Friday, December 14, 2007


Public Scholarship at CC's

This is really an exercise in idea-stealing, rather than a developed thought.

Have you seen (or do you work at) a cc that does a consistently good job of presenting its faculty in public settings as local experts?

I've been frustrated with the inequities of visibility from discipline to discipline. Some of the evergreen disciplines – including my scholarly home, the social sciences – are virtually invisible to the larger community. I'd love to get a sort of in-house speakers' series going, with members of our faculty presenting one-off public talks on topics that combine their own expertise with popular appeal.

We've done a little of that, and the little we've done has been gratifyingly well-received. But I'd love to encourage a higher profile in this area, since it strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that a community college ought to do. If we can bring local people to campus for talks they'd find interesting, everybody wins. The college gains some local support, the faculty get to show off a little (and make a few bucks), and the community gets access to a wonderful resource that it's already paying for.

If you've seen this done well, what was the trick? I'm casting about for portable best practices, which is a fancy way of saying I'm looking to steal/imitate some good ideas that have worked. We have some wonderful faculty with expertise in areas of wide interest, and I'm tired of that being a relatively well-kept secret.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

I'm not at a CC, but one of the Unis (we'll call it SubU) I teach at is at the outskirts of the city and constantly trying to compete with the bigger, more prestigious Downtown U. Some departments at SubU (including mine) do a great job of community networking and send people out into the community to do talks, help with research and community art projects (and other projects, too, my department just seems to do a lot of art projects). All levels do this, students (undergrad and grad) and so do faculty and staff when appropriate. Then when SubU has on-campus events we have a pool of already existing relationships to network with.
One of your marketing/public affairs folks should cultivate contacts at local newspapers and radio and TV stations. Then, local media can seek out your experts on various issues (education, health, politics, foreign affairs, business and finance, etc.) for interviews and analysis, bringing your faculty's work to greater local prominence.

You should also try to persuade faculty members to pitch op-eds to local papers. It may not be as prestigious as academic journal writing, and it may not get them tenure, but it will inform debates in your community, get the name of the university out there, highlight your faculty's expertise, and hone your faculty's writing skills. (You can't get away with academic jargon in an op-ed. You have to write to the point.)
A few ideas involving capacity and incentives:

1) A little bit of media training will provide faculty with the key skills they need. Whether they take the key lessons to heart is their own choice. (The key lessons for me: Put main findings first and caveats last; have things to say instead of responding to all questions off the cuff; call reporters back within an hour.)

2) Negotiate a small bonus with your faculty union for any faculty member who places an op-ed in daily newspapers in your area.
"If you've seen this done well, what was the trick?"

Someone who's good at that kind of marketing. Or a faculty member who is determined to get their knowledge out there and share it, and finds avenues to do it, even if they're unusual.

Traditional local media contacts are important (the experts list, etc.) but so are other community contacts. What about teaching community rec classes through the local Park District (or whatever you have out where you are)? Ethics and comparative religion goes over well at local religious groups, maybe a month-long series. Lectures before or after operas, symphonies, etc., always draw a good crowd -- as do lectures before a classic movie at an art-house theater. Teaching small seminars to community groups from the amateur astronomers to the Rotary. Do you have any Lit profs game enough to visit a book club and lead a discussion? That kind of thing.

Pitching series/feature ideas to local news directors also goes well, particularly in smaller markets; they're always looking for local programming/stories. You'll get rejected a lot, but sometimes you'll get picked up.
Not at a CC either, but my department has a program with the local public library to do a short series of some sort. Faculty apply, and do 4 or 5 sessions at the library, for a couple of weeks. I've done a couple on Shakespeare, linguists do them on dialects and such, poets to them on poetry. They don't get huge audiences, but they connect the university to the community in good ways. Faculty get a smallish stipend for the additional work.

Ours is located within our department, but you could do something similar across campus. The local library's contribution is important: we connect with people who use the library, mostly, and they do some focused publicity (flyers and such).
It helps to have the major media outlets nearby. I had a lot of face time on Detroit television because the studios had an easier time sending someone to Wayne State rather than to Michigan or Michigan State, both with more significant travel involved.

The Rockford television and print journalists tend to make more use of faculty at Rock Valley College (a cc) and Rockford College (a private) than they do of Northern Illinois, again, I suspect, because of the travel. That observation applies to locating an expert for something of national or international import. Let some miscreant write a threat on a bathroom mirror, or let the athletic director introduce a football coach, and they will travel.
Our city recently instituted a city-wide book club initiative. I'm trying to get the city and library who are in charge of the club to work more closely with faculty at our campus and vice versa to help this initiative take off. It seems like a win-win publicity situation which will have a positive effect on our city's residents.

Other ideas: How about having someone do a talk at local Rotary, Lions, Soroptimists, Kiwanis, clubs? Based on my experience, these groups are uniformly interested in hearing more about public scholarship opportunities and, indeed, promoting public scholarship. Often, the folks involved in these types of clubs are connected within the community and can help to create synergy for various projects or programs you may want to publicize, get funding for, etc.
To find a person to speak at these sorts of clubs, you might want to ask around among faculty to see who has received scholarship funding from a service organization such as Rotary. Those Rotarians LOVE to hear about how folks they've funded are now applying their financial assistance to better the community through education!

Sarah has a good idea here. The folks in these clubs are concerned citizens and know just about everyone. Talk about something that's in their area of interest, and they will do anything for you. My father-in-law worked in our state's office for the blind and visually handicapped, and he gave some talks at Lions Club dinners...he said they almost killed themselves to provide extra assistance for his clients, and thanked him for the chance.

You might also try associations of retirees from large companies. (My stepdad belongs to one for retired GE engineers.) Many of them have monthly luncheons with a guest speaker, and they enjoy hearing experts talk about a wide variety of current subjects. The audience is going to be intelligent laypeople who have some time to think about areas outside their own careers, and that's always great fun.
I work at a SLAC, but as a number of people have testified before me, our faculty became much more visible when we hired a highly competent PR guy (who hired a staff) who directs local media inquiries to the right faculty, helps us place op-eds, and gets our accomplishments into the news.

I also think that academic work that helps students make links to community organizations and community service is the ticket. We have a faculty member who hooks colleagues up with local institutions -- historical societies, arts centers, nursing home -- in service learning projects.

My guess is that these things also become harder to accomplish in a situation where there are too few full-time faculty who are carrying a lot of administrative work.
The key is to get faculty members mentioned in the news as often as possible, since that contributes immensely to public reputation for scholarship. This may be tricky if you are in the same place as a high-powered university, but it should be doable otherwise.

Two suggestions:

1. Press releases. Write lots of press releases, about anything that happens: innovative new courses, profiles of new faculty, commentary from experts on current events, new books or articles by faculty members, even things like enrollment trends at the college (which areas are gaining/losing students). The trick is to write more press releases than anyone actually wants. No matter what you do, you'll have very little control over which ones actually get used, so you might as well provide a lot and let reports choose among them.

2. Envy. You can start small, and once it gets going this will build on its own. You just need to publicize it internally: every time a professor gets quoted by the press or a story mentions the college, announce it on a faculty e-mail list. Whenever you do this, several other faculty members will feel that it should have been them being quoted. If you mention at the end of the e-mails how to get in touch with the administrator who handles press releases, you'll have more suggestions than you want or need.
I have no idea how expensive this is, so please forgive my ignorance. My local, gigantic CC, the City Colleges of Chicago system (6 campuses total), hosts a special PBS station. Perhaps a few area CC's could band together to host a public access channel. If so, you're own faculty can host a few programs, or be interviewed by the consortium's communications/J-school program?

Failing this, I like TR's suggestion: hire a darn good PR person and give them free reign. Also, be sure to give the faculty incentives to participate, either in terms of cumulative tenure counting or $$$. - TL
Have you seen (or do you work at) a cc that does a consistently good job of presenting its faculty in public settings as local experts?

Oh my goodness, this is a real knee slapper! At my CC, faculty are NOT ALLOWED to present themselves as local experts in public settings without prior permission. Permission appears to be granted based entirely on the whim of the president.

Oh, I'm still laughing. What a concept.
Okay, this is late, but the question is right up my alley so I'll give it a shot anyway. I work for a nonprofit that does educational events, and I've done similar work at another nonprofit, as well as worked at a third that also did it, if not in my division. So this will be from a slightly different perspective than the other commenters.

Nonprofits, like cc's, tend to be strapped for cash. If you can cover some sort of honorarium substitute - or even just argue convincingly that no honorarium is necessary (perhaps because it would violate the byzantine union rules you have to deal with?) - then a nonprofit may be willing to either set up and advertise a public lecture featuring your speakers or just advertise a lecture occurring on your campus. Instant advertising. The trick is that you need to approach relevant non-profits. Mine have focused on Asia, so an engineering event wouldn't generally be interesting (unless it involved a problem in Asia). Particularly, I would suggest searching out organizations that put out lists of events occurring in the area. They'll advertise events on your campus for free.

Someone else suggested libraries, which I will reinforce. Lots of people use libraries and so will see the ads, and libraries tend to have free space available for educational events like that.

Another group to approach is town councils. One thing I noticed from your postings of December, 2007 is your town's complicated Christmas rituals (ice sculpting, tree lighting, et cetera). Whoever organizes that would probably be willing to have a professor come give a quick talk or even just answer questions about Scrooge/Dickens/Christmas traditions/what have you. Similar talks could occur around Halloween, Thanksgiving and other holidays. Towns have town halls that are used for precisely this sort of thing, and would probably be interested in having topics related to their populace(s?) discussed. For example, my town has a lot of young families who would probably enjoy having a night with an education teacher all to themselves to hear about things like delaying preschool and how much homework is too much.

Finally, I would suggest other colleges. Specifically, those with radio or journalism programs. If you offer up a bunch of professors to be guinea pig interviewees for students (preferably on interesting and/or timely topics), my guess is that you'll get a few bites. And also the chance to lure some students away from the more expensive schools for at least a few basic credits. Not that you would steal someone else's students :)
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