July 13, 2007

No more Public Engagement blogs

I've decided that the end of my term as Associate Vice President for Public Engagement at the University of Minnesota should also signal the end of my Public Engagement blog. I hope to stay involved with some aspects of engagement, and to do significant writing in this area. But my writing should be focused on those aspects, not on daily "news highlights".

Thanks for reading.

July 10, 2007

Visionary Leaders

Yesterday I received an email announcing the 2007 Fellows of Echoing Green. According to its web site,

Launched in 1987, Echoing Green's mission is to spark social change by identifying, investing, and supporting the world's most exceptional emerging leaders and the organizations they launch. Through a two-year fellowship program, we help our network of visionaries develop new solutions to society’s most difficult problems. These social entrepreneurs and their organizations work to close deeply-rooted social, economic, and political inequities to ensure equal access and to help all individuals reach his/her potential. To date, Echoing Green has invested nearly $25 million in seed and start up grants to over 400 social entrepreneurs and their innovative organizations.

Twenty "Bold Ideas" projects were chosen, involving 25 Fellows. The projects span a broad range, of which some flavor can be gained from this listing of the first four:

  • Establishing independent community-based water organizations in the Philippines that will promote simple, affordable water treatment technologies and participatory strategies to improve community health
  • Enforcing legal judgments of unpaid wages to America's poorest workers through strategic methods that promote sustained economic equality
  • Creating a new legal infrastructure in the global south to empower refugees to obtain legal status and assert their basic human rights in their first countries of refuge
  • Shifting the building industry in Buffalo from wasteful demolition practices to a business model for deconstruction, in order to support sustainable environmental development

On the web site, profiles of each of the projects and fellows are given. Most, but not all, of the fellows appear to be recent graduates, often with advanced degrees. It's heartening to see these talented people use their talent and training to address "society’s most difficult problems."

July 9, 2007

Personal motivation for public engagement

As I prepare to leave my position as Associate Vice President for Public Engagement and return to the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics, I've been thinking about why I got involved in Public Engagement. Some part of the answer was expressed in a couple of paragraphs from a chapter I wrote a few years ago:

Bloomfield, V.A. "Public Scholarship: An Administrator's View", Ch. 10 in Peters, S.J., Jordan, N.R., Adamek, M. and Alter, T.R. (Eds.) Engaging Campus and Community: The Practice of Public Scholarship in the American Land-Grant University System. Dayton, OH: The Kettering Foundation Press (2005)

I have spent my entire academic career in major public research universities: B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley; Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison; postdoctoral at the University of California, San Diego; and faculty positions at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Therefore I have grown up imbued with the spirit that public research universities are among the most important and contributory institutions in our society. They provide high-quality but relatively inexpensive teaching to a broad range of talented students, they produce much of the research and scholarship on which our modern civilization depends, and they translate this teaching and research to direct service to their society. Given these essential contributions, it has been puzzling and painful to recognize the steady decline in support (as a fraction of state budgets, not in absolute terms until very recently) of public research universities over the past 20 years. I believe that this relative decline in public support can be largely attributed to increasing neglect-on the parts of both the university and society-of the real meanings of civic engagement and public scholarship.

At the University of Minnesota my administrative position is as Vice Provost for Research and Interim Dean of the Graduate School. I also have maintained active teaching and research as a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics. This mix of responsibilities, while demanding, assures that I keep uppermost in mind the raison d'etre of a university-to discover, communicate, and apply knowledge-rather than focusing on administrative issues for their own sake. At the same time, my area of research and teaching-molecular biophysics, specifically the polymer physics of DNA-is hardly the sort of stuff that immediately leaps to mind when one thinks of civically engaged scholarship; so I have been forced to confront some questions of definition that I think are crucially important to the proper understanding of public scholarship. To state briefly a point that I will elaborate later, I believe that essentially all research and scholarship being carried out at modern research universities is deserving of recognition as public scholarship. Lack of understanding of this point, by both the public and the universities, is at the root of declining support for public research universities.

Those last two sentences, I still think, are key.

July 6, 2007

Sanitation services structure for New Orleans disaster victims

A recent University of Minnesota news story told about a successfully-completed design project by architecture students in our College of Design, to provide sanitation relief for New Orleans refugees and disaster victimes. To quote from the story:

The Clean Hub is a portable, self-sustained structure that provides basic sanitation services. It contains a composting toilet and a 4,400-gallon water storage tank that is replenished by a rooftop tarp that catches rainwater. Electricity from solar panels powers the lights, water filtration system, and composting toilet.

Under the direction of John Dwyer and Tom Westbrook, students in the Studio 4 architecture class started with an empty shipping container and, over the course of a semester, turned it into a structure capable of providing relief for people in great need.

"This will be the only functioning [sanitation] infrastructure in the whole neighborhood," said Dwyer.

According to Westbrook, the students were aided by the donation of many materials for the clean hub, including the shipping container itself, all of the steel, the toilet, solar panels, water tank, water filter, and sink. And the Clean Hub almost exclusively uses recycled or everyday materials, meaning the hub could be mass produced with relative ease and constructed on site using nearby materials.

For students, it was a chance to put their talents to work in producing something that may have a lasting legacy; in fact, FEMA is interested in the students' prototype.

Aaron Wilson, who worked on the "tank team," said that after three years of learning through books, it was wonderful to build something that will be used somewhere. "It was an amazing learning experience," he said.

"The students worked far more than they should have for this level of class," added Westbrook. What they were able to produce was "nothing short of a miracle."

An animation of the Clean Hub prototype taking shape can be seen at http://www1.umn.edu/umnnews/movie/perspective.html.

July 5, 2007

Recruiting a more diverse pool of doctors

Medical and dental students at the University of Minnesota are not just learning their professions, they're learning how their professions need to fit into the life of the state. An article by Deane Morrison in today's UM eNews tells about Minnesota's Future Doctors program:

As an immigrant to the United States from Liberia in 2001, Georgette McCauley has seen more than her share of turmoil. But there's one thing in particular she would like to change in her home country: young women's lack of health information.

"I'd like to go back to Liberia someday and educate young women on how to prevent sexual disease and how to take better care of their bodies," says McCauley, who has just completed her freshman year at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

She is one of 23 Minnesota college students in a new joint program of the University's Medical School and Mayo Medical School to help increase the numbers of minority, immigrant and rural doctors in the state.

Called Minnesota's Future Doctors, the program is the brainchild of two U medical students, Gareth Forde and Matt Fitzpatrick. It brings in high-ability students during the summer and the academic year to learn about topics like the science behind medicine and how to take the Medical College Admission Test. This summer's inaugural group has already toured the Mayo Clinic and UMD's Medical School, worked on a volunteer project, and shadowed doctors to see how medicine is practiced on a daily basis.

"[Forde and Fitzpatrick] wanted to create future classmates who were more reflective of Minnesota," says program director Jo Peterson. "This project aims at narrowing the disparity and increasing the percentage of persons of color.

"The reason that's important is that persons who work with doctors within their same cultural values [and] community of color feel they have better health care, and they continue to work with that doctor."

According to an AAMC report 2006 and Minnesota Department of Health 2007, percentages of physicians in Minnesota aren't representative of minority communities.

  • American Indian: 2% of population, 0.7% of physicians
  • Asian: 4% of population, 7% of physicians (although Hmong and Vietnamese are underrepresented)
  • Black/African American: 5% of population, 1% of physicians
  • Latino: 4 percent of population, 2 percent of physicians
  • White: 85% of population, 86% of physicians

Read more:

July 2, 2007

Rural Community Research at University of Minnesota Morris

Today's posting is a contribution from Ben Winchester, of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota-Morris, a small liberal arts campus in the western part of the state.


The Center for Small Towns (CST), based at the University of Minnesota – Morris, has been quite successful over the years by regularly involving talented students in our small towns across western Minnesota. The involvement of faculty, however, has been episodic. To address this challenge, we received a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation to establish a “Small Town Faculty and Student Fellows? program that connects regional development problems and/or issues with the research interests of UMM faculty. Three regional development projects are now underway this summer!

Project 1: Collaborative School Bus Routing

UMM faculty: Dr. Peh Ng, Professor of Mathematics.

The goal of this project is to develop models of school bus routes both within a school district and between five school districts in west-central Minnesota.

The project entails determining optimum models for vehicle routing across our area in a cost- and time-effective way.  By determining the location and number of students in the dispersed areas, together with time, models can be built to determine routes, and flows, of student pickups.  Mathematically, these are referred to as combinatorial problems. The solutions would allow our school districts to save transportation funds (at the approximate rate of $1.60 per mile) while at the same time providing an efficient solution to overlapping geographic areas brought about by open enrollment. The schools involved in this project are Chokio-Alberta, Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley, Cyrus, Hancock, and Morris.

Project 2: Skills, Careers, Employees and Employers

UMM faculty: Dr. Engin Sungur, Professor of Statistics.

The goal of this project is to identify gaps between employers in the region who have entry-level positions that will lead to higher-wage positions and those individuals seeking employment. Employers report they are unable to find workers who have the necessary skills to enter employment. Prospective employees report they are not able to find entry-level positions in the region. In order to build skills that qualify family members to hold better jobs within the region, it is imperative that we understand what skills are required for positions that allow individuals to move into high-demand, higher-wage positions, directly or through career ladders. This will be completed through interviews and/or a survey of employers, employees, and employee training programs.

The Jobs, Careers and Employability workgroup requested this project. This workgroup is a subcommittee of the Family Economic Success program provided by the West Central Initiative with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The workgroup will identify a series of questions for employers, adult job seekers and K-12 organizations that provides data to better understand the current gap between the skills that current perspective employees present to the labor market with the skills currently required by employers. In this way, programs or other strategies can be developed to address the gap rather than making assumptions about the needed skills.

Project 3: The Value of Culture and Education

UMM faculty: Carol Marxen, Associate Professor of Education.

The goal of this project is to work with the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle High School to demonstrate the value of culture and education to the Hispanic community. It has been found that Hispanic students that finish high school generally do not pursue post-secondary educational opportunities. The research components of this project will develop curricular, co-curricular, and community-based integrative strategies. The objectives are to provide professional development opportunities for teachers, connect the community to the school to provide role models and mentors, as well as develop and implement a team teaching environment.

This application of knowledge is a perfect example of our land-grant responsibility in action. As our small towns and rural places have changed, we too must change the way we serve our neighbors – and do this in a way that contribute to the sustainable future of our region. For more information about these projects, or if you have any questions, please contact Ben Winchester at (320) 589-6451 or visit http://www.centerforsmalltowns.org.

June 29, 2007

Engaging with public issues

Two interesting news items today, showing the range of University of Minnesota efforts in engaging with significant public interests:

U of M contributes to the successful recovery of the bald eagle

The bald eagle has been removed from the list of threatened and endangered species. …The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine made significant contributions to that recovery and preservation effort.

Officials at the Raptor Center have played a key role in restoration programs, investigated the effects of lead poisoning, studied the incidence of chemical contamination in nestling eagles and contributed to habitat preservation. The Raptor Center has treated more than 1,600 eagles during its 30-year history and its work has been critical in providing disease surveillance in the raptor population.

Two U of M leaders to serve on the governor's Next Generation Energy board

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty ... announced his appointments to the NextGen Energy Board, including two University of Minnesota leaders. This new board was proposed by Gov. Pawlenty as part of his Next Generation Energy Initiative that puts Minnesota at the front of states leading the way toward our nation's energy future. The NextGen Energy Board will provide recommendations to the legislature and the governor about how the state can most efficiently achieve energy independence through agriculture and natural resource sustainability.

The University of Minnesota appointees are

  • Robert Elde,, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences and the J. B. Johnston Land Grant Professor of Neuroscience in the department of neuroscience. He also chairs the executive committee of the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. Elde is appointed as a representative of the University of Minnesota.

  • Rob King, professor and department head with the University of Minnesota's department of applied economics. He has conducted research on a range of issues related to farmer cooperative formation and management over the past 20 years. King is appointed as a representative of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

June 27, 2007

Cindy Gibson's CitizenPost

I was delighted to learn today that Cindy Gibson has begun her own blog, CitizenPost. Those of us who know and have worked with Cindy value her as one of the most important and productive members of the civic engagement community. Among many other things, she wrote and edited the report New Times Demand New Scholarship: Research universities and civic engagement, "a conference report [on] a collective initiative of representatives of research universities and Campus Compact to renew the civic mission of higher education."

As she writes in her introductory posting,

I do lots of things... write, research, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, communicate, and educate. And I've worked with all kinds of organizations. Right now, I'm doing all that under the auspices of my own consulting firm, Cynthesis Consulting, which specializes in public policy research and analysis, program development, strategic planning, marketing, and communications for nonprofit and philanthropic organizations across the country.

The public engagement blogosphere will be much enhanced by Cindy Gibson's voice. Welcome!

Staff Engagement in the University Community

The University of Minnesota has a President's Emerging Leaders (PEL) program that each year chooses about thirty of our top Professional/Academic, Civil Service, and bargaining unit staff to work on five projects of U-wide importance under the sponsorship of U administrators. This year I've been privileged to work with such a group, with co-sponsor Carol Carrier, our Vice President of Human Resources, on "Staff Engagement in the University Community".

The rationale for the project is that staff represent a large proportion of our University community of 80,000 members, and have been major contributors to the Council on Public Engagement. Assessment is needed of staff attitudes toward public engagement, best practices that exist around staff engagement, and recommendations to increase staff engagement both inside and outside the University. The objectives of the project are to determine

  • What are the most effective ways to increase staff members' sense of the University as a community in which all members are collectively involved in issues important to the institution?
  • What are the most effective ways to engage staff in meaningful outreach activities with the broader community in order for them to participate as more active citizens and representatives of the land grant institution of the state of Minnesota?

The project, along with four others, was reported to the University of Minnesota Regents at their June meeting, and was presented in a poster session. For more information on this and the other PEL projects see the Office of Human Resources web site

Staff are such an important part of this and all other universities, so all our lives will be better and our institutions will be better able to serve society if they are fully engaged in our university communities.

June 26, 2007

Students making a difference

The summer 2007 issue of M, the University of Minnesota’s “quarterly publication for all alumni, friends, faculty, and staff” has a nice article entitled “Making a difference: U students are helping to change the world…while they’re still in school”. It profiles a number of students and lists the different projects in which they’re engaged:

  • construction and engineering relief work in Costa Rica and Pakistan through Engineers Without Borders
  • a senior civil engineering project aimed at bringing clean water to a village in Ghana
  • translation services for low-income Spanish speakers for their tax returns
  • tutoring Spanish-speaking inner city schoolchildren
  • a spring break trip organized by Students Today Leaders Tomorrow called the Pay It Forward Tour, where students travel across the country, stop in a different city each night, and perform a community service project each day
  • service learning involving 1,988 students in 63 courses on the Twin Cities campus, and a substantial fraction of that on the much smaller UM Morris campus
  • photography instruction and cameras for residents of Divine House in Morris (which teaches independent living skills to people with cognitive or developmental disabilities) , so that they could create artistic photo collages
  • participation in Teach for America
  • establishment of CHANCE, a yearlong curriculum that will expand civic engagement among Humphrey Institute graduate students, staff, and faculty and build sustainable relationships with the neighboring Cedar-Riverside community
  • the annual Fill the Bus event, a clothing drive that fills multiple buses with winter clothing for the neediest of Minnesotans
  • research in Egypt on a device designed to reduce the loss of blood—and ultimately women’s lives—from obstetric hemorrhage.
  • creating and raising money for Student Project Africa Network (SPAN), a nonprofit organization that connects students to service organizations in Africa

This is a striking set of examples of some of the ways that students are involved in public engagement activities that help both them and the broader community.

June 21, 2007

Public Engagement News Bits

Yesterday and today brought a number of University of Minnesota news releases relevant to Public Engagement. They exemplify the marvelous diversity of activities that we -- and most other research universities -- have that connect strongly with important public issues and partners. Rather than writing something of my own, I'll just point you to four of them.

University of Minnesota's Konopka Institute to partner with Kwanzaa Freedom School

The University of Minnesota's Konopka Institute will partner with Kwanzaa Church and the Nia Imani Youth Development Center in North Minneapolis to bring the 2007 Kwanzaa Freedom School to the University of Minnesota campus.

The Kwanzaa Freedom School is a six-week, literacy-rich summer and after-school program designed to create positive learning environments for youth. Freedom School nurtures the belief that young people can make a difference in themselves, their homes and their communities. The program begins June 25 for the nearly two dozen high school students who will participate in Freedom School programs at the university this year. The sessions will be held two days a week for three hours a day and will harness the educational and outreach skills of the university. The Freedom School movement has its roots in the modern civil rights movement and is administered by the Children's Defense Fund. The curriculum is staffed primarily by college-aged young adults -- some of whom will be University of Minnesota students -- committed to community leadership and service to children. Read more...

U of M launches VIRTEx, a new program to promote higher education for youth

The University of Minnesota is launching a new program designed to engage high school students from diverse backgrounds in undergraduate and graduate education. VIRTEx, which stands for Vertically-Integrated Research Team Experience, creates research teams made up of a high school student, an undergraduate student, a graduate student and a faculty mentor to work on a research project over the summer.

Three research teams began projects on campus June 18. These teams will investigate schizophrenia, the role of emotions in political decision-making and discrimination and its effects on mental health. Participants will develop their academic skills and get some real experience in science. This exposure and hands-on participation promotes a deeper understanding of academic pursuits. Read more ...

U of M Center for German and European Studies to hold major health-care forum

The Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota will present a forum on innovation in health care on Monday and Tuesday, July 16 and 17. Participants are experts from Germany and the United States, representing government, business, insurance, health care provider and health educators.

Innovation and change are at the core of medical treatment, technology and any good health care system. Minnesota has a track record of developing exciting new approaches to healthcare policy, while across the United States an unprecedented number of initiatives are being developed at the state and federal levels to improve healthcare. Dialogue between stakeholders from different but comparable national systems can highlight new opportunities. To that end, U.S. and German speakers -- including Germany's federal minister of health -- will present the positions of all stakeholders on innovative health care. Germany, for instance, recently overhauled its health care system and early results indicate that the reforms maintain quality and access while containing the growth of costs. Read more ...

U of M looking for citizen input on the environment - State leaders working with U of M officials to build a conservation plan for Minnesota

Safe water, more forests, the condition of state parks; the state of Minnesota wants to know what environmental issues matter the most to Minnesotans. And the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment has a Web site that allows residents to let their leaders know what they think.

The information gathered from the site will help form the Minnesota Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan, which is being developed by the Institute on the Environment with consulting partners Bonestroo and CR Planning. The plan will chart a long-term course for safeguarding Minnesota's natural heritage. Read more...

June 19, 2007

Civic Minds and I.F. Stone

Yesterday evening I attended a program entitled "Civic Minds: Civic Renewal" co-sponsored by the Citizens League and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Two Humphrey Institute Policy Fellows shared findings from a 2006-02007 project that investigated good citizenship in Minnesota, and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, also on the panel, gave his views about public engagement in Minnesota.

The ensuing discussion covered a wide range of topics, but one that particularly struck me was the role of community radio stations and newspapers and the Internet for telling true stories about matters of civic importance, at a time when the major news media are seen as increasingly irrelevant and in the control of moneyed interests.

Which led me to think about I.F Stone, whose Wikipedia biography characterizes him as "an iconoclastic American investigative journalist." The Wikipedia article links to a fine article, "I.F. Stone" by Victor Navasky, The Nation July 21, 2003, which summarizes Stone's work and personality in engaging detail. Of particular relevance to our topic is Navasky's description of Stone's working method:

... although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain. It was his habitat of necessity, because use of government sources to document his findings was also a stratagem. Who would have believed this cantankerous-if-whimsical Marxist without all the documentation?

Navasky quotes the journalist Andrew Kopkind about the impact of I.F. Stone's Weekly:

it "organized the consciousness of its readers somewhat in the way a community action group organizes a neighborhood: for awareness, understanding, action." In other words, it mobilized and nourished a community of resistance.

Given the amazing access the Web affords to public documents, position papers, and the like, the information gathering of an I.F. Stone would now be considerably easier, as would be the dissemination of his analysis. His extraordinary intelligence, memory, insight, and determination would be harder to duplicate. But not impossible, particularly if done by a collaborative of committed people. I guess what I'm describing as blogging with depth, persistence, and objectivity: evidence-based but also with a point of view. Without it, it's hard to see how we'll get the honest information and informed democratic perspective we need to maintain a meaningful citizenship.

June 18, 2007

Steps to a bio-economy

My colleague at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Nick Jordan, is lead author on an important Environment Policy Forum in the June 15, 2007 issue of Science, entitled "Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy". The other authors are from Louisiana, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and California; from a range of disciplines; and from research and policy institutes both inside and outside the academy.

The paper begins by noting that "A 'bio-economy' based on agricultural biomass is emerging in the United States that offers an avenue toward energy independence and a more 'green' economy." Focus is currently on very large-scale farming of monocultures such as corn and soybeans, but this approach suffers from various unfavorable environmental impacts, requirement of large subsidies to close the gap between low commodity prices and cost of production, and growth of farm size precluding entry of new farmers thus "harming rural communities socially and economically". The potential large-scale conversion of corn to biofuel is only exacerbating these problems.

Jordan and his coauthors advocate instead the potential virtues of "multifunctional production systems". They write "Agricultural multifunctionality is defined as the joint production of standard commodities (e.g., food or fiber) and 'ecological services.' Examples of the latter include increased recreational opportunities in agricultural landscapes and protection of biodiversity and water quality."

They propose creation of a network of research and demonstration projects, in watersheds of medium size and "managed by groups that encompass multiple stakeholders and levels of government" , to investigate tradeoffs between such factors as biomass production and wildlife habitat, and to provide a basis for revised federal farm legislation that will best support both biomass production and other desirable outcomes.

What impresses me about this work is how it exemplifies the best of engaged scholarship: a crucial societal issue, addressed in a highly multidisciplinary way, using expertise both within and outside the university.

June 15, 2007

Academia and traditional cultural communities

I spent a couple of hours today at the Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center in Minneapolis, at a presentation and discussion of how communities can obtain support from philanthropies using cultural rather than academic approaches.

There were strong challenges to the presumed academic approach of objectivity, personal distance, striving for individual reputation, etc. By contrast, the community cultural approach was stated to rest on history, knowledge based in community elders, group consultation, etc.

Without wishing to oversimplify a deep and important discussion, I maintain that there's more concordance between the academic and cultural approaches than may be immediately apparent. At base, academia is also a culture, with its own customs, expectations, initiation ceremonies, and even elders: leaders of the disciplines, people with long experience and deep acculturation, who embody the history and set the standards of the disciplines. They are both respected and challenged by the young people in the field, and I suspect that challenge by the young is not unknown in traditional cultural communities.

We were also told that discussion in traditional cultural communities values "symbiosis" and related concepts that emphasize collaborative and integrative approaches. I think there's a parallel with academia's growing valuing of "multidisciplinary" approaches, integrating rather than dissecting to help solve the complex problems that we face.

There are differences between traditional and academic cultures, to be sure, but I think there are more similarities than meet the eye - enough to form a strong foundation for fruitful mutual exploration and collaboration.

June 13, 2007

Narratives of the land-grant university

Scott Peters has written an interesting paper, "Changing the Story About Higher Education's Public Purposes and Work: Land-Grants, Liberty, and the Little Country Theater", #6 in Imagining America series of position papers on "Foreseeable Futures". The paper is based on Peters's keynote address for the joint Imagining America/Outreach Scholarship conference in 2006. An abstract is available at http://www.ia.umich.edu/position-papers.html.

Peters, on the faculty at Cornell University, makes a compelling case that the history of the relations between land-grant universities and the rural communities they have served is much more complicated than we generally realize. He makes that case through three contrasting stories, or narratives.

According to the "heroic meta-narrative",

… land-grant colleges democratized higher education in three ways: first, by providing the common people with access to a college education… ; second, by expanding and equalizing the curriculum to make the professions of the common people … as worthy of study as the classics and the professions of elites; and third, by not only developing but also actively extending new scientific knowledge, technologies, and expertise. … [E]ach of these purposes is viewed as serving mainly … technical, economic, and material ends.

In the "tragic counter-narrative",

… most farmers play roles as futile resistors or hapless victims [of the modernization of agriculture in service of a "cheap food" policy], while land-grant faculty are cast as technocratic experts, colonizers, and oppressors. This is not a story of the "democratization" of higher learning, but rather its opposite.

Noting that both of these narratives have significant short-comings, Peters constructs a third, "prophetic counter-narrative", based on the writings of Liberty Hyde Bailey (founding Director of Cornell's agricultural extension program in 1894, and later Dean of Cornell's College of Agriculture). Peters points out that Bailey, who is viewed either as hero or villain in the first two narratives, had a much broader view of the public purposes of land-grant colleges.

… Bailey viewed the pursuit of a "self-sustaining" agriculture as a multi-dimensional project that had technical, scientific, moral, economic, cultural, political, and even spiritual dimensions. According to him, this project would both require and result in the development of a new rural civilization "worthy of the best American ideals" [not just material well-being, but also] the democratic ideal (and practice) of self-rule, through which the common people, functioning as citizens, work as cooperative producers not only of the commonwealth, but also of the culture and politics of their own neighborhoods and communities.

There's lots more to Peters's paper, which deserves wide reading and discussion. But it's obvious that the prophetic counter-narrative, assuming it moves forward, is a perfect example of what we hope public engagement will achieve.