Perceptions on the public effectiveness of university knowledge production

By Alice Fleerackers and Carina Albrecht

“To whom are higher education organizations accountable?” — Alperin et al. (in press)

Are universities accountable to their students? To their communities? To their governments? To humankind? Who represents the public’s interests when it comes to evaluating these so-called “public” institutions?

We found ourselves asking these questions when participating in a university course called “Making Knowledge Public” at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. During the course, we discussed the challenges and opportunities of connecting universities with their communities, touching on everything from citizen science and open access publishing to Indigenous research collaboration and public policy.

But although our readings and lectures gave us a strong understanding of the benefits, hurdles, and strategies involved in publicly engaged scholarship, a crucial piece seemed to be missing from the picture: Who, actually, is “the public”? And how do they feel about the role of universities in society? In the conversation around public scholarship, we felt we were hearing only scholars’ voices, and none of the public’s.

To try to remedy this imbalance, we reached out to members of the public and professors in our community and asked them about their perceptions on university knowledge production. We created two simple open-ended surveys — one for the public, one for professors — to capture how these groups think about the university and its role in the community.

In the first, we asked members of the public — i.e. people who did not identify as university faculty — whether they felt universities should be accountable to them in any form, and if they felt capable of contributing to the university themselves. We received an overwhelming number of responses: 79 members of the public completed the survey in just 5 days!

We elaborated a second set of questions for the professors, questions that would make them think about the importance of their work for the public and their relationship to the community. We could only collect 21 responses in this category over 10 days. Although many professors we spoke with were warm and supportive, a large portion were either unavailable or simply too busy to help. This was disappointing, but perhaps also unsurprising, given that many faculty work upwards of 60 hours per week and often do not have enough time to spend with their own families.

So what did we learn about university knowledge production? Here's what we found…

This was not by any means a “scientific experiment”, only an exercise to get a sense of people’s opinions.

People feel they have the right to access university knowledge

More than 80% of people we spoke with felt they had a right to access the knowledge produced at universities. Why? Money was by far the most popular reason. In Canada, public universities are funded in large part by the public, either through taxes or tuition payments. The idea that, if we pay for it, we own it, came up in many of the responses — reflecting one common argument in favour of making all research Open Access (OA) or freely available to all. As OA advocacy group SPARC puts it on their website, “Though research is produced as a public good, it isn’t available to the public who paid for it.” It was interesting to see this sentiment expressed by taxpayers themselves, in their own words.

“Yes. First, because there is a lot of public money that has been invested in many universities. And second, what is the point of producing knowledge if it is not going to be shared with the general public?” — Renato Pereira

But other reasons why university knowledge should be public came up too. When people answered this question, many expressed a general feeling that knowledge is a basic human right and that society would benefit from more people having access to it. Again, the public’s perspectives overlapped with those of OA advocates, like John Willinsky, who have argued that access to knowledge is a basic human right.

“Knowledge should not be reserved for the academic elite, this is knowledge that is best used to help the populations putting those theories into practice, or being affected by the phenomena/histories that are being explored and addressed at universities.” — Anaheed Saatchi
“(…) one purpose of universities is for the betterment of society and if that knowledge/research was only to remain on the campus, that objective would not be met.” — Anonymous

Knowing that people in Canada still view knowledge as a “public good” — that is, as something “non-excludable and non-rivalrous, supported by all for the benefit of all” — is very comforting, particularly when our neighbours in the South seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

Finally, people viewed access to university knowledge as a matter of transparency and way of guaranteeing democratic values. In an era where “fake news” is in everyone’s mind, having access to evidence produced by knowledgeable people was seen as an important tool for “baloney detection”!

“Keeping important knowledge in the hands of an elite is not only unfair but dangerous, as this prevents the public from verifying statements made by politicians, governments, the media, or groups or individuals intent on disseminating falsehoods in order to further their own agendas.” — Kris Fleerackers

Universities are essential to daily life

Almost 80% of people we spoke with felt that universities influenced them directly in some way. The forms that influence took varied from person to person, but a common theme that emerged was the economic impact of higher education. For example, many people saw universities as providing important personal benefits, including networking, career growth, and immigration opportunities, as well as drawbacks, such as student debt. On a societal level, people noted that higher education can help generate new jobs and industry breakthroughs.

“They bring a youthful energy to a community in so many ways and act as important cultural hubs through the immigration opportunities they offer.” — Anonymous

People also felt that universities played an important intellectual role in society. Many saw these institutions as “intellectual benchmarks” for the community, essential to shaping public opinion and public policy, and producing so-called “public intellectuals” — knowledgeable citizens who can bridge the gap between experts and the greater community. On an individual level, universities were seen as encouraging critical thinking and personal development through public lectures, forums, and workshops.

“Universities continue to impact my life as structures that I look to as a model of progress within our community… I consider universities to be the intellectual benchmark to which the rest of our community should measure itself.” — Sarah Corsie

Finally, many people felt that there were immediate community benefits of universities, such as access to gyms, libraries, and other public facilities. Activist partnerships between students and outside organizations were seen as another way in which universities and their communities could engage directly.

Citizens can contribute to university research

A majority of people, about three quarters of those we asked, felt they could contribute to academic research in some way. Participating in studies as a subject or data source was one of the most commonly mentioned forms that contribution could take. But people also noted several other ways of getting involved, including volunteering as a researcher or collaborator; building research partnerships between community organizations and academics; and providing feedback, new knowledge, or different perspectives by sharing their lived experiences with researchers.

“[I could contribute] by adding important knowledge and insights from lived, practical experience, and also speaking to certain assumptions or interpretations that may not match such lived experience or what is observed beyond the academy.” — Anonymous

Yet, despite a general feeling that it would be possible to contribute to university research, many respondents were unsure how to do so. In some cases, poor marketing was seen as a barrier to participation. For example, several people felt unclear about where to find research opportunities, and noted that calls for participants seldom make it beyond university walls and into the community. Others expressed a general sense of exclusion from the university, and felt that “if you want to contribute at a university either enroll or get a job there.”

“I would like to [participate] as a citizen, but the barriers to entry are often prohibitive. Unless researchers go out of their way to market to those outside the university, the path to contributing to research done at universities is unclear at best and discouraged or disallowed at worst.” — Erik Hanson
Photo by Tra Nguyen on Unsplash

Academics’ sense of public responsibility mirrors traditional roles

When it came to the professors, most people we spoke with saw their responsibility to the public as falling into one of three main categories: education, research, or civic engagement. Although the way individual professors thought about their responsibilities varied widely, it was interesting to see how closely these broad categories mapped onto the traditional academic “trifecta” of teaching, research, and service — the three categories outlined in the review, promotion, and tenure guidelines with which faculty performance is assessed.

Importantly, many of the education-related responses were student-focused, rather than public-focused. That is, a large portion of the professors we spoke with seemed to prioritize their responsibility to their students over any teaching outside of the university. Importantly, teaching within the greater community was mentioned in many of the responses, but often only as a secondary responsibility (after traditional teaching).

“As in, not to my students, but to the public at large? I think of my responsibilities as being to my students, to provide the tools, experiences, [and] histories they’ve enrolled to gain.” — Anonymous

When it came to research, many professors emphasized the importance of ethics and societal impact. For example, Dr. Jean McLean, a lecturer in SFU’s education department, felt she had a responsibility “To be engaged with issues that matter to the local and global community [and] to do research that impacts actual people.”

The third category, civic engagement, seemed to be the least clearly defined. People felt that they had a duty to the greater community, but had difficulty expressing what that duty looked like in concrete terms. Responses included things like engaging in “big picture thinking,” “challenging the status quo,” “creating culture,” and “providing context.”

The public can contribute to research — but how?

Similar to what we heard from the public itself, more than 85% of professors felt that the public could contribute to their research in some way. But just as with the public, what that contribution might look like varied widely.

Many professors saw volunteering for research studies as a primary way for the public to get involved in their work, mirroring what we heard from members of the public themselves. “I can’t do research without the public’s contributions,” one professor told us, “They are the people who answer surveys, get interviewed, get observed, etc.”

Others felt that the public could play an important role in shaping their research questions. For example, one professor said they used public meetings and public radio as inspiration for future projects. By understanding the concerns of the greater community, they felt they could identify key knowledge gaps and points of interest that could be investigated further.

Public participation through citizen science — in which the public contributes to forming research questions and methods, collecting or analyzing data, or interpreting results — was another popular theme that emerged. For example, Dr. Vance Williams, an associate professor and associate chair in SFU’s chemistry department, saw “citizen science as an important, emerging area.” He added that “there are no obvious ways to implement it for chemists” but did feel it could have significant benefits within other disciplines, by helping scientists interpret their results, decide on research questions, and keep the betterment of humanity in mind when conducting their work.

“I’m not sure if I’d confidently say this is the case with ALL research, but my research — which addresses issues of cultural production, fan cultures, feminism, anti-racism, reading histories, etc. — is full of areas that non-academics often have expertise in and can contribute valuable perspectives to.” — Dr. Hannah McGregor

Finally, a substantial portion of professors felt confident that the public could contribute to research, but were unsure what that would look like. As one person put it, the question of how the public could contribute to research was hard to answer “except in big hand-wavey ways.” Another felt that “people might have [an] insight [or] perspective not yet explored” and that they “might become part of the research” but did not explain how. Again, academics’ opinions seemed to align with the public’s: both felt strongly that publicly engaged research was possible and beneficial, but were uncertain about how to implement it.

The “public” are non-academics and non-experts

Finally, we wanted to understand: who are professors referring to when they speak of the “public”? Are they thinking of students? Academics? “Ordinary” citizens? Or someone else entirely?

Consistent with previous research addressing this question, a majority of the academics we spoke with viewed the public as an “other” and, often, a “non-scientific other”. That is, they saw the public as being comprised of people not affiliated with the university and not already familiar with their research. This envisioning of the public aligns well with the so-called deficit model of science communication, in which members of the public are seen as passive recipients of academic expertise, rather than active contributors or co-creators of knowledge.

“[I see] the ‘general public’ [as] people who deserve to know what we do as scientists and to whom we can contribute by answering questions.” — Dr. Pedro Dias

When defining the public, several professors also mentioned specific demographic qualifiers such as age, education level, geographic location, or language. For example, one person saw the public as “Anyone of reading age who isn’t a specialist in my field,” while another felt the public was comprised of “Canadians, humans in anglophone countries.”

A third subset of professors felt that the idea of a single public was flawed. For example, Dr. Hannah McGregor, an assistant professor in SFU’s publishing program, viewed the term public as “baggy” and preferred to think instead of “specific publics” — groups of people with specific characteristics.

Finally, a fourth group of professors held a broad-sweeping view of the public, representing all people regardless of age, background, or expertise. Although no professor specifically stated so in their definition, this more inclusive view left open the possibility that academics could themselves be part of the public.

“People in our communities: local, national, and global. The people we share this earth with.” — Dr. Jan Maclean
Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

Our Conclusions

“Even with the best of intentions to engage, we often failed to recognize and cultivate the voices of the diverse talent who are among the most valuable assets of our urban cores.” — Cantor, Englot, & Higgins (2013)

As Open Education advocate and professor Robin DeRosa puts it, “a ‘public good’ is not easy to qualify; and hell, it’s even harder to quantify.” Nothing could be truer when it comes to evaluating the role of universities in public life. The vast diversity of perspectives we collected from both professors and members of the public made it clear that there is no one simple way to define the “ideal” relationship between a university and its community(ies). Rather, the potential benefits of public scholarship and the forms it might take are wide-ranging and varied — capable of effecting change in many personal, societal, and global ways.

At the same time, this exercise showed us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to public scholarship. Many professors seemed to perceive the importance of their work as resting within the university walls: centred on imparting knowledge to their students and taking the lead in developing research questions, rather than engaging with the public as peers. Meanwhile, and perhaps as a result, a large portion of the public said they felt excluded from university life, noting that access to these institutions appeared to be reserved for students, faculty, and other elite.

Finally, although both the professors and the public expressed support for community-university collaborations and public access to knowledge, most were unsure of how to transform these lofty ideals into realities. This may, in part, be due to a lack of clearly defined criteria for identifying what “public scholarship” looks like. But it could also be a simple question of resources. As we note above, many professors did not feel they had the time to answer our 5-min survey; how, then, should they be expected to find the time to foster meaningful, lasting relationships with members of their communities? Whatever the reason, the image of the “ivory tower” of academia seems to persist in people’s minds, casting a long shadow over the way we think about public scholarship.

But although we are unable to identify a single, clear vision of what a university’s public responsibilities should include — or a strategy for making that vision a reality — we can say with confidence that this question matters. While by no means representative of the views of all people, the overwhelming number of thoughtful responses we received from members of our community showed us that the public aspects of university knowledge production are very present in the public’s mind. Almost everyone we spoke with recognized the presence of the university in their lives in some way and felt that they had a right to access and participate in the knowledge produced there. Professors were enthusiastic about initiatives like citizen science and community partnerships, and most felt accountable to the public in some way.

There may still be a lot of work to do, but as long as publics and universities feel prepared to tackle these challenges together, progress feels not only possible but inevitable. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick so eloquently puts it, “it is our mission, and our responsibility, to look beyond our own walls to the world beyond, to enlarge the gifts that we have received by passing them on to other.”

If you would like to look at the responses in more detail, they are posted here.