University of Michigan professors may soon be seen more often on the opinion pages of newspapers, or using social media more in the wake of an initiative that was launched Tuesday to increase the public engagement of faculty members.
Known as the Faculty Public Engagement Effort, the initiative will focus on two goals: to help faculty share their expertise and research with the public through efforts focused outside the university, and to help the public recognize the value of its two-century-long investment in UM.
“The Michigan faculty is an intellectual powerhouse with expertise in an unmatched array of critical and timely areas,” UM President Mark Schlissel said in his annual Leadership Breakfast address, outlining the university’s priorities. “As a great public university, I believe that faculty ... should be encouraged to contribute that expertise more directly for the public good, and be recognized for this activity.”
Over the past year, UM has examined how faculty members have used their knowledge and applied their research skills to inform federal, state or local policy through consultation, testimony or serving on advisory panels, Schlissel said.
He added that UM also has looked at how professors contribute “to the understanding of informed issues and elevate the public debate through writing, appearing in the media or offering classes or talks directed toward the public.”
UM faculty members also are working on addressing contemporary problems and the school soon will announce a formalized agreement with the city of Detroit on ways to combat poverty.
The initiative comes in the wake of public surveys, including some from the Pew Research Center, that show a growing number of people think colleges and universities have a negative effect on how things are going in the nation.
“This is reflected in decreased financial support from the state, even as the number of students we educate, the amount of research we produce and our impact on the economy has grown significantly in recent decades,” Schlissel said. “I do not believe our intrinsic value is trending in this direction. Our labs, our classrooms, our field projects, performances and serve efforts are more robust and impactful than ever before. But research from the Pew Foundation and others reveals that we need to do a better job demonstrating our importance and value to the public we serve.”
UM is valuable not just because of the education it provides to students, but also the knowledge that is created at the university, he said.
“It enhances the quality of life and our economic vitality,” Schlissel said. “It helps inform decision-making as a society. It inspires us to ask new questions that moves discovery in directions unheard of a generation ago.”
The university plans to tap into its many departments, such as Academic Innovation, which has offered online education courses and a teach-out series on contemporary issues to improve public understanding.
Schlissel pointed to how UM faculty developed and executed in one week a teach-out on hurricanes in the wake of the devastation in the Atlantic and Gulf regions.
The UM president said the public engagement initiative would include a collaboration between the university’s offices of research and government relations to identify opportunities for federal and state service efforts for faculty, publicizing them and then tracking participation so they can be used to promote work, and also for faculty evaluations, promotions and tenure considerations.
A joint effort between UM’s offices of communication and academic affairs will provide faculty training in areas such as writing and placing an op ed, working with the news media to communicate research and using social media.
Schlissel said he can personally vouch for the university’s work in helping an old-school biology professor become more present in the online world.
“And I only get in trouble every once in awhile,” he said.