science scholarship that don’t need to be shared with the public, and there are academics who are focused firmly (and justifiably) on the teaching component of their jobs. But for those who do want to get their research off the shelf (one estimate says that no more than 10 people on average read a peer-reviewed paper), there are some pockets of advocacy across the country.

The Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) lists community engagement as a key priority, and some of its grants are specifically tailored to “facilitate the flow and exchange of research knowledge.” At a recent ceremony at Rideau Hall, SSHRC handed out “Impact Awards” to scholars whose work has enriched Canadian society, with five post-secondary students or “storytellers” delivering short, professional presentations on their own research.

York University has a “knowledge mobilization unit,” to help faculty foster collaboration outside the institution and help influence public policy. The University of Guelph has a “Community Engaged Scholarship Institute,” with a stated goal of “leveraging the resources of universities for community benefit.” Other universities, such as Memorial, McMaster, Simon Fraser and Concordia, have listed public engagement as part of their strategic plans.

Still, it would seem that a serious discussion of changing tenure and promotion policies so they recognize publicly engaged work is at an early stage in Canada.

In the US, a group called Imagining America promotes the idea of higher education’s civic purpose. A 2008 report on tenure policy and engaged scholarship talks about the importance of university rectors and presidents setting the tone around community engagement from the very top, but the report emphasizes that it is the departments that do the hiring, mentoring and promoting – they would need to be the locus for policy change. That change would include a wider understanding of what types of work count toward tenure and who is included at the peer review process.

Why do we need community-engaged scholars? From a government policy-making point of view, it seems like a no-brainer to tap into the latest research from our institutions of higher learning. With technological, environmental and the resulting social changes happening at an alarming speed, policy-makers must collaborate with researchers in search of solutions. Scholars can also collaborate at more local levels on social and democratic innovation projects. (I’m reminded here of the work led by McMaster University’s Chelsea Gabel on First Nations and digital democracy.)

For the scholars, being engaged in the public sphere means potentially making a lasting impact on policy – including influencing legislative or regulatory change. Engagement can also take the shape of meaningful collaboration with people in a specific community, in pursuit of the public good.

From the perspective of the universities themselves, which have seen a decline in support for fundamental research, supporting the civic value of academic work is a matter of wise public relations. Right now politicians might rally to the defence of academics, but one day, we might re-enter a phase where purportedly “out of touch” scholars and their evidence are viewed with disdain.

Photo: Former Governor General David Johnston presented the 2017 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Impact Awards during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in September. By Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall.

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Jennifer Ditchburn is the President and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. From 2016 to 2021, she was the Editor-in-Chief of the IRPP’s influential digital magazine, Policy Options. Prior to joining the IRPP, Jennifer spent two decades covering national and parliamentary affairs for The Canadian Press and for CBC Television. She is the co-editor with Graham Fox of The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy (McGill-Queen’s).

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