Beyond University Walls: Communicating and Disseminating Science outside of the Academy

Stacy Ann Hawkins, Diane Halpern, Sherylle Tan. Handbook on Communicating and Disseminating Behavioral Science. Editor: Melissa K Welch-Ross & Lauren G Fasig. Sage Publications, 2007.

Social and behavioral scientists have amassed a great deal of practical and potentially useful information on a broad range of issues, including how to organize neighborhoods, improve decision making, motivate people to learn, reduce crime, and promote health, to name a few examples. Given our expertise, it would seem that every community should be clamoring to have more social and behavioral scientists active in government and service organizations and featured in local and national news. Yet, few people outside of the academy could tell you what social and behavioral scientists actually do, and even fewer see any need for our work in the community. We scholars are largely to blame for the growing irrelevance of social and behavioral science to the nonacademic world. We stay behind the walls of our universities, rarely explaining how our work applies to real-world problems or working with the community on a problem that it has identified as important.

The community, broadly and flexibly defined here to include local and national communities, such as city neighbors, the media, and local and national governments, can benefit from social and behavioral science research, but only if it is given the opportunity to participate in and learn from the science. Scholars must include the community in academic discussion by engaging in community-centered scholarship or, more specifically, community-centered research and dissemination. Though community-centered research and dissemination can certainly be theoretically based, in these projects, research questions and dissemination strategies are derived directly from community issues and questions. This includes all types of communication, whether to the general public, professional organizations, policy makers, or the media.

It is no mystery why disseminating research outside academia is not a priority for scholars, even in the social and behavioral sciences, where our research has the potential to inform public policies and help businesses and families make a wide range of better decisions. Universities give academic scientists few rewards for nonacademic dissemination in comparison to those for conducting traditional research. The savvy academic learns early what he or she must do to be professionally successful, but, as we will explain, the work that is best for one’s career is often not what is best for the field as a whole or for the public. Likewise, universities typically benefit less from community-centered research and dissemination than from conducting basic science. In this chapter, we discuss these barriers to including the community in scholarship and the division between universities and the public that has resulted. Finally, we offer suggestions for creating an ongoing dialogue between academia and the community and provide examples of some of the colleges and universities taking steps toward increased community-centered research and dissemination.

Personal Rewards

You do not have to be a Skinnerian or a behaviorist to believe that people are more likely to engage in the behaviors that provide the rewards they desire (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Woods, 1959; see also Thorndike, 1898); academics are certainly no exception. Generally speaking, rewards in higher education include promotion, pay raises, and, of course, tenure. Gaining tenure and receiving promotions are vital to a scholar’s professional survival, and the criteria for both dictate much of a faculty member’s work.

Time is Not on Your Side

The pressure for new faculty members to focus on tenure-getting activities is especially strong given the limited amount of time they have to prepare for tenure review. Typically, new tenure-track faculty have 6 years to be granted tenure—although anticipating the time needed by the approval committees, candidates must be prepared for review as early as 5 years after accepting a tenure-track position. Because the requirements for granting tenure are time-consuming, there is no time to waste. This time crunch creates a challenge for faculty interested in community-centered scholarship. Dr. Pennie Foster-Fishman, a psychologist at Michigan State University, wrote about her struggle balancing time commitments, saying,

Those weekly visits meant a significant loss in time spent on other tasks more valued by the academy (such as writing and grant writing). While I feel that the quality and significance of the articles have been greatly enhanced by this involvement, the speed at which I could produce them was much reduced. As an untenured assistant professor, that’s of great concern. (Sandmann, Foster-Fishman, Lloyd, Rauhe, & Rosaen, 2000).

Dr. Foster-Fishman highlights a serious issue for junior faculty; time is a guiding factor in the activities they choose.

“The Only Thing That’s Marketable”

Although specific tenure criteria differ among institutions, review committees generally consider the candidate’s research productivity, teaching ability, and service contributions. These criteria, however, are not equally weighted. As Boyer (1990) writes, “Almost all colleges pay lip service to the trilogy of teaching, research, and service, but when it comes to making judgments about professional performance, the three rarely are assigned equal merit” (p. 15). This claim is confirmed by a study that asked a sample of 118 psychology department chairs to report the percentage of weight given to each of the three activities when making tenure decisions (out of 100%). The department chairs clearly rated research as the most influential factor in tenure decisions (mean importance rating was 55%), when compared to teaching (32%) and service (13%; McCaffrey, Nelles, & Byrne, 1989). Similarly, a recent qualitative study of four academic institutions pointed out the “conflicts between institutional rhetoric and the realities of reward structures, [namely] the emphasis on research to the detriment of teaching and service in promotion and tenure decisions” in colleges and universities across the country (O’Meara, 2002, p. 57).

Indeed, research is often considered “the only thing that’s marketable” in the academic world (Abott & Sanders, 1991; Frank, 1995; Israel & Baird, 1988), a system Boyer (1990) refers to as “a suffocatingly restricted view of scholarship” (p. 43). In today’s universities, successful scholarship is not defined by effective teaching or good service but by a strong research program. In the previously mentioned qualitative study, participant interviews revealed that successful scholarship “had become synonymous in these four different institutions with traditional research. More and more, success in tenure and/or promotion and increases in salary became closely tied with publication productivity” (O’Meara, 2002, p. 64). Indeed, this is the status quo for most American universities.

This traditional view of scholarship is also reflected in the tenure and promotion policies of colleges and universities. For example, Duke University policy makes it clear that teaching is separate from scholarship: Tenure candidates must demonstrate “excellence in the quality of the candidate’s performance, especially as a teacher and as a scholar” (Duke University, n.d.). At another institution, “the nominee must be an outstanding scholar; a person who has demonstrated the capacity for imaginative and original work in his or her field and who shows promise of continuing to make significant contributions to research” (Columbia University, 2005). Here, teaching is not even mentioned; instead, successful scholarship is directly equated with successful research. Although many colleges and universities have been consulting and providing professional expertise for nonacademic organizations for years, these activities have not been given the level of prestige that accompanies research (Lynton & Elman, 1987). “Because outreach and scholarship are viewed as different activities, junior faculty are often advised to avoid involvement with outreach until their careers are secure and their reputations as scholars established” (Michigan State University, 2000, p. 14). Considering the overall shift away from service (and toward research) in tenure and promotion reviews and in definitions of scholarship and service, the academic researcher seeking tenure is not likely to pursue community-centered research or dissemination.

Publish or Perish

Although research is the critical element in tenure decisions, designing and implementing intelligent research is not enough to support a candidate’s application; successful tenure candidates must publish their research. Publication has become the hallmark of successful research and, by extension, a successful tenure candidate (Boyer, 1990; Sweeney, 2000). Psychology department heads across the country report that publication in a peer-review journal is the most important tenure-getting activity and that there is an expectation that candidates would have published at least 10 articles in peer-reviewed journals alone (excluding book chapters, reviews, and other abstracts) before being reviewed (McCaffrey et al., 1989).

With the tight timeline and high standards of tenure review, new scholars are wise to choose the research projects that will most quickly and sufficiently prepare them for their review. For example, by writing in the “least publishable unit,” the smallest publishable analysis from a larger data set, a scholar can boost the number of his or her publications without increasing the time associated with research design and data collection (Owen, 2004). The least publishable unit articles can be quickly, and somewhat painlessly, added to an academic’s curriculum vitae (CV), better preparing a candidate for tenure or promotion review. Similarly, short-term projects may be chosen over long-terms ones. Any project involving extensive data collection would not allow a new scholar enough time to publish his or her findings before tenure review—a serious concern for any pretenure professor. Furthermore, junior faculty may find themselves shying away from a cutting-edge study with a controversial approach or topic because of the potential risk of being rejected for publication by more traditional peer reviewers. Academics, then, may find themselves focusing on shorter, conservative research projects that are more likely to be accepted into peer-reviewed journals— namely, those projects that will increase their likelihood of being granted tenure or a promotion.

A critical part of the publish-or-perish mandate is the limitation on where one’s work may be published so that it “counts” toward tenure. A significant consideration in tenure review is the impact of the journal in which a candidate publishes. Cited as “the number that’s devouring science,” the impact factor is a ranking given to journals based on the average number of citations each article garners (Monastersky, 2005b); journals with often-cited articles receive higher impact factor rankings. The articles cited the most, however, are not always those that make the greatest scientific advances. Often, a referenced article is one that includes a great deal of information, such as a meta-analysis or a review article. Cutting-edge research, on the other hand, may not find immediate popularity and would be less likely to yield as many citations as other, more traditional work.

Unfortunately, the unintended results of impact factors affect the pretenure scholar greatly. The impact factors of the journals in which a candidate has published are rapidly becoming a strong guideline for tenure committees’ consideration. Using impact factors as indicators of candidate quality is of particular concern when a candidate’s publications are either too recent to have gained wide recognition or are not in the tenure committee members’ own area of expertise. In the latter case, committee members cannot make their own judgments about the quality of the research and sometimes blindly depend on the impact factor (Agrawal, 2005; Monastersky, 2005a). This reliance on impact can minimize the importance of studies and projects that are less popular but may end up being more influential in shaping the future of social and behavioral science. Knowing that quantity of publications in a high-impact, peer-reviewed journal will increase his or her likelihood of receiving tenure, a tenure candidate may focus his or her energy on projects that would make the cut in a high-impact journal, overlooking creative, controversial, or community-centered research projects.


Within the academic system, community-centered research and dissemination are typically considered “service” (and not research or teaching). Tenure and promotion committees, however, tend to make a distinction between university service and community service, valuing the former over the latter. McCaffrey and colleagues (1989) found that university committees and professional activities (such as journal reviewing) were the primary activities psychology department chairs considered relevant to service. In rating the overall importance of university, professional, and community services, the chairs showed a strong preference for service to the university (mean rating of importance was 41%) and professional activities (44%) over community service (15%). This inequality has minimized individual and university engagement in community-centered scholarship (Lynton, 1995). The University of Vermont, for example, does not include professional or community service within its service requirement. Instead, service is limited to university service (see Kellogg Commission, 1999a).

To make matters worse, most schools do not provide any professional benefits for community-centered research and dissemination outside the scientific community. Byrne (2000) found that roughly half a sample of 94 higher education faculty from 31 institutions report that their institutions have few incentives for conducting community-centered scholarship. Academics engaging in community service, whether through consultation, applied research, or communication of important results, fight against the strong tide of the traditional academic reward system (Boyer, 1994, 1996; Jacobson, Butterill, & Goering, 2004). The minimal personal rewards associated with community-centered scholarship make it difficult for academics who want to go beyond the walls of academic institutions.

Slivers of Knowledge

It is common practice at most colleges and universities to seek outside evaluations of its faculty when they “go up” as candidates for promotions. At that time, it is not unusual for the candidate to be evaluated on his or her knowledge in the area of his or her specialization. The stated goal at many universities is that by the time a faculty member becomes a full professor, he or she will be among the most knowledgeable people in the world. If a professor is to be the world’s expert, then he or she should select a very narrow area of expertise. It is far easier to know everything (or almost everything) about a sliver of knowledge (a single play of Shakespeare’s) than about a very broad area (19th-century literature). With an increasingly narrow specialization, the number of outlets for publication also decreases, as, not surprisingly, does the number of people who are interested in it. The reliance on peer review and publication in scholarly outlets often leads to a small circle of scholars who read each other’s work, remain highly competitive within their area of specialization, and communicate in a specialized language that is not familiar to outsiders. For most of academia, this description represents the highest level of academic achievement.

With the “slivers” approach to knowledge, community-centered research and dissemination are difficult to conduct. Under this paradigm, a university maintains a rigid structure, reinforcing disciplinary boundaries by encouraging and rewarding scholars who have very specialized knowledge and a narrow program of research (Schon, 1987; Walshok, 1995). Community needs, however, are not easily divided into disciplines, and the public does not typically need (or benefit from) the slivered research expected of academics. Colleges today “are so inflexibly driven by disciplinary needs and concepts of excellence grounded in peer review, that we have lost sight of our institutional mission to address the contemporary multidisciplinary problems of the real world” (Kellogg Commission, 1999b, p. 20). Unfortunately, the work essential to addressing those contemporary problems fails to produce the accolades that mark a successful academic career.

University Rewards

Just as scholars conduct activities that provide personal rewards, universities encourage faculty to engage in work that benefits the university. One type of university benefit is the Carnegie Classification system, a widely known university ranking system for academic institutions across the country. Whereas baccalaureate and master’s colleges are categorized by enrollment numbers and fields in which degrees are conferred, doctorate-granting universities, where most academic research is conducted, are classified differently. In the most current revision of the system, doctorate-granting universities are ranked by two indices. The first index is an aggregated combination of money spent on research, total number of research staff, and number of doctoral degrees conferred; the second is a per capita ratio of research expenses and full-time faculty (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2005). In both cases, money spent on research is a heavily weighted indicator of the highest rated institutions.

One primary source of research funding is large grants. When a university receives a large grant, it not only enjoys the prosperity of indirect costs but also benefits by maintaining or potentially increasing its Carnegie rating. As such, it seems natural that the university would reward the faculty who get “big money” grants (Zusman, 1999). As any grant applicant knows, big money grants do not come easily. Grant applications are carefully and critically reviewed, and often a good application is not enough to make the grade. There are ways, however, to improve one’s chances of receiving funding. For example, pilot studies or previous related work can help build a case that the line of proposed research will bear fruitful results. This gives reviewers (and the funders they represent) confidence in the proposed project (Ryan, 2005). Presentation of preliminary research on a grant application, much like the “least publishable unit,” encourages the parceling of large-scale studies into smaller units, a difficult task for social or behavioral scientists interested in applied research or public dissemination of research findings. In community-centered scholarship, it often is not feasible to produce the traditional pilot study.

The background of the principal investigator (PI) also plays a significant role in the grant application process. PIs who have published work in the subject area or who are considered leaders in their field are looked upon favorably. Again, an applicant’s quality and credibility is based solely on a peer-review system; only peer-reviewed publications can be included in the CVs of the PI and other staff (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2004). A scholar who spent more time on community-centered research and dissemination may not be as well published or as well noted by his or her peers and so likely will be at a great disadvantage when it comes to winning grants. In this way, the activities that bring personal rewards (i.e., publication in peer-reviewed journals) can also lead to rewards for the university. In the current paradigm, though, neither the individual nor the university reward structure encourages community-centered research or dissemination.

The Great Divide

The personal and university reward systems of academia clearly do not support research or dissemination beyond university walls, a situation that leaves the university completely disconnected from its local, national, and international communities (Jacoby, 1987). For example, discussions about social and behavioral science research are limited almost exclusively to scholarly journals. The average person does not have access to scholarly journals, and even if he or she did, searching for appropriate articles can be overwhelming and difficult (Kellogg Commission, 1999b). Also, disciplinary and statistical jargon makes most journal articles incomprehensible to nonacademic readers. If the public, professionals, and other scholars cannot understand our work, our research has limited benefit.

The lack of communication between scientists and the public creates a constantly widening gap between the two (Caplan, 1979; Lynton, 1995; Walshok, 1995). Consequently, the public has little understanding of and appreciation for science, including social and behavioral science research. Many people fail to understand the utility of scientific research and its potential applications (Field & Powell, 2001). More generally, the public at large does not see American higher education institutions as vital research centers from which important and essential knowledge emanates to solve the problems of today’s society (Boyer, 1996; Elman & Smock, 1985; Walshok, 1995).

Times are Changing

Despite the bleak picture for those who care about applying and disseminating social and behavioral science, times appear to be changing. The growing criticism that higher education institutions are “aloof and out of touch, arrogant and out of date” is pushing universities across the country to reflect on their structures and systems (Kellogg Commission, 1999b, p. 20). Ultimately, social and behavioral science research is not done for the sake of the research itself but to provide knowledge and information that will change the lives of families, children, the elderly, the poor, and society at large. If we want to accomplish these goals, however, we must reconsider the current personal and university reward systems.

No longer can colleges and universities wait passively for new information to disseminate via their traditional, “trickle down” mode of scholarly publication. Instead, academic institutions, through the work of their faculties, must become active agents in ensuring that new knowledge quickly and effectively reaches those who need it. (Lynton, 1995, p. 6)

Academics are beginning to heed Lynton’s (1995) call for reform. Growing discontented with the standard narrow definition of scholarship (Boyer, 1990; Halpern et al., 1998; Walshok, 1995), they are seeking opportunities to use the knowledge gained from their research to contribute to the real world. We see, for example, that academics are beginning to redefine scholarship. Boyer (1990, 1996) argues that true scholarship is seen in four overlapping areas: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. The scholarship of discovery is perhaps the one most closely aligned with research in the traditional criteria for tenure and promotion, but it also includes gaining new knowledge for the purpose of adding to the academic knowledge base as well as application to real-world situations. The scholarship of integration, then, makes sense of the knowledge gained in discovery, placing it in an appropriate context—for instance, understanding research findings within their real-world environments. In the scholarship of application, academics ask, “How can knowledge be responsibly applied to consequential problems?” (Boyer, 1990, p. 21). Finally, the scholarship of teaching is passing knowledge on to students, both in and out of the classroom, so that our knowledge is preserved and shared beyond academia (Kellogg Commission, 1999a; Sandmann, et al., 2000). Community-centered research, applied research, widespread publication of results, and directly sharing knowledge with community members are incorporated into each facet of scholarship.

A broader definition of scholarship expands service beyond university committee memberships and makes it an integral part of an academic’s career. Indeed, any “work which draws upon and is the outgrowth of one’s academic discipline and professional expertise is legitimately a part of the academic enterprise” and should be considered scholarship (Elman & Smock, 1985, p. 15). Some institutions are following this line of thought and redefining scholarship to be more inclusive, particularly of conducting community-centered research and communicating the results beyond the academy (see Lynton, 1995). In a survey of 729 chief academic officers at colleges across the country, 45% reported that their institutions had expanded the definition of scholarship in their mission statements and other documents (O’Meara, 2005a). Michigan State University (1993), for example, convened a Provost’s Committee on University Outreach, whose resulting report strongly supported a broader understanding of scholarship, stating, “Outreach has the same potential for scholarship as the other major academic functions” (p. 71). Also, at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a roundtable discussion on public outreach concluded that service to the community could (and should) transcend the typical criteria and be integrated into all three pieces of the university’s mission (see Lynton, 1995, Appendix 2). At Portland State University, 79% of faculty interviewed defined scholarship more broadly than it has been traditionally (Reuter & Bauer, 2005). With a new definition of scholarship being accepted in American institutions, service is no longer always relegated to a secondary (or tertiary) position; it is becoming an important part of scholarly activity. This first step is critical for encouraging community-centered research and disseminating science outside academia because these efforts will only be undertaken if valued as scholarship (Lynton & Elman, 1987).

The Way Forward

Along with a change in the way academia conceptualizes scholarship, universities must respond to the challenges to increase community-centered research and dissemination. Considering the barriers to community-centered scholarship raised by the personal and university reward structures, we suggest four specific ways individuals and universities can bridge the divide between higher education and the greater public.

Get Engaged

One way to increase community-centered scholarship in academia is through university engagement with the community. Whereas most universities value general institutional and community service, engagement involves an ongoing, open two-way dialogue between the university and the community (Boyer, 1996; Jacobson et al., 2004; Kellogg Commission, 1999b, 2000; Michigan State University, 2000; Weber, 1999). As Lynton (1995) writes, “Service is not a one-way flow of information and technical assistance to external clients; instead it is a two-way communication that provides substantial opportunities for discovery and fresh insights” (p. 11). Academics serve the community by providing it with knowledge and educational opportunities. The community, in return, serves academics by providing real-world dilemmas and research questions that advance the social and behavioral sciences. In this way, service extends beyond university walls and into the community, becoming engagement.

For both research and dissemination projects, the dialogue between scientists and the community must begin at the very first stages, defining goals, research questions, or approaches to dissemination together (Kellogg Commission, 1999b). The open communication should continue throughout the entire project, as decisions are made (such as where to collect data or what medium will best communicate the results). Through this process, both community and academic needs are met, and all parties consider the project successful (Kellogg Commission, 1999b; Sandmann et al., 2000).

As social and behavioral science research is done with important contemporary questions in mind, activities that stem from mutual understanding and respect between scientists and the community have power to bring “hard data” to community issues. In fact, increased attention to community needs and collaboration with the community are two of the primary concerns of the Kellogg Commission, convened from 1996 to 2000 to address the need for reform in public and land-grant universities (Byrne, 2006; Kellogg Commission, 1999b). Although a 2000 study showed that roughly 25% of public university faculty respondents did not know whether engagement was part of their universities’ mission statements or if their schools had a formal engagement plan, surveys 5 years later revealed that many universities had begun to make engagement-increasing changes to their policies and structures (Byrne, 2006). Below are a few examples of engaged institutions at the time of this book’s publication:

  • The University of Minnesota works in partnership with the local and national communities through its Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), a collaborative organization supported by the College of Education and Human Development. CAREI conducts applied and collaborative research, as well as evaluation projects, and provides a “point of entry” to the university for local youth.
  • At Michigan State University, the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) focuses on the political community, providing survey research services and offering programs for undergraduate students interested in participating in Michigan government.
  • Portland State University has several institutes working on collaborative, multidisciplinary work, including the Regional Research Institute for Human Services (RRI), which aims to “improve human services through applied social research” (Portland State University, n.d.). One example of RRI’s many projects is the Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH 2010) program, which aims to improve cardiovascular health and treatment of diabetes for African Americans in the Portland area.
  • Arizona State University has built relationships with numerous local and national business, conducting research to address problems raised by these companies and providing students with real-world experience working in and with such organizations as Motorola, Wells Fargo Bank, and Bank of America.
  • Ohio State University (OSU) has the Community Access to Resources and Educational Services (CARES) program in which students and staff work with the community to address local and state concerns; OSU CARES “serves as a catalyst to activate teams of university professionals to address anticipated critical issues to face Ohioans” (Ohio State University, n.d.). For example, one OSU CARES program provides information about healthy nutrition to children in Grades 2 through 8 and encourages them to apply that knowledge in making healthy choices.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list of engaged institutions, but it does paint a picture of how universities (and faculty) can get engaged with the community to conduct relevant research and to provide information to the greater public.

Think Outside the (Disciplinary) Box

As previously mentioned, maintaining an expertise and a research program within a specialized area can hinder community-centered scholarship. While academia is growing more fractioned, the roots of today’s problems are becoming more complex and interwoven (Kellogg Commission, 1999a; Walshok, 1995). To help resolve complicated social issues, universities must take an interdisciplinary approach and increase cross-department collaboration (Kellogg Commission, 1999a; Lynton & Elman, 1987; van Ginkel, 1999). Indeed, the knowledge gained from social and behavioral science research can be most powerful when it is integrated across disciplines and applied outside the research setting, thus helping to bridge the divide between academia and the public.

The good news is that some institutions are creating mechanisms to approach multidisciplinary problems. A survey of 31 public colleges and universities shows that nearly half of faculty respondents and more than 75% of presidents report that their institutions have systems in place to conduct interdisciplinary community-centered research or dissemination projects (Byrne, 2000). For example, Michigan State University values multidisciplinary approaches and collaborations on community-centered scholarship, stating, “Although a multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary approach is not explicitly expected in every outreach project, an underlying openness to multiple inputs is expected” (Michigan State University, 2000, p. 5). Similarly, Tufts University is planning to establish at least 10 endowed chairs specifically to conduct multidisciplinary community-centered projects (Blanding, 2006).

Many universities also have institutes, centers, and organizations that conduct multidisciplinary projects. For example, the previously mentioned OSU CARES draws faculty from different disciplines to approach social problems. Also, Pennsylvania State University has a Life Science Consortium at which hundreds of scientists from various backgrounds collaborate on research and projects that relate to significant human problems. For example, one of their 2006-2011 projects examines the developmental effects of iron deficiency on the brain and behavior. Though the Life Sciences Consortium does not focus on producing social and behavioral science research, it is a place where social and behavioral scientists can collaborate with others outside their own areas of expertise, integrating the perspectives, methods, and tools from multiple disciplines. These centers are examples of thinking outside disciplinary boundaries to conduct community-centered research and disseminate important research findings outside academia.

Be Deliberate

Engagement can only work if faculty and administrators are deliberate about initiating and maintaining an open, collaborative relationship with the public. In fact, one of the Kellogg Commission’s (1999b) specific recommendations to universities was to develop a detailed engagement plan. The commission argues, “A transformation of attitudes toward engagement… will not create itself. Planned, purposeful effort will be required to bring it into being” (Kellogg Commission, 1999b, p. 47). Likewise, the RAND Corporation, after reviewing a U.K. governmental branch to determine how to increase public dissemination, highlighted the necessity of deliberate strategies that involve the community. Community engagement plans that are targeted and specific in that they, for example, have well-defined goals and tactics suitable for reaching them have the potential to “increase the use of solid research, to inform policy, to improve service delivery, and to prevent inefficiency and inconsistency across a nation’s entire research agenda” (Grant, van het Loo, Law, Anton, & Cave, 2004, p. 23). Academics pursuing community-centered scholarship must make it a priority; they cannot expect research and dissemination to automatically extend beyond the university. From identifying the research question to disseminating findings, scientists must be strategic, deliberate, and involve the community at every step.

Many of the changes toward institutional engagement can begin with the deliberate education of our future scientists. According to a survey of chief academic officers at colleges and universities across the country, the first principle of good engagement practice is to prepare graduate students to engage in and understand multiple forms of scholarship (O’Meara, 2005b). Social and behavioral science students should be taught about the importance of community-centered scholarship and the strategies to efficiently and properly conduct such research and dissemination projects (Gaff, 2005).

Future scholars need to be taught the writing and oral communication skills that enable them to communicate science effectively to both academic and nonacademic audiences. Graduate students are not currently trained to write for the public; they are taught to write in a unique scientific style specifically geared for peer-reviewed journals and books. This style of writing is often confusing and hard to read, not only to professionals and scholars outside of one’s specialization but to the general public as well. Training students to speak about science is limited to preparing conference presentations for peers and perhaps lectures and discussions for undergraduate students. Few are prepared to talk about science with policy makers, professional groups, or the media. Similarly, students should be expected to engage in multidisciplinary work to prepare them for future collaborations with service organizations, professional associations, and the greater community.

Expanding students’ views of scholarship and expanding their skill sets should increase academic-community engagement in the future and prepare future scientists to work with (and in) nonacademic settings. These changes, however, can only occur with deliberate teaching and guidance from social and behavioral science faculty.

Changing Mechanisms

Scientific discussions will not widen beyond academia without significant changes in the structure of higher education institutions. A transformation from a closed circle of academics to university-community collaborations requires fervent administrative support of community-centered scholarship and community engagement (Boyer, 1990; Kellogg Commission, 1999b; Walshok, 1995). For example, in a case study of the changes at Portland State University, strong leadership that considered faculty input was critical in the process of increasing engagement (Rueter & Bauer, 2005). Fortunately, many schools have added or tailored leadership positions to increase engagement, consistent with recommendations of the Kellogg Commission (Byrne, 2006).

Administrators focused on increasing engagement must make structural and systematic changes to encourage and reward community-centered scholarship (Byrne, 2000; Diamond, 2005; Grant et al., 2004; Lynton, 1995). Lynton and Elman (1987) make a clear and concise argument: “Without a substantial adaptation of the faculty reward system, all efforts at greater university outreach and expanded faculty activities will continue to be what they have been in the majority of institutions: a matter of well-intended but ineffective rhetoric” (p. 150). It is imperative that universities reward community-centered research and dissemination by their faculty. Rewarding alternative forms of scholarship will encourage faculty to think more broadly in terms of research and publishing (Kellogg Commission, 1999b; Ramaley, 2002).

Some American universities are beginning to change their tenure and promotion guidelines to recognize and reward faculty engagement. In 1997, only 6.5% of schools included service awards in their tenure and promotion policies (O’Meara, 1997). By 2005, nearly 65% had made policy changes to encourage and reward engagement and broad scholarship (O’Meara, 2005a). In another sample, 71% of schools had made changes to their tenure or promotion policies to increase faculty engagement (Byrne, 2006). The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), for example, acknowledges the role of public service in tenure decisions, citing engagement as one of the vital aspects of scholarship (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2000). Consistent with O’Meara’s (2002) conclusion that universities produce more rhetoric than action around changing reward structures, the actual weight given to engagement at UIUC is minimal; guidelines state that faculty involvement in community-centered scholarship should follow the emphasis on service within each department, leaving no push for campus-wide engagement.

Other universities have taken stronger stands in favor of community-centered scholarship. Pennsylvania State University has incorporated a measure of faculty outreach activities in its tenure and promotion processes, encouraging the “generation, transmission, application, preservation, and enhancement of knowledge between the University and external audiences” within and beyond the classroom (Kellogg Commission, 1999a, p. 39). Similarly, Rutgers University has begun to include engagement in its tenure and promotion criteria, and the institution gives merit awards to faculty working on community-centered research and dissemination (Kellogg Commission, 1999a).

One of the greatest success stories at this point is that of Portland State University, one of the only institutions emphasizing research and dissemination outside the university and maintaining university service as separate from community service (Rueter & Bauer, 2005; Shulock & Ketcheson, 2000; Tetreault & Ketcheson, 2002). Portland State University “seeks to foster the scholarly development of its faculty and to encourage the scholarly interaction of faculty with students and with regional, national, and international communities” (Portland State University, n.d., p. 1). In fact, the school’s tenure and promotion criteria follow Boyer’s (1990) definition of scholarship (i.e., discovery, integration, application, and teaching), rather than the traditional three-dimension criteria (i.e., research, teaching, and service). This effort is an example of what we hope many schools will adopt in their tenure and promotion policies. Though changing leadership administrative focus and reward structures are formidable tasks, both are essential to the concept of rewarding community-centered scholarship.

New University Benefits

Although there are many benefits to universities within the current structure, institutions can benefit from supporting engaged faculty. Being linked with research that has practical applications can increase university visibility and attractiveness by bringing research findings and science to the forefront of the public. For example, media coverage of an institution increases when research findings useful to the community are reported. Such recognition not only highlights the faculty member as an expert whose work is relevant to the public; it also advertises that the institution has expertise the public can appreciate and use. This kind of recognition and publicity attracts philanthropists, legislators, funders, and potential students. Indeed, there may be no better way to publicize a university to potential students and donors than media coverage of important and influential research.

Increased engagement can also lead to additional student interest and unique opportunities for student learning. Recent graduates of Portland State University, for example, report that they are proud of the increased engagement and visibility of their alma mater (Kellogg Commission, 1999a). Students at Iowa State University are enrolling in increasing numbers in courses that include a community involvement component (Kellogg Commission, 1999a). In these classes, students have the chance to work with and for local businesses, gaining practical hands-on training and experience. Many of the organizations with whom Iowa State University has collaborated have purposely hired recent graduates because of the real-world experience the graduates received as students. Other universities, however, are missing opportunities to bring attention to the institution in this way.

The university can also benefit from faculty engagement by being recognized through the Carnegie Classification system. The classification system now includes a category for those institutions engaged with their community. This provides “another way for institutions to describe their identity and commitments with a public and nationally recognized classification” (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2006). Institutions may receive this classification if they document that engagement is part of their “identity and culture” and that they have an “institutional commitment” to engagement and to ongoing partnerships with the greater community. The school must also show elements of engagement in its curriculum. Including community-centered research and dissemination and ongoing engagement as integral pieces of the institutional reward system can be a win-win situation for the school, the faculty member, and the public at large.


Though translating results into usable information for the government, community organizations, applied professionals, or the public at large should be considered part of any research project, social and behavioral scientists do not often prioritize this within their research plans (Grant et al., 2004). As Thomas Friedman (2005) recently wrote in his best-selling book, The World Is Flat, good ideas are changing today’s world very quickly. Social and behavioral scientists, however, cannot contribute to changing the world if the results and conclusions of our work are not shared beyond the university. By failing to connect social and behavioral science to society in these ways, we are doing a disservice to the community and to our science. As social and behavioral scientists, we must become more responsible for the dissemination and use of our research, beyond academic discourse and peer-reviewed journals.

There are many obstacles to including the nonacademic community in social and behavioral science research and dissemination of results. Though these barriers have created a chasm between American universities and the greater public, there are steps that universities and individuals can take to increase community-centered scholarship. To bring down the university walls, we need to engage in collaborations with the community, think outside traditional disciplinary boundaries, be deliberate in planning projects and educating future scholars, and change the structure and policies of universities. As scientists studying topics with significant real-life meaning, we must begin to bridge the gap between academia and the community. Not only can social and behavioral sciences grow from applying our data and theoretical concepts, but it will make our work become more useful and valued by people in our society and around the world.