NBS logo

What to Expect When You’re Engaging: Tips for Academic Outreach

How can academics engage effectively in public and political discourse? At a 2015 conference, experts described how and why academics should reach out.

How can academics engage effectively in public and political discourse? The University of Michigan sought to answer that question with a three-day conference in mid-May. More than 45 speakers, including four university presidents, gathered to make the case for engagement and identify effective approaches.

The conference emerged from 18 months of cross-campus discussion at the University of Michigan. Andy Hoffman, a conference co-organizer, sees insights continuing to emerge, through the Conference Output Report due this summer and beyond. “Engagement is one of the paramount challenges of our generation of academics,” he said. “We need to help each other figure out how to do it in a way that benefits our scholarship, our institutions and our society.” Here are take-homes to consider in your own engagement efforts. “First Things First” identifies considerations as you prepare to engage. “Ready, Set, Go” takes you into action.

First Things First

1. Decide why to engage

Conference participants offered different rationales for engagement:

  • Academia has wisdom to provide. Universities have a mandate to “inform the population beyond the student body,” said Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia.

  • Academia must show its value to ensure societal support. In a tight funding environment, said University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel, universities that fail to help society may face “pitchforks outside the door.”

  • Engagement enriches scholarship. Listening and learning can benefit academic pedagogy, research framing, and other areas, said Ryan Meyer of the California Ocean Science Trust. Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University pointed to the “insight that only comes from talking with people who don’t accept our assumptions.”

2. Choose your engagement model

Participants described two standard models for academic outreach, and recommended the second for maximum impact:

  • “Sage on the stage.” Traditionally outreach has involved academics descending from the Ivory Tower to impart wisdom: “The old pedagogy was that the guy with the chalk has the answers,” said Brian Baird, former president of Antioch University Seattle. Often, said Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin, such engagement is framed as “correcting people who are wrong.” But simply providing people with facts won’t change their minds, said Scheufele. Decision making is complex: “The knowledge deficit model…is over, period.”

  • Collaborative engagement. Alternatively, academics can work with diverse others — organized groups, citizens — to address shared challenges. Collaboration has two advantages. First, it’s more likely to result in change. The goal is to “convince people who think differently that shared action is possible,” said Robert Pielke Jr., University of Colorado. Second, it can produce great insights, as people from different backgrounds share information.

3. Consider your career

Promotion and tenure committees rarely value engagement, noted conference participants, so such activities can seem perilous especially for junior faculty. Most academic institutions are conservative and change slowly, said conference participants. “For all the talk about how liberal universities are, [they are] conservative when it comes to tenure,” said Sullivan. “I don’t see the time when your collection of tweets” counts toward tenure. Disciplines vary in their acceptance of faculty engagement efforts. For example, people often think that business school faculty work closely with business, said Alison Davis-Blake, Dean of the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. In fact, she said: “Business school academics are not in bed with business; they are not even in the room sometimes.” Engagement can also result in negative external responses, especially on controversial issues. Researchers on climate topics have faced harsh criticism and demands to turn over their email. Think of engagement as a long-term commitment. “If you put yourself out there, there will be backlash,” said Nancy Baron of COMPASS, a science communication organization. But she has found that most engaged scholars ultimately have few regrets.

Ready, Set, Go

1. Follow these guidelines

Speakers offered specific tips for effective communication:

  • Understand the audience and their interests. To ensure a better reception, academics should focus on what about their research is of interest to people, said Amy Schalet of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; researchers should seek to support the audience’s goals. Schalet framed this approach as: “How can I help you [the audience] do something you want to do better.”

  • Experiment with different media. “Writing is not ‘it’ anymore,” said Paul Edwards, University of Michigan, who recommended using video. Data visualization is also valuable, said Rachel Cleetus, Union of Concerned Scientists.

  • Be clear and succinct. Scientists need a “2 minute version of what we did, how and why,” said Baird. Barbara KlinePope, communications director at the National Academy of Sciences, said that in her work with scientists, “I rarely see 60-word slides any more, but technical charts keep reappearing.” Scientists can be clear while still communicating complexity, said Dan Sarewitz, Arizona State University.

  • Tell stories. Stories have been called “data with a soul,” said Baron. Stories resonate with people and are a way to capture complexity, said Cleetus.Table 1 contains a list of ways to engage. Speakers encouraged individuals to start simply. There can be “small, humble opportunities” for engagement, said Andrew Maynard, University of Michigan. Talking to people casually isn’t high risk, he said; it “just requires willingness to step outside the academic sphere.”

*Adapted from University of Michigan. 2014. Academic engagement in public and political discourse: Preliminary analysis of survey results, p. 2. http://graham.umich.edu/media/files/PrelimSurveyResults-PublicEngagement.pdf

2. Access resources

Engagement skills can be acquired. “This is a learned behavior,” said Susan Collins, University of Michigan. “Some people have a knack for being good communicators, but just like everything else, one can learn and get better at it.” Conference participants flagged these resources as starting points:

  • University media departments can support with training, writing and media strategy. Especially on controversial topics, it’s important to coordinate with them anyway, speakers said.

  • Online resources include:

    • Baron, N. 2010. Escape from the Ivory Tower: A guide to making your science matter, Washington DC: Island Press.

    • Smith et al. 2013. COMPASS: Navigating the rules of scientific engagement. PLoS Biol 11(4): e1001552.

    • Resources compiled for the conference

    • The Conversation, a news website which edits work by academics; it operates in the UK, US, Australia and Africa.

  • Training programs include Stanford University’s Leopold Leadership Fellowship and Stony Brook’s Center for Communicating Science.

  • Peer mentoring groups are successful at some universities, e.g. the Public Engagement Project at the University of Massachusetts.

Conference attendees left inspired and informed. Several invoked climate scientist Stephen Schneider’s admonition: “know thy audience, know thyself, and know thy stuff.”

Share this post:


Share on activity feed

Powered by WP LinkPress

Add a Comment

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.

Join the Conversation


  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

Related Articles

Partner with NBS to grow our impact

Skip to content