U-M faculty share public engagement experiences and ideas on how to encourage others

(Left to right: Professors Ella Atkins, James Jackson, Meghan Duffy, and Arthur Lupia. Photos by Michigan Photography.)


For Arthur Lupia, Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science, the motivation to share his research and expertise with the public is personal. He wasn’t encouraged to talk about his research with the general public as a young scholar, but he thought his work on how people make complex decisions could help society.


And he remembered his upbringing.


“I’m the first person in my family to go to university,” said Lupia, whose research on political decision-making and complex information helped inform peace talks in Colombia. “I grew up in a one-stoplight town. It’s difficult to look at the world and not remember the things I saw growing up. So I feel a deep need to take the things I do and make them relevant and improve the quality of life.”


For Ella Atkins, professor of aerospace engineering, technical research and work with NASA directly influences policy issues, especially as drones grow in use.


“It became natural for me to ask these questions as a technologist and see what was happening in government and communities and try to understand how to help,” she said.


University of Michigan faculty joining President Mark Schlissel at a March 8 reception and panel discussion said that engaging with the public is a rewarding experience, professionally and personally, and an important mission for scholars in the 21st century.


“The Michigan faculty is an intellectual powerhouse with expertise in an unmatched array of critical and timely areas,” Schlissel said. “Our faculty have tremendous potential to apply their research or teaching skills to inform federal, state, or local policy, through consultation, testimony, or serving on advisory panels. We can also contribute to the informed understanding of important issues and elevate the level of public debate, through writing, appearing in the media, or offering classes or talks directed toward the public.”


Lupia and Atkins — along with Meghan Duffy, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and James Jackson, Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology —  received President’s Awards  last year for public impact and national and state leadership. .


Their discussion with Schlissel touched on their journeys in public engagement, lessons learned, and ways to encourage more faculty to get engaged.


Connecting with mentors who have succeeded in the public sphere is important, as is watching how other scholars engage.


“There were different people who I could see did a very good job translating their research for general audiences,” said Duffy, a leading national voice in promoting diversity in the STEM fields and a speaker at the 2017 March for Science. “I’ve taken bits and pieces I’ve learned from many different people.”


A key takeaway was how important it is to listen to civic and public partners, and not swoop in as the noted expert.


“That kind of attitude just doesn’t work,” said Jackson, who has worked nationally and locally, and who led the pioneering National Survey of Black Americans. “It can alienate very quickly the group you’re trying to work with.”


Everyone on the panel discussed how to promote and encourage more faculty to reach outside the walls of the university and shared a number of ways to help accomplish that. They’d like to see faculty incentives include rewarding time spent on public engagement and having senior faculty make it easier for junior faculty to participate. Lupia said there’s been improvement on academic attitudes on public engagement, but more could be done.


Duffy proposed adopting the land-grant university extension model, where providing services to farmers, businesses, and the public is a formal part of the mission. She proposed a way to make it a formal part of the job description for faculty who are interested.


A “lightning round” hosted by Vice President for Government Relations Cynthia Wilbanks followed the panel discussion. Five professors briefly shared their experiences working with the public and discussed such projects as water systems in Flint and Ethiopia, serving on a regional transit authority, revitalizing neighborhoods in Detroit, using statistics to improve policy, and informing Congress on medical device cybersecurity.


The lightning round included Nancy Love, Borchardt and Glysson Collegiate Professor and professor of civil and environmental engineering;  Elisabeth Gerber, Associate Dean for Research and Policy Engagement, and Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy; Harley Etienne, assistant professor of urban and regional planning; Joseph Ryan, associate professor of social work; and Kevin Fu, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.  


Among the highlights:

Gerber: “I help people think about some of the institutional challenges that an entity like [a public] authority faces.”

Ryan: “We think by using data you can come up with better policies.”

Love: “Invest in developing sustained relationships.”

Etienne: “I have one foot in the academy and one foot out. I spend a lot of time in city halls and community meetings.”

Fu: “Why do I care? I think there’s been an erosion of public trust in science. I think legislators need science for good decision making.”


Vice President for Research S. Jack Hu said he wants events like this one to inspire academics to share their work with—and learn from—the public.


“I hope today’s event will serve as a stimulus for faculty who want to learn from others and continue to engage at all levels,” he said.

Terry Kosdrosky, communications manager for public engagement