Elyse Aurbach, Public Engagement Lead
@ElyseTheGeek

Rachel Niemer, Director of Strategic Initiatives
@rkniemer

During the 2017 October Leadership Breakfast, President Schlissel outlined his vision for a strategic initiative on public engagement. Calling upon the Offices of Research, Government Relations, Communications, and Academic Innovation, he announced a campus-wide project to determine the University of Michigan’s next steps in supporting public engagement, including tracking and incentivizing engagement work, connecting individuals with relevant expertise to specific opportunities to impact public discourse, creating and expanding training efforts, and reimagining public engagement approaches for the University’s third century.

Public Engagement at the University of Michigan

Public engagement efforts on campus are plentiful and take many forms: from individual faculty connecting with the public through social media to offices across campus representing the University with constituent groups (like businesses, community organizations, and government entities) to interdisciplinary teams of scholars creating Teach-Outs. The University of Michigan has an extraordinarily rich history of public engagement with a huge variety in goals, approaches, and spaces in which individuals or groups work with different publics to add incredible value to our community. By highlighting scholarly public engagement as a presidential priority, President Schlissel opened an opportunity to bring together communities and individuals from across campus who are already active in supporting scholars to engage the public. We can, and should, leverage this opportunity to amplify one another’s efforts and reimagine how a great public research university can both share knowledge with, and learn from, our larger community.

Here within the Office of Academic Innovation, we are excited to dive further into public engagement, and we see many parallels with innovation in the academy. Both are spaces in which some scholars find tremendous personal fulfillment and where scholars can experiment and work interdisciplinarily. Both impact and fulfill the research and teaching missions of higher education, and the University of Michigan. By naming the Academic Innovation as a partner in public engagement, President Schlissel has drawn attention to another opportunity: the University can explore what innovation in public engagement looks like and redefine how it intersects with 21st century higher education.

Public Engagement and Academic Innovation

As we started to explore how Academic Innovation can support ongoing public engagement efforts, we reached out to current and future collaborators to ask about which programs they are most proud of and/or impressed by at Michigan. We received a wealth of insights. For example, those whom we spoke with called out some of the offices and centers dedicated to different public missions, including the Center for Educational Outreach, the Office of Community-Engaged Academic Learning, the U-M Natural History Museum, the U-M Museum of Art, the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, ArtsEngine, the Depression Center, the Business Engagement Center, and the Ginsberg Center. Programs housed within larger units also drive important, meaningful engagement, including the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship, Michigan Law’s Problem Solving Institute, the School of Information’s Citizen Interaction Design program, the Semester in Detroit program hosted by LS&A and the Residential College, the Road Scholars program, Michigan-OPEN, the Youth Civil Rights Academy, the Center for Educational Outreach’s Wolverine Express, Wolverine Pathways, the M-STEM Academies, Women in Science and Engineering programs, and the National Center for Institutional Diversity’s public scholarship activities, among others. Lots of enthusiasm and innovation have also emerged from grassroots and student-led programs, including Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and the Sciences, RELATE, BrainsRule!, MYELIN, MISciWriters, Optimize, and #WeListen, along with other impactful groups. And while by no means an exhaustive catalogue of engagement programs across campus, all of this is before we could acknowledge and honor the work at all levels of the many individual scholars across the university who are pursuing engagement work on their own.

This heterogeneity highlights a fundamental quality of engagement work: it has many faces. As such, “public engagement” could be broadly defined as any individual, group, organization, approach, or space where the University’s scholars or efforts touch public life. And our community has many ways of parsing this broadness. It can be understood through the lens of the plethora of approaches, including knowledge co-production, community service, public scholarship, policy influence, traditional communications, educational outreach and pipelines into the academy, or partnerships between U-M and external entities – like industry or museums. It can be subdivided along lines familiar to the academy: publicly engaged scholarship, teaching, service, and engagement for engagement’s sake. It can be understood in terms of the spaces and goals for engagement work to drive impact, including touching public and lifelong learning, influencing decision-making, and invigorating formal education.

Key Questions about Public Engagement at U-M

In our office we are asking: how can we acknowledge this incredible, rich diversity while still applying a design mindset to reimagine public engagement and advance our campus and community?

As a community, we can also ask: how did we get here and where are we going? Most of the efforts at the University of Michigan grew independently of each other. As such, there are a huge number of actors and organizations. Many are geared toward support, or impact particular groups within the university or particular audiences outside of its walls. We now confront some critical issues: with a variety of working definitions of “public engagement,” how can we build shared frameworks to better understand and contextualize each others’ work? As a community, how can we support the expansion of public engagement efforts across the university to recognize each others’ efforts and connect scholars with the appropriate organizations and opportunities to support their engagement ambitions? How can we create the cultures and working environments which foster and support scholars who are interested in pursuing engagement while still honoring the meanings and values of the traditional academy?

These questions require a systems-level view and an awful lot of teamwork to answer.

Building an Academic Innovation Public Engagement Team

Partnering with the diverse offices and actors across campus, Academic Innovation wants to tackle these questions. As a relatively new campus unit which serves the entire campus, Academic Innovation’s core charge is to foster a culture of innovation. We are poised to leverage appropriate technological interventions to solve problems with new infrastructures and explore how to scale successful efforts. We are a convener, drawing together experts of different flavors to tackle and overcome problems like personalization at scale – and we have learned lessons which can be extended and applied to public engagement efforts. Together with the community, we propose to examine the U-M public engagement system as a whole to understand what’s working, highlight and scale those efforts, address challenges and gaps, and develop creative, impactful solutions to help the system function more effectively.

To create capacity for public engagement innovation, Academic Innovation recently started to build a team to explore and move these ideas forward. Elyse Aurbach previously pursued a double-life as a scientist and leader for a number of projects to improve science communication and public engagement. These include developing and teaching communication courses with Michigan Medicine, leading the “Stand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science that Matters” Teach-Out, and “Co-Bossing” with Nerd Nite Ann Arbor. She also co-founded and directed of the science communication and public engagement organization, RELATE. As Public Engagement Lead, she’ll head the team to develop and carry out projects and collaborations across the public engagement spectrum. Will Potter is an award-winning journalist and TED Senior Fellow who has been contributing to the U-M Teach-Out Series since its inception, while he was a visiting professor in Communication Studies. In his new role as Senior Academic Innovation Fellow, he’ll advise faculty and staff on digital storytelling and public engagement, lecture in the Department of English Language & Literature, and continue his own publicly-engaged work. Finally, Associate Professor Meghan Duffy will collaborate with the team and explore public engagement projects while spending her sabbatical year at Academic Innovation.

But Academic Innovation cannot tackle this problem alone. We want to partner with others across campus to take up the challenge with us. If you’re interested in collaborating with us on this work, please contact Elyse (eaurbach@umich.edu) to share your thoughts, perspectives, and ideas about public engagement challenges, solutions, innovations, and potential projects. We’d love to meet President Schlissel’s challenge with a diverse coalition of people and groups from across the university to innovate through public engagement and ultimately transform our system and community.