In this current era of increased accountability and scrutiny surrounding higher education, there has been a great deal of questioning of the usefulness of higher education, particularly the liberal arts. Governor Scott Walker’s attack on higher education in Wisconsin, and an increased push by businesspeople and politicians for colleges and universities to display a return on investment, has placed increased pressure on academia to prove its value to society. While some of these arguments are illogical, it is safe to say that academics have found themselves in a battle that more than likely will not subside anytime soon.
As academics (and, in my case, aspiring academics), we find ourselves in a very unique position in terms of ability and change that we can affect. After years and years of studying pertinent issues and concepts, through rigorous research methods that require us to validate, substantiate, and triangulate our findings, we approach the brink of expertise in our respective fields. We have become the philosophical authority on a number of topics. It is standard in academia to use this hard earned knowledge and status to advance our agenda and employment status within the ivory tower. The desire for tenure, job security, peer recognition, promotion, and increased income is unmistakable. While there is no knock on these desires, it is evident that the seriousness of today’s times requires us as experts to use our professional expertise in useful ways outside of our towers.
Many of the issues we face today in education, the economy, leadership, race relations, etc., could benefit tremendously from tangible, grassroots assistance that we could provide. For example, there are a number of K-12 school districts that struggle yearly with devising adequate and relevant curriculum for its students. At the same time, there are numerous curriculum and instruction scholars at nearby schools of education who have studied and done work around this issue for years. Imagine the benefit to a community if these university professors would open community Saturday schools for K-12 teachers and administrators who need insight and improvement on curriculum development. The theory of university professors can meet the practice of K-12 teachers to help produce a more valuable educational experience students.
Another example is the unavoidable issues in recent months surrounding police and communities of color. Sociologists who have covered related issues for decades can facilitate community projects that allow scholars to convene with citizens and explain actions that can be taken, if any, to avoid negative encounters with the police. Putting the entire burden on the citizens certainly isn’t the answer, but I honestly feel academics would be more successful in reaching community residents than they would police. We could explore the idea of political scientists advising politicians, business professors working with small business owners in their neighborhoods, African American Studies professors holding evening seminars in the Black community on issues relevant to African American life, leadership scholars conducting leadership training for community organizations. The possibilities are endless.
Through these activities we can provide leadership in our communities that is transformational. Defined as the process of encouraging constituents to achieve more than what is expected of them, transformational community leadership provided by academics can influence communities to address their most significant challenges in ways in which community members had not previously conceived (Northouse, 2013). By being professors and higher education professionals who do not hesitate to step outside of the elite institutions in which they work, and lend their expertise in ways that are meaningful to the community, citizens can become inspired by this work. Evening seminars on African American issues can not only provide adequate and sufficient ways of addressing issues but it may also stimulate thinking and inspiration in a child or young adult and possibly produce a future Ph.D. recipient. Communities that were once filled with hopelessness can begin to look to their educated, established comrades for leadership that can inspire change that at one time was unimaginable. Our knowledge, expertise, and commitment can be a precursor to transforming our communities in discernable ways.
Essentially, what I am advocating is for more academics to seek to be public intellectuals. The 21st century connotation of that term usually implies an articulate scholar from a noted institution that is featured on the standard Sunday morning talk shows or who gives paid lectures to large audiences around the country. We tend to equate public intellectual with someone who is famous. Fame is not what I mean when I use this term. A public intellectual who is a transformational community leader is someone who uses his/her proficiency in a given field to engage the public and improve the day-to-day lives of the people in the community. These are scholars who are willing to give devote their energies and talent to those who may never enter the halls of academia. From their work and thinking, these scholars can push the people in their communities to begin the path achieving more than they ever thought possible.
It is understood that this sort of work falls under the “service” category of academic institutional responsibility, and it is no secret that it is the least desired of the evaluated triad (publications, teaching, and service). But I believe that we are living in a time where creative approaches are necessary to meet the challenges we as a nation face. Academics are needed in our communities for leadership and direction. This is especially true in communities of color where doctorate holders are few and far between. In many Black and Brown communities, our scholars have become content with studying and writing about the problems rather than finding tangible ways to address these issues and affect change. There are many scholars, of all colors, who have incomparable national recognition for their work but who are unknown to the people on the block of which they live. The societal value of what we do as scholars can be amplified simply by using what we know and study to become visible leaders in our community. By providing our expertise within the ivory tower and expert leadership in our neighboring communities, our value and worth as professionals will be indisputable.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SagePublications, Inc.