Taking societal impact ‘from ivory tower to town square’
December 8, 2022 | 8 min read
By Zoë Genova
In a global panel, academic leaders show how their universities are taking unique approaches to improving the world around them — and measuring their progress
Pictured above: The panel ‘New measures of societal impact: From ivory tower to town square’ featured moderator Dr Arthur Ellis (left) and panelists Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli, Prof Robin Garrell and Prof Cheryl de la Rey. (Photo by Alison Bert) As a result of social, economic and pandemic-related global challenges, academic institutions are starting to develop society-driven research agendas to complement existing curiosity-driven research agendas. This growing trend raises a number of key questions.
How can universities measure societal impact in a way that goes beyond traditional metrics? How can the culture on campuses be changed to recognize innovation, entrepreneurship and community engagement? And how can universities engage academic communities in creating narratives around societal contributions?
At the 2022 Times Higher Education (THE) World Academic Summit(opens in new tab/window), a distinguished panel of academic leaders gathered at NYU October 11 to answer these questions and present examples from their own institutions. The panel — titled New measures of societal impact: From ivory tower to town square(opens in new tab/window) — featured Prof Cheryl de la Rey(opens in new tab/window), Vice Chancellor of the University of Canterbury(opens in new tab/window) in New Zealand; Prof Robin Garrell(opens in new tab/window), President of the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center(opens in new tab/window); and Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli(opens in new tab/window), Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Glasgow(opens in new tab/window) in Scotland. Dr Arthur Ellis(opens in new tab/window), a Senior Advisor at Elsevier, moderated the discussion.
Catalyzing cultural change in the wake of Christchurch mosque shootings
Society-driven research often requires cultural change within an institution. Prof de la Rey shared that the University of Canterbury(opens in new tab/window) has a growing commitment to bilingualism (English and Te Reo Māori), civic responsibility, and place-based scholarship. For example, the university now incorporates local Māori interests in research proposals and projects. In 2020, catalyzed by the horrific Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019, the campus established the Te Pae Raka Hau Canterbury Knowledge Commons(opens in new tab/window) — a place for the university to partner with the Ōtautahi Christchurch and Waitaha Canterbury communities on research initiatives — to address underlying social issues. Through the Knowledge Commons and partnerships, research projects draw on collective knowledge and needs of the wider community. To measure the success of the Knowledge Commons, the university has created a data platform that can, for example, identify households using multiple social services repeatedly to determine where to focus interventions. The campus has also looked at the university’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(opens in new tab/window). The University of Canterbury ranked first globally among campuses in SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) in last year’s THE Impact Rankings(opens in new tab/window), powered by Scopus, reflecting the institution’s partnership with local agencies. Under Prof de la Rey’s leadership, the university is using its Impact Rankings of 11th for SDG 13 (climate action) and 29th for SDG 15 (life on land) as targets for improvement.
Addressing social justice issues in New York by engaging the public in the research
Prof Garrell connected CUNY(opens in new tab/window)’s dedication to public-facing scholarship and social justice that addresses issues of concern for New York City and New York State by engaging the public in the research itself. She shared a few examples of how CUNY is accomplishing this through:
A state-funded initiative(opens in new tab/window) fostering academic-industry partnerships. For example, graduate students work alongside citizen scientists to develop and use environmental sensors to monitor energy usage, noise pollution and water quality.
Participatory Action Research(opens in new tab/window), whereby CUNY collaborates with the community to develop research questions around community concerns. The research and partnerships inform local practices and provisioning of social services to promote social justice.
The Center for Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center(opens in new tab/window), which conducts work that reimagines the role of the university in the community. In a recent project, the center collected contemporary oral history contributions from communities to inform the city’s decisions on how to use public land.
“What we measure signals what we value.”
When it comes to measurement, Prof Garrell said these kinds of research need appropriate metrics, noting, “What we measure signals what we value.” As an institution, CUNY is interested in keeping a focus on knowledge creation and societal impact. Prof Garrell identified a trio of guiding questions:
What do we value and want to know beyond what we’re already measuring?
Where does this information exist and are there places we aren’t looking?
What measures could be developed?
Addressing these questions could help CUNY better assess, for instance, the impact of its research discoveries on public opinion and civic engagement.
“To raise to distinction those who were born in the lowest place”
Prof Muscatelli shared the founding statute of the University of Glasgow(opens in new tab/window), which includes the phrase, “to raise to distinction those who were born in the lowest place.” As a civic-minded institution, it is important for the university to widen access and connect to its origins in this way, he noted. These values are used to recognize issues facing the community and to effect sustainable changes through partnerships with local businesses and governments based on research. The university was recently shown to have an estimated economic impact of £4.4 billion. Moreover, the campus regards its purview as expanding beyond Scotland into the sustainable development space for nations impacted by colonialism. Prof Muscatelli described the university’s GALLANT Living Laboratory Project(opens in new tab/window), which seeks to use the city of Glasgow to test sustainable solutions addressing the effects of climate change, such as retrofitting tenement blocks for better energy usage. He highlighted the campus’s creation of the Mazumdar-Shaw Advanced Research Centre (ARC)(opens in new tab/window) as a new interdisciplinary research venue that also engages the public. During the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference COP 26(opens in new tab/window), held in Glasgow in 2021, the university looked increasingly at placing its research in the context of the UN SDGs. The 2021 THE Impact Rankings placed the University of Glasgow at 19th globally. Prof Muscatelli put this accomplishment in perspective by stating, “We’ve got to look at measurements and … try to refine and understand what we do.” He said it’s important to look at where the university can contribute across all the SDGs.
Q&A: Panelists answer questions about getting buy-in from their campuses and how they use metrics for their research narratives
For the Q&A segment, Dr Ellis asked panelists how they obtained buy-in from their campuses to move in the inspiring directions they described.
Prof de la Rey said her institution had an expectation from the nation’s legislature to act as “critic and conscience” in society. When she asked her campus colleagues if they wished to go beyond this to make a meaningful contribution to society, there was an enthusiastic response to produce positive change.
Prof Garrell noted that in some sense, CUNY’s mission and its embeddedness in the fabric of New York City and the region have positioned it appropriately for societal impact and to attract top talent. However, she remarked that in competing globally, CUNY scholars are being judged by metrics that are incomplete for public-facing scholarship, and more tools and guidance regarding “what counts” is needed.
Prof Muscatelli provided two illustrations illuminating issues he saw. One was the cultural change required with the Mazumdar-Shaw ARC project to bring disciplinary scholars and students together in a venue designed for interdisciplinary scholarship and public-facing usage. The other was a change in institutional financial procedures to enable the campus to assist low-income countries in collaborative projects.
Dr Ellis shared examples of what can be done with modern data analytics to map scholarly outputs and patents to the UN SDGs, and the recent ability to mine policy documents for citations to scholarly outputs.
He then asked if there were suggestions for how such metrics could be used to help researchers and institutions craft narratives around their research. All panelists suggested teaming up with communications or external relations teams and using tools that track when stories are picked up by the media which reference campus research results.
Panelists were also asked about great challenges they faced and accomplishments worth noting.
Prof de la Rey pointed to bringing together public agencies and media with the university in the aftermath of the mosque attacks. She said connecting databases was a major challenge, but it has paid substantial dividends in the insights it has offered.
Prof. Garrell noted that state funding was an excellent resource, but CUNY was at a stage where it wanted to have more societal impact and recognized it needed more funding. She felt the campus was learning how to better tell its story with pride and conviction to attract additional resources.
Prof Muscatelli highlighted the importance of having a great team in leadership roles and properly embedding strategy in its planning activities.
“This isn’t theoretical, it’s practical.”
Prof Olanrewaju Fagbohun(opens in new tab/window) of Lagos State University(opens in new tab/window) and the Environmental Law Research Institute in in Nigeria, had asked the panelists at what point the SDGs were mainstreamed into their curricula and research agendas.
Afterwards, he called this session “one of the most helpful panels” of the summit:
In the last two days, we’ve been talking about the need for universities to make an impact on their communities because the idea of the university is to create knowledge and for it to impact communities around the university. … What this session has done for me is actually break it down. Indeed, we can make this impact. [The panelists] have shown us what they’ve done, and optimism is there… This isn’t theoretical, it’s practical.