Rios, Michael, David Campbell, Hannah Adamy. "Engaged Scholarship and Learning: UC Davis at an Institutional Crossroads." PUBLIC: Arts, Design, Humanities 5, no. 1 (2018).
Engaged Scholarship and Learning: UC Davis at an Institutional Crossroads


UC Davis was founded in 1905 as the “farm school” for the University of California (UC) and was officially introduced in 1959 as the seventh campus in the UC system. As a land-grant institution, it has a civic mission focused on experiential learning, experimental research, and extension of knowledge to serve the public good. Recent events have created momentum and signaled increasing support to invest in “engaged scholarship and engaged learning.” This article begins at this crossroads and highlights diverse types of past and present public engagement, assesses the current climate on campus to deepen and expand public scholarship, and shares a number of faculty perspectives about public scholarship and community engagement. The authors reflect on UC Davis’s land-grant tradition and the inherent tensions over that legacy’s contemporary meaning. The article concludes with a discussion of the prospects emerging from a participatory design process currently underway that aims to create a “culture of engagement.”

Founded in 1905 as a “farm school” for the University of California (UC), UC Davis was officially introduced in 1959 as the seventh campus in the UC system. As a land-grant university, UC Davis has a civic mission focused on experiential learning, experimental research, and extension of knowledge to serve the public good. This history of public engagement has contributed to the institution receiving the Community Engagement Classification by the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement in Teaching in 2015, followed by its selection as the host campus for Imagining America in 2017. The convergence of these events has created momentum and signaled increasing support from the university’s Office of the Provost to invest in “engaged scholarship and engaged learning.” This historical moment provides an opportunity for institutional reflection about UC Davis’s land-grant identity: a campus community known for its integration of research and practice, focus on people and land, and location within a geographic region comprised of rural, urban, and peri-urban landscapes.

Our purpose in this article is to consider UC Davis’s land-grant tradition and the tensions and questions that accompany that tradition, both historically and in the contemporary university. We highlight diverse types of public-engagement activities, past and present; assess the current climate on campus; share a number of faculty perspectives based on a current listening phase; and note the challenges that lie ahead to deepen and expand public scholarship and community engagement. We conclude with a discussion of future prospects emerging from a participatory design process currently underway. That process aims to create a “culture of engagement” across disciplines, among ten colleges and schools, and between the university’s two campuses in Davis and Sacramento. It remains to be seen to what extent there is room to consider forms of public scholarship and community engagement which go beyond the current system of institutional rewards and recognition, forms of knowledge production that disrupt scientific hierarchies, and engagement rooted in a consciousness of California’s “majority-minority” population. These challenges pose questions that echo those of the past and will define the future of the land-grant university: what constitutes knowledge, how is it produced, by whom, and which public is being served?

These questions take on special urgency given broader challenges facing contemporary society, including growing inequality, continuing racial disparities, and the fundamental economic, social, and cultural questions posed by climate change. A stronger commitment to public scholarship and community engagement can position the university as a key institutional partner in addressing these challenges, while renewing public confidence in the historic land-grant ideal of being “the people’s university.”


The Land-Grant Legacy: Embraced, Contested, Threatened

Rooted in the land-grant university tradition, and located in California’s Great Central Valley, the University of California at Davis has from its earliest days embodied a mission of public service and outreach aimed at bettering society (Scheuring 2001). Also persistent over the years, though, are tensions and ambiguities over which publics are to be served, how relationships with those publics are to be built and maintained, and what priorities and values are to be advanced (Berry 1977; Hightower 1978; Peters et al. 2005; Peters, Alter, and Schwartzbach 2010; Saltmarsh and Hartley 2012). More recently, long-term public disinvestment in higher education and growing skepticism about science are undermining the capacity to create public value, regardless of who is being served. These complex legacies provide an important historical backdrop for considering recent campus efforts to infuse the land-grant ideal with the principles and values of public scholarship.

Around the world, the Davis campus is best known for its research, teaching, and extension activities in support of California agriculture. That work began in the early 1900s, when land along Putah Creek became the site of UC Berkeley’s University Farm. Historically, the land had been home to the Patwin band of the Wintun people, but these Native American residents saw their population decimated by a series of events, including smallpox and malaria brought by Spanish explorers and Russian fur traders, the taking of land that supported traditional food and material gathering, and forced relocation into Spanish missions. By the 1920s, no Patwin remained along the creek and the land was increasingly used for cattle, hogs, and sheep. Over the decades of the early twentieth century, Davis became known as a place where scientific research could be tested in practice and where farmers could gain practical instruction in the latest farming techniques and approaches. The Davis farm shared with the broader Progressive movement of that time a faith in science and rationality, but also an insistence that public higher education must serve broad public ends, rather than simply benefiting powerful private interests or students’ individual educational and economic advancement.

The land-grant tradition shifted but did not go away when Davis became a general campus of the University of California in 1959, expanding its academic programs beyond agriculture as part of a rapid expansion in public higher education nationwide, a response to post-war trends including growing middle-class prosperity and the threat posed by Russian scientific advances. Today, the public-service ethic remains a strong if somewhat fragile thread in the university’s life and work, even as the campus has grown tremendously in the size and diversity of its student body and faculty, in its stature as an internationally ranked academic institution, and in the highly interconnected range of problems it seeks to confront.

Contemporary questions about the proper purposes of the university were prefigured in the earliest debates over the Morrill Act of 1862, which along with the Hatch Act of 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 respectively created the land-grant university system, the Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Cooperative Extension service. The system was purposefully designed to expand higher education beyond its former role in supporting the classical education of elites, enabling access to a broader public, and emphasizing the application of learning to serve the practical needs of an industrializing society. But while a broad consensus supported the public-service commitment, important debates over the public university’s mission and purpose have always been present, reflecting broader social, economic, and political currents in society. Among many others that might be mentioned, the next few paragraphs describe a few examples of the types of tensions the university has navigated over time, many of which still resonate in contemporary conversations about engaged scholarship.

As land-grant universities began to be established, a divide surfaced between those favoring hands-on, practical training of farmers, and those arguing for a greater emphasis on scientific discovery and technique (Scheuring 2001, 7). Today, these debates continue between those emphasizing the priority of the scholarship of discovery, and those committed to the scholarship of application and integration (Boyer 1990). Among those favoring more applied work, historians note a further divide between scholars who prioritize the development and dissemination of technical knowledge, and those emphasizing the public work of building common values, social capital, and active civic engagement (Peters, Alter, and Schwartzbach 2010; Putnam 2000). An early dean of the College of Agriculture at Davis, Thomas Hunt, took sides in 1920: “The primary purpose of better farming is not necessarily cheap food, however important that may be; the primary purpose is a virile, educated citizenship” (420).

A focus on supporting rural communities animated early public-service activities at Davis, buttressing political support for the university even during the lean times of the Great Depression (Scheuring 2001, 215). But during the mid-twentieth century, as society urbanized and agriculture industrialized, many rural areas became marked by debilitating inequalities, and racial and class tensions. This was particularly true in the Great Central Valley of California, where small communities housing many farmworkers were among the poorest in the nation. Social science research linked poverty to patterns of large-scale agricultural development that were being promoted and supported by university research and extension (Goldschmidt 1947; Fujimoto 1977; Taylor, Martin, and Fix 1997). Over time, these patterns generated pressures to reexamine the university research agenda, which was also under assault from urban leaders whose constituents felt insufficiently acknowledged by university priorities.

The anti-war, farmworker, consumer, and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s posed major questions about UC Davis research priorities and what values and constituencies they served or did not serve. For the College of Agriculture, these led to major changes, including a new name (College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences), new programs and majors emphasizing environmental and social issues, increased efforts to support small farmers, farmworkers, and agricultural sustainability, and a growing recognition that science sometimes creates as many problems as it solves. A proliferation of campus centers and institutes aligned with distinct public constituencies, issues, and opportunities began to be a defining feature of the college and campus. In many, though certainly not all, cases, these centers and institutes became incubators of robust campus-community partnerships which continue today.

In the College of Letters and Sciences, ethnic studies programs were developed to address the histories, world views, and social circumstances of various disadvantaged groups, including the Native Americans who had been the original residents of the region. Many faculty—such as recognized campus treasure Isao Fujimoto—began to view the university as a platform to support movement organizing, deliberately taking the side of the “have nots” on key issues of the day and challenging established notions of professional neutrality, which many saw as a not-so-veiled way to support the status quo and the interests of the powerful. This often brought sharp rebukes from agricultural interests and university officials, illustrative of the tensions that accompany public scholarship amidst larger political debates.

Rapid growth in the state’s diversity in the past 30 years has raised questions about which populations can access and afford higher education. Today, a great deal of the campus’s public outreach involves activities to support access and affordability for students and initiatives to grow a more diverse faculty that better mirrors the state’s population. More than 40% of campus undergraduates are now first-generation college students, an indication that these efforts are succeeding in broadening access for students from lower-income communities. The presence of greater race and class diversity among students and faculty creates new voices within the institution and new opportunities to explore research, teaching, and extension engagement with a broader range of California communities.

Even while the land-grant ideal has led to important efforts to broaden the scope of who the university serves, the campus has faced a decades-long decline in public investment, reducing the resource base to support engaged scholarship and public-service activities. Indeed, it may be that the effort to incorporate new constituencies is related to political forces undermining university budgets. Ironically, many of the Central Valley agricultural counties that have benefited the most from university research and extension are among the most politically conservative areas of the state, often supporting candidates and fiscally conservative policies that erode the resources needed to sustain robust public institutions. Budget cuts force sharp trade-offs, therefore heightening the importance of debates over who the university should serve and how.

As a case in point, consider the recent decline in funding for the Cooperative Extension system in California. Cooperative Extension is the community education and engagement arm of all land-grant universities in the US, supported by the work of university academics on campus and in local community offices (traditionally one in each US county).1 In 1982, California Cooperative Extension employed 522 full-time campus Specialists and county Advisors. As of 2017, only 280 remain, an almost 50% decline in the system’s capacity to engage the public. Budget cuts have made it much more difficult to sustain productive long-term relationships with any of the traditional or newer public constituencies the university might serve. In addition, declining per-student support from the state legislature has made the entire university redirect its energy toward technology transfer efforts that align with the interests of industry and toward an increasing dependence on the pursuit of grants and contracts, eroding faculty time that might otherwise be devoted to public engagement. A 2015 survey of faculty in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences found that over 70% of respondents regularly engage and communicate with public audiences in planning and conducting their research, but only 29% feel rewarded for public engagement by the merit and promotion incentives, which they feel compel them to spend most of their time communicating with disciplinary colleagues and potential funders. Similarly, a campus-wide survey of faculty in 2017 found that one of the main barriers to publicly engaged research is that it is not valued in merit and promotion processes.2

Increasingly, questions are being raised about whether public service defined as traditional outreach, extension, or service learning is the right way to conceptualize the university’s relationship with the public. Over the past decade, many have long preferred the term “engagement” rather than “service” to describe bidirectional partnerships and collaborations where mutuality and reciprocity are the norm, and problems and solutions are carefully considered using multiple forms of technical and local knowledge (Janke and Colbeck 2008; Peters et al. 2005). These relationships are often described as transdisciplinary: inclusive of different theoretical traditions, disciplinary expertise, and, importantly, knowledge that is produced outside of the academy (McDaniels and Skogsberg 2017). The outcome of engagement activities is also conceived as knowledge that has relevance beyond the academy and includes impacts that inform, and often lead to, social action and policy change, among other forms of actionable knowledge (Saltmarsh 2017).

Calls to embrace engaged scholarship are resonating across higher education (Fitzgerald et al. 2012; Saltmarsh and Hartley 2012), propelled by a range of motivating factors. These include the need to attract and retain a more diverse faculty which better mirrors the state’s population, to improve experiential learning opportunities in ways that connect with a majority-minority student body, and the urgency to convince a skeptical public and public officials of the university’s public value, lest budgets be cut even further.

While efforts to bolster engaged scholarship at UC Davis extend back at least as far as the efforts during the 1960s and 1970s already mentioned, higher level campus visibility and administrative support took a step forward in the 1990s, when Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef was part of a group of land-grant university presidents and chancellors convened by the Kellogg Foundation for the purpose of reimagining and reinvigorating the land-grant ideal. The resulting report featured UC Davis as a case study (Kellogg Commission 1999), based on unique partnerships such as a five-year memorandum of understanding with four important state agencies: California Resources Agency (extended for a second five-year term), Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Food and Agriculture, and Youth Authority. These partnerships—which supported community-based projects—were developed and administered in the 1990s through the campus Public Service Research Program. Chancellor Vanderhoef and Provost Bob Grey also created one-time New Initiatives Reserves funding in 1996 that provided multiyear support for novel faculty initiatives in which community-engaged scholarship was a common theme. The Putah-Cache Bioregion project, for example, supported a diverse array of joint projects in environmental stewardship as well as eight or more Artists and Writers in Bioregional Residence each year.

Many promising initiatives at the university stalled during the decade from 2000 to 2010, as a series of severe budget cuts tied to the dot-com bust and the Great Recession led to dramatic declines in state appropriations. Among other impacts, faculty hiring slowed and administrative support levels were lowered, while at the same time the number of students being admitted was raised in an effort to use tuition dollars to replace declining state funding. As has been well documented, this pattern was repeated in many states, leading to, among other things, record levels of student debt across the nation. Under increasing fiscal pressure, more and more students combined work with school to deal with rising housing prices and food insecurity, among other stressors. Beyond campus, the foreclosure crisis was just one of many signs of rising inequality and social need, yet the university’s ability to respond was diminished, and its attention was primarily focused internally on tough budget cut decision making.

Although a black eye on the university’s public image, a 2011 incident in which campus police pepper-sprayed students during Occupy Wall Street movement activities increased pressure on the university to consider its public purposes and values. In one important response, Provost Ralph Hexter partnered with faculty to institute the Provost’s Forum on the Public University and the Social Good. Since 2012, the forum has brought to campus a wide range of speakers who have addressed multiple aspects of the university’s relationship to the broader society. At one of the 2013 events, which focused on how the university can best embody the land-grant tradition today, historian Scott Peters introduced campus leaders to Imagining America, which at the time he codirected. Scott secured the Provost’s commitment to send a team of UC Davis faculty to a summer training institute sponsored by Imagining America. The focus of the institute was on how faculty might return to their home institutions to push for administrative and academic changes that bolster engaged scholarship.

On returning to campus in the fall of 2013, that group joined with other faculty and staff with strong interests and experience in engaged scholarship to push for campus reforms. Calling themselves Communities and Scholars Engaged (CASE), they created a white paper to articulate the value of engaged scholarship to the campus and public and to identify specific steps the university might take to support this form of public work. One key concern involved the representation of engagement initiatives in higher-level administrative posts. For many years the university supported public engagement efforts through the office of University Outreach and International Programs, headed by Vice Provost Bill Lacy. In 2014, Chancellor Linda Katehi reorganized the office, creating a new Vice Provost for Global Affairs, but not addressing how public outreach and community-engagement functions might be administratively supported and managed. Concern over this oversight helped animate the CASE group, and the white paper they wrote eventually received a positive response from Provost Hexter. The Provost subsequently asked Dennis Pendleton, Dean Emeritus of UC Davis Extension, to conduct a national appraisal of engaged-scholarship activities and institutional support at other universities. At the Provost’s invitation, Pendleton chaired a broad-based campus committee, which issued a 2015 report titled Community-Engaged Scholarship at UC Davis: A Strategic Vision, documenting concrete and specific steps UC Davis could take to bolster engaged scholarship based on the best practices of other universities. Echoing the earlier CASE white paper, that committee report recommended the creation of a senior-level administrative office to support engaged scholarship. However, there was little support from the UC Davis Academic Senate, the governing body representing tenure and tenure-track faculty. This is despite the fact that at the beginning of 2015, UC Davis received the Community Engagement Classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and was also developing a proposal to serve as the host institution for Imagining America, which it successfully became the subsequent year. A major concern of the Academic Senate was the establishment of a centralized office that would be overseen by academic administrators instead of faculty. At the time, there was growing unease with the amount of university resources dedicated to executive administrators as well as distress about university leadership due to a number of scandal allegations reported by the media. Due to these and other factors as well as preparing for the arrival of Imagining America to UC Davis in 2017, there was a brief pause in determining what type of university-wide effort should be created to support public scholarship beyond what was already taking place until, in early 2017, the Office of the Provost appointed Michael Rios as faculty advisor and charged him with developing a strategic implementation plan.


The Current Climate of Engagement on Campus

Building from, but expanding upon, the 2015 Pendleton-led committee report, current engaged-scholarship efforts are focused on a campus and community stakeholder engagement process, charged with recommending an implementation framework by December 2018. Led by the Office of the Provost, Imagining America, the Center for Regional Change, and a growing number of other campus collaborators, a participatory and collaborative design process is being used to learn from diverse campus stakeholders. In addition, the process features outreach to existing and potential community collaborators from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in order to identify opportunities for deepening engagement at UC Davis.

The framework guiding current planning includes four phases: 1. listening to different communities of interest including faculty, students, staff, and non-university stakeholders; 2. sharing what is learned from these communities in formats that are legible and responsive to these different stakeholders; 3. aligning broad goals and strategies with specific interests, assets, and capacities; and 4. collaborating internally and externally to design, prototype, and implement specific programs and projects. Given past concerns among faculty about top-down and administrator-driven initiatives, an orientation toward a bottoms-up approach is a defining characteristic of existing and planned activities. In addition, the process is designed to address the apprehension expressed by nonuniversity stakeholders about the difficulties in working with UC Davis in the past.

In the current phase of listening, attention is being paid to understanding faculty perspectives and exploring institutional mechanisms to address their concerns. Beginning in the fall of 2017, baseline data was collected through a university-wide survey that was sent out to over 7,000 individuals holding academic titles in the Academic Senate and Academic Federation. In addition, over 50 in-depth faculty interviews were conducted. These sources confirmed a common perception of the importance of UC Davis as a land-grant institution that serves the public. The findings also revealed perceptions and attitudes concerning the current climate of UC Davis, including a number of structural and institutional issues. Among the salient issues are a personal feeling of isolation due to disciplinary and college/school affiliations; an insular and limited sense of impact and reach; and differences about what constitutes “engagement”—for whom, and for what purpose. An overarching theme is the tension between the university’s role as an “engine of engagement” while dealing with a highly fragmented environment in which to support meaningful engaged research and teaching.

As is the case at other universities, one of the main barriers to practicing engaged forms of research is “time”; many individuals already feel stretched between competing goals and priorities. This is exacerbated by the institution’s increasing focus on having faculty secure large-scale and externally funded grants, and by an increasing sense of faculty having to take responsibility for administrative tasks that were once relegated to staff. Thus, time is viewed as a resource to protect and one that faculty are reluctant to relinquish without proper reward and incentive structures. A number of faculty identified tensions between publicly engaged research, the existing reward system, and the lack of institutional support mechanisms. In reflecting about where faculty spend their time, the institutional culture of UC Davis, and ways to value public scholarship, one faculty member interviewed during the listening phase responded:

That’s a really good question. Where is the time that you spend usefully? I mean, I think meetings are not a very good use of my time, and I think most faculty are probably asked to do more university service and committee work than is really feasible . . . I’m going to flip your question on its head and say: “How would we fix that problem?” I think we incentivize faculty to do things in a lot of ways, and we incentivize them with money, and we also incentivize them with their time and how they move through the merit and promotion system. . . . If you really wanted to reward faculty who were doing a lot of [public scholarship] or even incentivize faculty to do more of it, then you actually have to build that in to the culture of incentives at a university. (Interview with Professor, College of Letters and Science)

There is a perception that narrowly defined criteria of merit and promotion provide few rewards for this work, echoing previous studies about the lack of institutional incentives for public scholarship (Frank et al. 2010; Kennedy et al. 2009; Vuong et al. 2017). Institutional norms are reinforced through practices and behaviors carried out by individuals, their mentors, and departments that police the boundaries of what constitutes time well spent. Many of the faculty committed to engaged research, teaching, and scholarship do this work on their own time because they feel it is important, not because they believe they will be rewarded (Jaeger, Jameson, and Clayton 2012). For example, knowing that she would not secure tenure in one UC Davis department, one faculty member decided to switch to another program to continue work outside of the constraints of disciplinary norms. In reflecting on that moment, she recalls:

For me, anything that is competitive is not okay. I try to make a really collaborative space, so I'm not going to pit one student against the other. For me, I focus all of my classes on inequities. . . .They [the previous department] don't understand the kind of subject and community that I'm working with, but I wasn't going to change the kind of work I do or how I do it, and I wasn't going to make excuses. (Interview with Associate Professor, College of Letters and Science)

A commitment to the land-grant mission and to serving different publics is a related motivation among many of the faculty interviewed. A faculty member in the School of Medicine echoes this sentiment:

I think that the mission of the university, in terms of research, education, and service is, being a land-grant public institution, that we are to serve the [public]. And serving means not only through education, but also through service and through reaching out to communities and try to help make things better for, in my case, underserved communities. (Interview with Professor, School of Medicine)

Despite the existence of many committed faculty at both the Davis and Sacramento campuses, public scholarship remains on the periphery of most organized research at UC Davis. This is reinforced through the ways in which research and disciplinary communities are organized, as well as the ways in which resources are structured and allocated for scholarly pursuits. The decentralized nature of the campus fueled by the competitive environment of a Research I university has produced enclaves that exist within the confines of colleges and schools, which does little to promote collaborations across these units. Further boundaries exist between the STEM fields, social sciences, arts, design, and the humanities.

One area of organized research that supports cross-disciplinary collaborations at UC Davis are the many centers and institutes that can be found in every college and school. An example is the Center for Regional Change (CRC) that facilitates community-based and policy-relevant research collaborations across the physical sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. Despite the CRC’s success, the institutional infrastructure provides relatively thin support for helping the many publicly engaged, but physically decentered, centers and institutes to share and disseminate knowledge across different learning communities in a collaborative manner. A related impediment is a sense of physical isolation reinforced by the Yolo Bypass that divides Davis from Sacramento, which is emblematic of the cognitive separation that exists between UC Davis and its surrounding region, especially the School of Medicine and the City of Sacramento. This perception exists despite the fact that in the 2017 public-engagement survey, Sacramento ranked highest among the regions where individual faculty undertake publicly engaged research and/or teaching.

The aforementioned issues create an institutional context that poses challenges to successfully implementing a university-wide public scholarship agenda. In addition, varying perceptions exist of what constitutes “engagement,” a term used for different purposes that varies across disciplines. The many (and often divergent) meanings of engagement make it difficult to ascertain identifiable benefits and impacts. For example, a number of faculty subscribe to a robust conception of engagement as contributing to the primary goal of a land-grant institution, whereas others view engagement as “outreach” and treat it as a pro forma activity that faculty do as part of service expectations: e.g., communicating research to nonacademic and non-policy-making audiences. Individuals that view engagement as critical to knowledge production see the importance of public scholarship as an important way to problematize the dominant discourse of science at UC Davis:

We think that the scientists are going to save us, that all these answers to climate change are in the hands of climate scientists and innovators of technology and I argue they're in the hands of everybody, and we have to empower everybody to feel that way. And so that's what engaged scholarship allows us to do. Engage everybody in helping us solve these problems. I really think that they're socio-ecological problems. (Interview with Associate Professor, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences)
Part of it is taking science outside of the ivory tower, but it's also getting some mud on the ivory tower, too. You know, it's a two-way interaction. Muddy boots. The conversation is closed if you come at it with a holier-than-thou, you know, “trust me, I'm a doctor, I'm a scientist. . . .” [T]hey define themselves in many ways by what they do on the land: whether it's farmers, whether it's hunters, whether it's bird watchers. It's a very, very passionate group and they have strong ideas. And so, being willing to listen, and not come at them with ideas, but go to them for their ideas and also then be able to build up trust. . . . So yeah, being willing to listen and being willing to engage. I think a lot of academics don't want to do it. It's like, “Oh, you know, I'm not gonna sully myself for that.” (Interview with Professor, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences)

Barriers to deepening engagement also remain, especially within the ways scholarly pursuits are institutionally organized. There is a belief among some faculty that university leadership will support only particular kinds of engagement, which reach larger audiences or generate significant revenue. Therefore, it is not surprising that guarded optimism exists as to whether the necessary investments will be made to change the current system of rewards and incentives. This sentiment was pointedly articulated by a faculty member deeply committed to decolonizing practices:

Hopefully, initiatives like this will continue to support those practices that don't just simply try to tokenize community or to enclose these practices around fixed forms that are legible within the very kind of hierarchical research programs that exist here and will really support voices that are a little more insurgent. (Associate Professor, College of Letters and Sciences)

Despite these concerns, many faculty are hopeful that an opportunity exists at this juncture to deepen the discussion about engagement as a result of the number of related investments by the Office of the Provost.


Moving Forward

Emerging from the current listening phase is the Engaged Scholarship and Engaged Learning (ESEL) Collaborative—a growing number of individuals, centers, and programs that are joining forces to respond to many of the issues raised by faculty. Each member of the ESEL Collaborative contributes in ways that draw from their unique strengths toward a common goal to change the institutional culture in ways that elevate and support public scholarship and community engagement. For example, one member of the ESEL Collaborative, the Center for Regional Change, is working with state, regional, and local groups to develop feedback mechanisms appropriate to this diverse group of nonuniversity constituents that also includes a number of activists in the arts and design fields. In addition to one-on-one meetings, outreach also includes a series of co-convened workshops and focus groups. Thus far, over 100 individuals representing 60 state, regional, and local organizations, agencies, and community groups have participated in these discussions. Through these discussions, a number of broad themes across this diverse constituency are beginning to emerge. Individuals identified positive experiences built on personal relationships with faculty as well as a select number of centers that are already active and meaningfully engaged. Most view UC Davis as an untapped resource. They have a desire for long-term and sustainable partnerships as well as reciprocal relationships that leverage the university’s reputation while recognizing knowledge outside the academy. Related to these perspectives are a number of more critical observations that the university will need to address in order to build a culture of engagement outside of the confines of the Davis and Sacramento campuses. The perception of the institution as a large and impenetrable bureaucracy with unclear entry points to explore collaborations with UC Davis faculty, and a lack of commitment and investment in surrounding communities, especially low-income municipalities and neighborhoods, are some of the major concerns expressed by nonuniversity stakeholders. Whether the aforementioned issues suggest that the university should play a leadership role rather than a collaborative and supportive one remains an open question, but will need to be addressed as part of future deliberations.3

The results of ongoing conversations with community stakeholders, faculty, and eventually students will be shared at a number of large convenings, beginning in the fall of 2018, followed by an aligning phase where a list of draft goals and objectives, potential engagement activities, and organizational alternatives will be discussed. Also beginning in the fall, a collaborating phase will commence, where working groups will be organized and tasked to prototype and refine one of a number of project ideas. It is anticipated that specific projects will respond to emerging themes including faculty and student development, communication and coordination, awards and grant-making, merit and promotion, and facilities development. During the prototyping work, a series of mobile workshops will be organized to present preliminary ideas for further feedback. The audiences for the mobile workshops will be campus stakeholders convened earlier in the year as well as campus leadership, student groups, and nonuniversity community stakeholders. The results of the prototyping and mobile workshops will then be incorporated into a Final Implementation Framework and presented at a community and university summit planned for the spring of 2019.

While the end product will focus on an actionable plan to make significant investments in engaged scholarship and learning, equally important is connecting, supporting, and enlarging the community of interest to support engaged scholarship at UC Davis. Therefore, an overarching goal is to create both an internally and externally facing “culture of engagement” that elevates the visibility and impact of public scholarship. As mentioned, a growing number of groups have joined the ESEL Collaborative and are pulling together their resources to conduct outreach and engage different communities of interest. For example, Imagining America is helping to organize a series of Around the Kitchen Table conversations at the homes of UC Davis faculty. Around the Kitchen Table is a space for faculty to share dinner, drinks, and conversation followed by a facilitated story circle about the participants’ experiences, prompted by the themes that surfaced during faculty interviews. The aim is to create a space for personal relationships to develop and build a visible and supportive community of publicly engaged scholars across different disciplines. Preliminary discussions have also begun with other potential collaborators, including the UC Davis Arboretum (featured in this issue) as well as support units on campus such as the Office of Research and the University Library.



As the UC Davis campus continues to embrace and interpret its historic land-grant legacy, it will need to address tensions over that legacy’s contemporary meaning while dealing with the institutional pressures that have accompanied public disinvestment and the increasing privatization of higher education. Many old questions resurface in this new environment: Is the pursuit of economic efficiency guided by scientific advances the primary purpose of the university, or should we be guided by a broader conception of pursuing the public good? In reaching beyond the university, do we look primarily to the already well-off or do we have a special mission to serve those who are struggling economically, socially, and politically? Is our academic expertise the answer to social problems, or are we part of a broader conversation in which we have as much to learn from others as they do from us?

At an institutional crossroads, a convergence of timely opportunities at UC Davis has come into sharp relief against the backdrop of these and other questions. Most pressing are factors shaping the lived experiences of the university’s majority-minority student population that reflect the face of California today. Questions of cost and access, rising inequality, and an institutional landscape of diminishing resources cannot be ignored. Given these concerns, a robust and institutionally supported public scholarship and community-engagement agenda can bring relevance to, and renew, the civic purpose of UC Davis to serve the public good. Embarking on an ambitious participatory decision-making process coupled with the arrival of Imagining America has created a space to reflect on, but also imagine the possibilities for, the land-grant mission of UC Davis. However, it will take some time to come together as a public to consider the right path forward. Regardless of what emerges in the next few years, there is much to be done in removing barriers and creating incentives for the campus community to fully embrace public scholarship beyond a committed core of individuals that will continue to do this work, notwithstanding the aforementioned concerns. A new system of rewards and recognition; far greater coordination and communication across disciplines, learning communities, and the public at large; and institutional support structures to facilitate meaningful collaborations with nonuniversity groups are some milestones along this journey. At stake is the future of the land-grant legacy and the civic mission of the university, and it is clear that only a long-term strategy will suffice. Democratizing the institution from the inside out is a viable path to realizing a culture of engagement at UC Davis.


We would like to dedicate this article to Susan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, UC Davis, who shared her stories of public engagement as part of the listening phase of this project. In her tenure as director of the Bodega Marine Laboratory, Susan partnered with local grade schools to connect the Bodega lab with the community and foster greater diversity in the sciences. In Susan’s own words, “When I think back over what we did together with the public and what's happened to the graduate students and these high school and middle school students, it's probably one of the most important things that I've done in my career.” (Unpublished interview by Hannah Adamy, November 30, 2017)



1 The Cooperative Extension Service is a nonformal educational program funded by the US Department of Agriculture and is delivered through land-grant universities. Research-based knowledge is provided to rural, suburban, and urban communities through a series of programmatic foci including agriculture and the environment, health, youth and families, and community and economic development, among other areas. More recently, its programs have expanded to include the creative and performing arts.

2 A public-engagement survey was conducted in 2017 to collect baseline information from individuals holding academic titles in the Academic Senate and Academic Federation. The survey results provided information related to the types of research and teaching activities being conducted, forms of community engagement, as well as barriers and ways to support these activities in the future.

3 UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May made an announcement in April 2018 to create Aggie Square, a multimillion-dollar commitment to build a high-tech and innovation hub in the Oak Park neighborhood in Sacramento. As of this writing, it was unclear how this proposed university investment would directly benefit the community beyond broad goals of workforce development and job training. Nor were there any discussions with faculty that already collaborate with many area organizations. It is worth noting that Oak Park is the city’s historically black and African American neighborhood that has experienced gentrification and displacement in recent years.


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