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TRUE Partnerships: Advancing Scholarship Through University-Community Collaboration

Barry Fishman, Faculty Innovator-In-Residence, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Information and Education

Mary Jo Callan, Director, Edward Ginsberg Center

Elyse Aurbach, Public Engagement Lead


“The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.”

U-M Office of the President


Public engagement is a key strategy for strengthening the trust of the public in the research university. It is also a key to educating students who are ready to make a difference in the world; one of the key objectives of the Transforming Residential Undergraduate Education (TRUE) program (formerly known as the Big Idea program, previous posts in this series linked below).  In this document, we present a vehicle for public engagement that builds on the principles and values articulated by the Engaged Michigan effort at the U-M: To recognize the expertise and knowledge located within communities; to show respect for individuals, communities, and their resources; and to build equitable partnerships between the U-M and its various communities based on transparency and accountability. The U-M has been actively exploring what public engagement means through the Conceptualizing Public Engagement series, as described in this recent blog post series and resulting framework. In this post, we argue that a form of public engagement called partnership research can enhance the relevance and quality of research and scholarship across the university. Below we describe a plan for a new center—CIRCLE— to help coordinate partnership research across the U-M and its many community partners. This center will both enhance the perceived (and real) value of the U-M to its communities, and also strengthen cross-campus multidisciplinary collaboration. At the same time, CIRCLE will provide a valuable context for students in the TRUE program, facilitating connections with community-based research, and developing their knowledge and skills for civic purpose and engagement, intercultural awareness, ethics, altruism and empathy. These are core learning goals for the TRUE undergraduate program.


Partnership Research

Partnership research is just what it sounds like: an approach in which the researcher works in partnership with those who are participating in the research. In the words of Bill Penuel of the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice, “Partnership research is research with, instead of “on” or “for” people.” Working in partnership with people, organizations, and communities makes both the research process and its benefits tangible. Rather than merely reading about the results of research, or working to try and “translate” research into practice, partnership research engages different publics in the process of defining questions, designing, conducting, interpreting, and eventually acting on the results of research. When the university and public stakeholders engage in this highly collaborative mode, the value of the research university as a crucial partner and contributor to solving pressing social concerns becomes self-evident.


“Partnership research is research with, instead of “on” or “for” people.”

-Bill Penuel, National Center for Research on Policy and Practice


Partnership research can take many different forms, and has a long history. For instance, utilization-focused evaluation research employs research findings for program development, and emphasizes stakeholder-engagement in the evaluation process. Community-based participatory research involves university scholars engaging with people outside the academy to advance local social change goals. Design-based research focuses on the development of interventions in real-world contexts, and design-based implementation research takes this idea further by emphasizing joint negotiation of the problem space among all partners/stakeholders in order to develop research around problems in which everyone is invested (Fishman, Penuel, Allen, Cheng, & Sabelli, 2013; see also This helps ensure that the results of the research are of immediate interest to community partners, and that positive results are more likely to be implemented and sustained.


At its heart, partnership research is about promoting equity.


At its heart, partnership research is oriented towards promoting equity, both in how research is conducted and in its focus. Partnership research explicitly recognizes that those involved are not equal in many ways and seeks to acknowledge and balance differences in power, knowledge, authority, consequences, and so forth, especially when research is conducted in under-resourced communities or contexts. This is a departure from more common academic scholarship, which has a history of treating and referring to research participants as “subjects,” which implies a subservient positionality with respect to the elevated status of the researcher.

A key to successful partnership research (and public engagement more generally) is building and sustaining trust between community partners and university personnel. Trust is built over time, as partners learn that they can rely on each other. Trust means the local partner believing that the university researcher is invested in their well-being and improvement, and will not cause them harm, either intentionally or unintentionally. All members of the partnership should benefit from being engaged, even if goals may vary among partners. Partnership requires ongoing presence, which can be difficult given busy schedules or distance.


A key to successful partnership research is building and sustaining trust.


Partnership requires careful institutional coordination, so that one university researcher does not inadvertently undermine the trust built by another. Timelines are also tricky, as local partners want to know what is being learned while research partners may take a long time to analyze complex data. The needs of partnership, especially in the early phases of relationship building, require investments of time and financial support that is hard to obtain through most traditional sources of research funding. Funding timelines—often in single or 1-3 year increments—may also present a challenge to the long-term nature of partnership research.

We also recognize that partnership research is not the only kind of scholarship the research university is engaged in. In reality, is is likely that partnership research will never be more than a small fraction of the overall scholarship conducted at research universities. But in coordination with the overall research portfolio of an institution, partnership research can can both enhance the usability of basic research, and help us develop and test novel solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems.  


Partnership research is an approach to developing and testing novel solutions to society’s most pressing problems.


To overcome the challenges and pitfalls we described above, we believe that the U-M needs an organization that can provide support for building sustained relationships, advocating for equity and inclusion, maintaining trust, connecting researchers across campus who work in areas related to public need, and connecting students to partnership-based research opportunities. In the next section, we describe ways that a center to promote and coordinate partnership research at U-M could enhance and advance our ability to connect with our various publics and advance student engagement in problem-based and project-based research.


CIRCLE: Enhancing and Supporting Partnership (and Multidisciplinary) Research

Many researchers and projects across the U-M campus are already engaged in productive partnership research. At the direction of President Schlissel, U-M is actively seeking ways to enhance the impact of our research through resources such as Engaged Michigan  and the Presidential Strategic Area of Focus on Faculty Public Engagement. There is a long history of support for students to engage with communities through campus resources like the Edward Ginsberg Center, ArtsEngine, the Graham Sustainability Institute, and many efforts within schools and colleges. The U-M has a well-deserved reputation for interdisciplinary research, with a large percentage of its faculty appointed in multiple departments and units, and a strong culture of collaboration. With this proposal, we aim to build upon and amplify those strengths. We propose to do this by establishing a new collaborative hub to coordinate community engagement and partnership research that we call the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Connected Learning Experiences, or CIRCLE.


CIRCLE is designed to be a new hub to coordinate community engagement and partnership research for TRUE and the U-M.


The Edward Ginsberg Center is a lead partner in the development and operation of CIRCLE. Ginsberg is a natural fit for this role, because their mission is to “cultivate and steward equitable partnerships between communities and the University of Michigan in order to advance social change for the public good.” Ginsberg has a long history of engaging undergraduates in co-curricular service learning projects (they are part of the Division of Student Life), and partners with academic units to provide curricular and research support services that are coordinated with faculty community-engaged projects.

The most important skill that the Ginsberg Center brings to CIRCLE is their demonstrated ability to build and maintain relationships within communities. It takes a particular kind of skill to address the challenge of building trust described above, and that skill is not often part of most researchers’ training or mindset. This is not meant as a critique of researchers; it is an acknowledgement that successful scholarship requires deep and focused knowledge and skills, and it is unreasonable to expect that any particular researcher would possess both the kinds of skills needed to (for instance) design a valid experiment and to negotiate roles in a partnership, though of course some do. Additionally, partnership research is premised on enduring relationships between university and community partners, and faculty often do not have the time or resources to maintain the relationship with a community partner beyond a particular research project. We thus see CIRCLE serving as a valuable “research core” within the broader U-M, providing infrastructure, personnel, and guidance for community-university research partnerships.

We propose that CIRCLE function as a hub for research across campus that is focused on particular problems that have connection to local communities. Some of those projects would be research-practice partnerships, but the majority would not be. As noted above, we do not expect all university research to be conducted in community partnerships. But we do believe that all research can benefit from connection to various publics, and from coordination with partnership research projects through CIRCLE. Basic science, for example, may take place in a laboratory. Theoretical work may take place in computer simulations. But both benefit from some grounding in or connection to the real worlds of practice and application, even if that connection is indirect. Research related to water quality and access to clean water is an example of this. We imagine that there are faculty in every unit of the U-M working on something related to water quality. Many of these researchers may be in the sciences or engineering. But there are also social scientists, historians, and humanists doing work on how people relate to their environment. There are scholars in art and design, and in music and theatre, creating artistic works related to clean water. As well as scholarship in policy, law, business, education, and so forth. How often do these researchers come into contact with each other? Are they even aware of each other? By serving as a central point of connection, CIRCLE can create this awareness, and help coordinate multiple projects’ connections with local communities to ensure that trust, access, and communication are maintained. The Graham Sustainability Institute has begun this work of campus connection on the topic of water quality with their Water Center and Water@Michigan events. The new “Great Lakes Writers Project” narrative journalism courses that the LSA Department of English proposes in conjunction with the Great Lakes Theme Semester offers a point of connection to the humanities. Another example is the way that Poverty Solutions coordinates and connects research across campus, amplifying the impact of any one project. CIRCLE might start with a single problem area, but expand and connect its focus to other areas as need and interest dictate/allow. In doing so, CIRCLE will connect with existing efforts, such as Graham, Poverty Solutions, and other central campus assets, to broaden impact and coherence around a particular issue.

As part of the learning goals for the TRUE program, we expect students to master a range of “ways of knowing” that include: Logical, empirical, statistical, computational, historical, critical (analytic, evaluative), creative and artistic modes. Mastering these areas includes fluency with both quantitative and qualitative tools for understanding, interpreting and expressing ideas and information. Clearly, no single research project allows for students to traverse even a fraction of these ways of knowing. Our expectation is that TRUE students, working through CIRCLE, will gain access to a range of different projects that enable them to explore these different ways of knowing. By being associated with CIRCLE, a project gains access to these students even if the project is not in any way a research-practice partnership. CIRCLE would work with TRUE students, community partners, and faculty to convene symposia (similar to the Water@Michigan symposia), where students share their own research, and take on a leadership role in increasing multidisciplinary awareness across researchers, campus, and community.  

Will CIRCLE become a reality? That in part depends on the future of the TRUE Program. At present, we are optimistic about the future of both as we continue to work towards innovation that transforms our scholarly and academic environment at the University of Michigan. But whether or not the versions of TRUE and CIRCLE that we describe here come to exist, we believe strongly that increasing our institutional capacity for and orientation towards partnership research can be a powerful part of our overall strategy for public engagement. If you can’t wait to get started with partnership research, we encourage you to reach out to the Ginsberg Center, and explore the resources of the National Center for Research on Policy and Practice and materials related to Design Based Implementation Research.  



Fishman, B., Penuel, W. R., Allen, A., Cheng, B. H., & Sabelli, N. H. (2013). Design-Based Implementation Research: An emerging model for transforming the relationship of research and practice. In B. Fishman, W. R. Penuel, A. Allen, & B. H. Cheng (Eds.), Design-based implementation research: Theories, methods, and exemplars. National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook: Vol. 112(2) (pp. 136–156). New York: Teachers College Record.



Our thanks to Bill Penuel, a leader in the field of partnership research, for his comments and suggestions on this post.


Previous Posts about TRUE

TRUE stands for Transforming Residential Undergraduate Education. For most of the 2018-19 academic year, we referred to this plan for a new undergraduate program as “The Big Idea.” The following posts describe different elements of our proposed program:

Introducing the Big Idea (now known as TRUE) Program

Ambitious Learning Goals

Re-imagining Higher Education Assessment

AIM:TRUE Speaker Series – Introduction, Mastery Transcript, & David Scobey

AIM:TRUE Speaker Series – Learning with the Library

AIM:TRUE Speaker Series – The Future of College Credentials with Sean Gallagher

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