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New guidebook offers ‘cure’ for ivory tower illness

An innovative graduate program at the University of Georgia is one of a handful across the country that is teaching students through “real world” problem solving.


Today’s students increasingly require a deeper level of study—not just classroom teaching, but also research and learning connected with climate change, misinformation, widespread social unrest and other sustainability, environmental and social challenges. Too often, say the authors of a new guidebook for universities, the traditional university model is ill-equipped to deliver that kind of engagement.


The new book, “The Guidebook for the Engaged University,” provides a comprehensive roadmap for administrators, faculty and students who want to make their institutions more welcoming to engaged research—and avoid accusations of ivory-tower irrelevance. At UGA, the Integrative Conservation Ph.D. program (ICON) is an example of this kind of teaching, where students work across disciplines to tackle environmental issues as they relate to our society.


Nate Nibbelink, professor and associate dean for research at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, has helped develop the program and advises Warnell graduate students in it. He said the collaboration among five UGA units and academic departments is what gives its students a unique experience compared with a program housed in one school or college.


“The ICON program includes incentives for effective engaged research such as the requirement to demonstrate effective communication with non-science audiences and/or research partners, and the requirement that students complete an internship in practice with external non-academic partners,” said Nibbelink. These experiences are highlighted in the new guidebook alongside examples from institutions across the country.


Written and published by Beyond the Academy, an international network of hundreds of researchers working to make universities more supportive of engaged scholarship with real-world impact, “Guidebook for the Engaged University” highlights best practices to foster and support engaged scholarship—aligning their structures, incentives and outcomes with solving the defining problems of our generation.


"Business-as-usual approaches to academic research and teaching aren't enough to solve these challenges," said Bonnie Keeler, director of Beyond the Academy and faculty member at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "We hope the book encourages others to advocate for reforms in their own institutions and serves as a reminder that change is not only possible, but happening at universities all across the globe."


Nibbelink and Elizabeth King, associate professor with a dual appointment at Warnell and UGA’s Odum School of Ecology, served on the steering committee for Beyond the Academy and contributed their experiences with the Integrative Conservation Ph.D., as well as writing and editing. As a result, the guidebook discusses positive aspects of ICON as well as some challenges.


“The chapter on graduate training for engaged research drew a lot from UGA’s strengths and innovations in this area,” said King. “In addition to the ICON program, Warnell has an extensive track record of training graduate students in collaborative research and problem-solving with non-academic partners around the conservation and sustainable management of forests, fish, wildlife and natural areas.”


Students in the ICON program choose one area of focus, but their training offers exposure to a broad range of social sciences, life sciences and other disciplines. Projects tackle real-world problems that incorporate skills in science communication and human dimensions. This interdisciplinary approach incorporates marine sciences, geography, anthropology, ecology and forestry and natural resources.


Chapters of the “Guidebook for the Engaged University” cover solutions for some of the major challenges to engaged scholarship at scale, from the way research impact is measured to promotion and tenure practices, graduate training, and recruitment and retention of engaged scholars.


The book is the first blueprint of its kind to building “the engaged university,” an institution that supports engaged scholarship and service. To write it, members of the Beyond the Academy network spent the last three years exploring how universities are already reforming their systems and structures in ways that promote action-oriented research and practices that respond to society's needs. Academic leaders from across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom shared ideas, research, resources and examples.


It is available as a free download on the Beyond the Academy website. 


Keeler said the next phase of academic reforms must build on these experiments and best practices toward broader institutionalization of engaged scholarship in academia.


“Universities today risk global irrelevance unless they adopt an ‘engaged university’ approach as we’ve outlined—one that systematically supports and encourages scholar and staff engagement with society,” she said. “Shifting to that model will require deep transformation in universities. They must better align their structures, incentives and outcomes to acknowledge, value and incentivize scholarly and staff engagement with these issues. But examples of positive steps exist in nearly every institution. We must scale and share these steps as quickly and widely as possible.” 

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