Engaged Scholar Speaker Series Logo

Changing the Conversation about Higher Education's Public Mission and Work

Friday, April 14, 2006
10:00 - 11:30 a.m.
Michigamme Room, Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center


  • Theodore R. Alter picture
  • Theodore R. Alter
  • Professor, Agricultural, Environmental, and Regional Economics
  • The Pennsylvania State University

Theodore R. Alter served as associate vice president for outreach, director of Cooperative Extension, and associate dean in the College of Agricultural Sciences from 1997 through 2004. His work focuses on leadership and organizational change, the scholarship of engagement in higher education, economics, and comparative rural development policy.

  • Scott Peters picture
  • Scott J. Peters
  • Assistant Professor, Education
  • Cornell University

Scott J. Peters' research studies combine the history of American higher education's public mission and work with the civic practices of contemporary academic professionals and community educators.

Alter and Peters have co-edited a new book, Engaging Campus and Community: The Practice of Public Scholarship in the State and Land-Grant University System, published by the Kettering Foundation Press (2005).


The conversation about higher education's public mission and work, especially with respect to state and land-grant universities, has long been dominated by an implicit view that the social role of faculty is properly limited to providing external constituencies (e.g., farmers) with unbiased scientifi c information and technical assistance. This view implies that faculty should work from a responsive, apolitical stance of disinterested neutrality and shapes expectations and assumptions about the nature and meaning of such work.

Our study of faculty narratives of their public roles and work casts serious doubt on both the trustworthiness and desirability of this effect. In individual and focus group interviews, we have found that faculty in state and land-grant institutions often do portray themselves as neutral, responsive providers of technical assistance and unbiased information. But in telling and interpreting specific stories of their engagement in social problems, many also portray themselves and their colleagues as proactive agents who consciously work on behalf of their conceptions of the public good.

This finding raises questions about how the social identities and roles of faculty are understood and supported. More specifi cally, it suggests the need to reexamine presumptions about what academic administrators, policy makers, external constituencies, and the general public should ask for and expect from faculty who choose to follow the late Ernest Boyer's call to "relate the work of the academy more directly to the realities of contemporary life."