Faculty News

Exploring the intersection of public engagement and diversity

By Terry Kosdrosky

Public Engagement & Impact


Diversity scholars often find themselves at the forefront of community involvement and public engagement as they work to drive change. At the same time, universities like U-M have made a renewed commitment to create a greater positive impact on society by building stronger ties outside the walls of academia.


A two-part event on Oct. 8 will address this intersection of public engagement and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with the academic community and members of the greater public sharing lessons and ideas for future action. The Social Transformation Through Public Engagement panel discussion will be followed by smaller breakout conversations. The event is part of the week-long Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Summit.


Moderating the panel will be Earl Lewis, professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies and director of the Center for Social Solutions. A leading social scholar, Lewis returns to U-M after serving as president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and provost of Emory University. He will continue the “Our Compelling Interests” book series he launched at the Mellon Foundation, which investigates how diversity and social connectedness are imperative to our shared success.


“What we’re trying to do with this event is spark a conversation with our visitors about what they think is important and what we can learn together,” says Lewis. “I hope faculty, staff, and students come away with a new sense of possibilities and forge new relationships.”


In this Q&A Lewis explains the value of diversity and public engagement, and how scholars can carry out those missions.


Why is it important for scholars, particularly for diversity scholars, to engage publicly?


For a portion of the American public the word “diversity” conjures up a whole range of images. It might represent change, losing ground, or a range of encounters they may not have had. Scholars who work on diversity have an opportunity to explain to the general public why diversity matters — why it matters at a local level, a state level, and a national level.


A concrete example of this is a book called The Diversity Bonus by Scott Page, a professor of political science and complex systems here at U-M. He was able to demonstrate that the more complex of a problem you’re trying to solve, the wider diversity of actors you will need. What this means is that diversity creates a return to your bottom line because you will be better at solving problems. Work like this helps to show why diversity matters.


What diversity scholars need to do is define what we mean by diversity, explain why it’s not about feeling good but getting a broad array of insights from a broad array of actors, and showcase why it matters.


What are the barriers and opportunities that exist in carrying out public engagement?


As scholars, most of us have been taught to speak to our peers. Most PhD programs don’t fully train and prepare us as academics to speak to a lay audience.


The challenge is to think about the ways people get their information. Some get it from TV, others listen to radio, and some read newspapers. So are we talking about one public or various publics? Then we need to think about what engagement means. Are you speaking to or speaking with? Can people ask questions and have conversations with you? It’s really about developing the art of speaking and translating to a general set of publics.


The opportunities are immense. I’ve learned over the years that what excites a scholar can excite other people. So whether  you engage directly with people through lecture halls, large or small, or through electronic media, you can get people excited about what you do. It’s fabulous when you see the lightbulb go off over someone’s head and they’re ready to ask you a question or challenge you. And by going out and asking people who are not experts about a topic, you learn new things. Sometimes the most innocent question can be the most probing. Scholars are not the only ones who can teach, and if you don’t ask people questions and invite them to do the same, you miss the moment.


How can or should a scholar measure his/her public impact? What does success look like?


Success for an engaged scholar can take a few forms:


Is the work you’re doing showing up in the community? Are local museums taking up some of your points of emphasis or do teachers or other stakeholders ask for your insights?


Are you producing for different audiences than you have before? Did you write an op-ed, work with a playwright to tell a particular story, or develop a podcast?


Have you invited a broader set of people into your research projects?


Have you helped build organizations and institutions that benefit the public? Has your research led to creating something the public can use?


Has your work changed policy or contributed to the discussion?


Those are all different ways in which a scholar can get a measure of their level of engagement. But it takes time. Be patient.


If you were to give advice to scholars interested in becoming more publicly engaged, where would you tell them to start?


Start locally. There are usually folks around your area who are interested in your expertise. It could be a library, church, synagogue, or a senior living facility. You can also work with the local units of government, like the city or county. These are good places to start, particularly for junior faculty.


Should students, starting with undergrads, learn to engage with communities? If so, how do they do that?


Yes, and there’s a model I’ve long wished to implement.


In my ideal world, all freshmen would be required to engage with the local community in some way. Showing you’ve engaged with the public somehow would be required for advancement. As sophomores, they would take a class and do reading on public engagement so they have a grounding in theory. As juniors, they’d apply that theory and the previous freshman experience by working in some sort of internship or helping a community solve a problem. And as seniors, they would write a thesis about those three years and how their experience could be expanded.


That way students would experience public engagement through both classroom readings and research and working directly with a public partner.


How can universities foster lasting relationships with communities? Who holds institutional memory to continue partnerships after students, staff, or faculty leave the university?


Look, faculty with the mind to engage in public ventures will do so and we should provide them resources and respect for their efforts. But I think the university should adopt a select number of public projects that carry the institution’s imprimatur, and commit to those select few for a decade. For 10 years, regardless of who is in or out the door, we build institutional knowledge and a long-term relationship.


Second, what mechanisms do we have or can we create that ensure we ask the public what success looks like to them? Like many big institutions, U-M is a leading employer and economic driver, and the arrow of influence tends to move from the university outward. In the future, we need to talk about paths that allow members of the community to help suggest what is important and guide where we want to go. This is a better model of university public engagement.