Ellen Kuhn, Public Engagement Specialist

Elyse Aurbach, Public Engagement Lead
@ElyseTheGeek

One goal that we hoped to achieve through the Conceptualizing Public Engagement (CPE) series was to surface and explore barriers that the U-M community faces when doing public engagement work.

By gathering campus stakeholders from a wide variety of public engagement areas–from individuals who work primarily in policy and government relations to professional communicators to those who engage publics through community-based participatory research– we hoped to gain better insights into the common issues that often impede us from connecting effectively and ethically with publics outside U-M. We also hoped to identify opportunities for growth and support, as well as to consider possible pathways to address these issues in the future.

What We Heard

Despite differences in types of public engagement work that they represented, CPE participants identified and coalesced around five major barriers, which often overlap with one another in critical ways:  

Theme 1: We lack a strong and cohesive community among the faculty, staff, and students who conduct public engagement work at U-M.

This theme emerged in nearly all of the CPE sessions. Participants routinely said that they were unfamiliar with many of the other public engagement stakeholders on campus. They spoke of their interest in connecting more with others across campus who are also doing public engagement work; in fact, many participants said that the best part of the CPE series was the ability to meet and speak with other individuals who also operate within the public engagement community on campus. Within this theme, participants voiced concerns about duplication in public engagement efforts, as silos among campus stakeholders can pose internal barriers as well as potentially harm relationships with external publics.

Theme 2: We don’t have a clear picture of the full landscape of public engagement work across U-M.

Closely related to the first theme about connecting people across campus, participants shared that it has been difficult to understand the breadth of activities, programs, or units that fall under the public engagement umbrella. Without a shared understanding, it’s hard to know where to look for resources, support, collaboration, or professional development. This theme points to a major paradox within public engagement at U-M: the decentralized nature of the university allows for individual autonomy and creativity at the same time that it can also lead to silos among critical stakeholders.

Theme 3: We either don’t know about all of the training opportunities that exist around campus or we don’t have the comprehensive training and support needed to promote ethical, effective engagement.

Again, this theme connects closely with the barriers highlighting a lack of coordination of people and resources across campus. CPE participants acknowledged that individuals in different positions–including undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff–require both foundational skills and advanced knowledge to engage well. Participants said that they felt there were limited opportunities to develop the full, specialized range of skills needed for engaging effectively–or that they were unaware of the support and training that is currently provided on campus. Relatedly, participants again spoke about how inadequate training or support can damage relationships with external stakeholders.

Theme 4: We lack structures that recognize, incentivize, and reward public engagement work.

Many participants discussed the difficulties in conducting public engagement work when it does not routinely figure into hiring criteria, merit reviews, promotion, or tenure criteria. Faculty in particular said that it is difficult to devote time to public engagement work when they have schedules that are already full with research, teaching, and service responsibilities. Furthermore, public engagement work can pose personal and professional harm yet it is very rarely recognized or rewarded. Participants also cited a lack of sustained funding for long-term public engagement projects. Within this theme participants also felt that there is a lack of shared understanding about the “why” of public engagement. Why should the University of Michigan value and reward public engagement in the first place? While this theme was especially prominent in sessions composed mostly of faculty participants, it also applied more broadly to staff as well.

Theme 5: We haven’t fully aligned efforts around public engagement and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Participants in CPE sessions as well as attendees of the Social Transformation through Public Engagement panel and discussion articulated the strong, essential connection that exists between public engagement and diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, scholars of color have often engaged with external partners despite professional risk. Additionally, working with external communities that have been historically marginalized or disenfranchised requires thoughtful, ethical approaches that recognize past harms and work to address issues of power dynamics in the present.  

Where We’re Going

During the series, we also collected recommendations and ideas that might help our community to overcome these barriers. Future posts will outline some coordinated projects and actions that our community is taking to address and overcome these barriers.

Please look for additional posts recapping outcomes of the CPE series with the following schedule, subject to evolution:

March Outcomes: the draft Michigan Public Engagement Framework
April Outcomes: Collaborative Projects Addressing Barriers
May Next steps

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This post is one part of a set recapping the Conceptualizing Public Engagement series:

If you missed the CPE series but would like to get involved with the conversations and work moving forward, please email us.

**The Conceptualizing Public Engagement Series was sponsored and co-hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation, the Vice President for Communications, the Vice President for Government Relations, the National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Office of Research, and the Vice Provost for Global Engagement and Interdisciplinary Academic Affairs.