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.