Academia & the public good: strengthening the relationship in a post-truth world

In what has been described as a “post-truth” political era, one helpful direction for human system reform would be to more effectively engage academia’s abundant truth-seeking expertise in efforts to address societal problems, including the complex web of “wicked” and increasingly existential ones we face today. This post discusses one potential path for moving in this direction.

The post is informed by, among other things, my experience over the past five years working with: 1) Michigan State University’s Quello Center, an academic institution focused on communication policy; 2) Merit Network, a statewide fiber optic network connecting Michigan’s educational and other community anchor institutions (CAIs) and owned by the state’s public universities and; 3) MSU’s Center for Community & Economic Development (CCED) and its sister organization, the Center for Regional Economic Innovation (REI). Helpful context was also provided by a recently published white paper by Nicole Willcoxon entitled Engaged Scholarship: History and Present Dilemmas

This post is also informed and inspired by a speech Abdul El-Sayed gave when he was a candidate for Michigan’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. His talk, entitled The Epidemic of Poverty: The Government Imperative, was delivered February 12, 2018 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. For those not familiar with his background, in addition to running for governor, El-Sayed is an M.D. who previously served as a professor of epidemiology and head of Detroit’s public health department.

As I listened to El-Sayed discuss: 1) the need for respectful dialog and fundamental institutional change (see 40:40-43:40) and; 2) a 50-year vision for developing the talent and infrastructure needed to support more universal and sustainable prosperity (see 53:00-56:30), I was reminded of this web site’s title and purpose.

And, as I listened to El-Sayed answer the last question, from a PhD student wanting her academic research to have positive social impacts (at the 1:15:45 mark), I found his response resonating with lessons I’ve learned during my career, most of which was spent doing applied and “actionable” research but, as noted above, also included a recent stint working within academia.

El-Sayed’s response stressed the importance of bridging the communication and incentive gaps between academia and public policymakers so that the former’s expertise can better inform the latter’s decision-making and, by doing so, have more positive social impacts. It also reminded me of my recent experience working within academia, where I sensed some of the same challenges and opportunities El-Sayed highlighted in his speech. His response to the question also helped clarify an idea that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for awhile: the social value of institutions designed specifically to more effectively leverage academia’s expertise and technical resources to address challenging societal problems, including what El-Sayed referred to as “the epidemic of poverty.”

Building on the Research and Education Network (REN) model

During my tenure working with MSU, I’ve become familiar with several institutions and institutional models that seem relevant to this task. One such model is the Research and Education Network (REN).  RENs are typically non-profit providers of high capacity connectivity and related technical services (e.g., cybersecurity), mainly to educational organizations (e.g., schools and libraries) and also to other community anchor institutions, including healthcare and public safety providers, community centers, etc.

Michigan’s Merit Network is the nation’s oldest and one of its largest RENs. Founded in 1966 to connect mainframe computers at three Michigan universities, Merit is today owned by 12 of the state’s public universities. It operates more than 4,000 miles of fiber optic infrastructure throughout the state, including a large network expansion into relatively rural areas that was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Like its peers in other states, Merit is a member of the Quilt, which describes itself as “the national coalition of non-profit U.S. regional research and education networks representing 40 networks across the country.”

I’ve written about the valuable role RENs can and do play in society on this site and in a series of posts on the Quello Center’s blog.  In the latter I discussed how Merit and other RENs provide key infrastructure services (Internet connectivity) using a “generative” enterprise model (a nonprofit owned by users and with a public service mission),  as contrasted with the “financial extraction” model pursued by large telecom corporations like AT&T.

In 2016 I was involved in a research project sponsored by Merit and five other RENs that explored ways to further expand the social value they provide via innovative wireless connectivity solutions. In 2019 Merit took another step in this direction by spearheading the Michigan Moonshot project, developed in cooperation with MSU’s Quello Center and a range of local, state and national partners. The Moonshot’s goal is to align and mobilize the resources necessary to extend high-performance broadband to Michigan’s still-underserved rural communities. [Disclosure: in 2020 I’m working with the Merit team to help achieve these goals as an Innovation Fellow funded by MSU’s Regional Economic Innovation Center].

What I’m proposing here is an extension of the REN model beyond the provision of connectivity to encompass direct support for multi-institution, multi-disciplinary research and development aimed at more effectively addressing societal problems. This model’s effectiveness would be enhanced by its ability to leverage: 1) the reliable, affordable and high-speed connectivity and technical expertise provided by RENs and; 2) the socially valuable collaborative potential of: a) the faculty, students and technical resources within REN-connected academic institutions and; b) the resources, practical insights and public-service focus of the broader base of REN-connected community anchor organizations (CAIs).

For lack of a better term (suggestions are welcome), this post will refer to this additional institutional layer as a Research & Education Collaborative, or REC.  A REC would:

  1. work with policymakers, academic experts and stakeholders to design, prioritize, fund and implement research projects and systems that clarify the causes of and solutions to pressing social, economic and political problems;
  2. help academics across multiple departments, disciplines and institutions efficiently collaborate to develop, finance and manage the policy-relevant research projects and systems prioritized in #1;
  3. support fair and fact-based debates about scientific uncertainties and policy options and how they are related;
  4. work with policymakers and stakeholders to translate findings and insights from this research and debate into more effective public policies and problem-solving strategies and systems;
  5. embed research components into new policy and problem solving initiatives to support ongoing analysis of their positive and negative impacts and, as needed based on that analysis, recommend course corrections (UM’s Learning Health Systems program is an example of an initiative aimed at achieving this efficient integration of research components within our poorly functioning—as measured by outcomes achieved per dollar spent—healthcare system);
  6. leverage the media and communication expertise within academia and the broader REC stakeholder community to develop media content and digital tools that support productive, fact-based, alliance-building and solution-generating communication among policymakers, citizens, communities of interest and organizational stakeholders;
  7. work with existing “applied learning” (e.g., internships, work study) programs to expand opportunities for students to participate in efforts to address challenging societal problems–including those prioritized in #1–as part of their education and career preparation.

Developing a model REC in Michigan

To flesh out this concept in more concrete terms, I’m going to use Michigan—where I now live—as an example of how a REC might be developed.  My suggested name for this new organization is MenschNet, short for Michigan Engaged Scholar Network.  I like this name because it works reasonably well as an acronym while expressing an organizational intent to manifest the qualities associated with the word “mensch.”  In Yiddish, “mensch”, which means “human being” in German, refers to “a person of integrity and honor,” someone who exhibits “the qualities one would hope for in a friend or trusted colleague”…and in an organization entrusted to help solve societal problems.

As suggested above, MenschNet’s design could borrow from and build on the model developed by Merit and other RENs. For example, just as Merit is cooperatively owned and managed by Michigan’s public universities, a similar model could be applied to MenschNet, though with some key differences. For example, whereas Merit’s board of directors is comprised mainly of university chief information officers (CIOs) or similar positions, it would make sense for MenschNet board members to be experienced in the design and management of engaged scholarship-related research and development rather than telecommunication networks.

While most of these might come from the state’s universities, the board of directors and/or separate advisory boards could include representatives from other relevant stakeholder groups, including the broader educational community, the healthcare sector, local and state government, the business community, and regional planning entities. An advisory board approach would follow the model adopted by Merit in 1998, which provides non-governing network users a channel for input and influence through an Advisory Council that includes representation from the K-12, community college, private college, government, healthcare, non-profit and business sectors.

To avoid unhelpful duplication of efforts, MenschNet would build on and seek to integrate the work of Michigan’s existing university-affiliated organizations focused on engaged scholarship, public policy, social enterprise and applied learning. The goal would be for MenschNet to provide connective tissue, supportive resources and state-level leadership to help focus, coordinate, leverage and synergize the expertise and resources of these existing organizations and initiatives.

The University of Michigan, for example, is active in multiple areas within the engaged scholarship space, including programs such as the Rackham Program in Public ScholarshipPoverty Solutions, the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning, the Center for Social Media Responsibility, the Citizen Interaction Design program, the Center on Finance, Law, and Policy, the Graham Sustainability Institute. and multiple institutes and initiatives affiliated with the Ross School of Business. The latter includes the +Impact Studio, described on its web page as “an innovative course model” launched in Fall 2019 to help students “learn how to address a wicked problem using scholarly research, design methodologies, and business acumen.”

MSU, which sponsors publications and speaker series under the umbrella of “The Engaged Scholar,” is also active in this space, including organizations such as the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR), CCED, REI, the Quello Center and MSU Extension, which has a notably strong presence in the state’s rural communities. Other state universities, including Wayne State and Western Michigan, also offer programs focused on community engagement.

Below are some initial suggestions for MenschNet engaged scholarship programs:

1)  A multi-institution multi-disciplinary statewide network of academic experts that collaborate with community stakeholders and policymakers to design and implement research and development projects that improve understanding of and solutions to societal problems (potential name: Applied Public Policy Research Network (APPRN)).

2) A working group comprised of technology experts and stakeholder representatives that develops, recommends and promotes policies, initiatives and practices to support empowered and secure use of digital technology as our individual and collective dependence on these technologies continues to increase (potential name: Digital Empowerment & Security Council (DESC)). [Thanks to Bill Dutton for proposing something along these lines several years ago when he was director of MSU’s Quello Center. I thought it was a worthy idea then, and still do today.]

3) A digital multimedia network that develops and distributes media content related to the issues, challenges, opportunities, initiatives and outcomes associated with MenschNet programs. Key goals of this network would be to educate policymakers and citizens about these programs and the issues they address, and to encourage helpful public input, support for and participation in these programs. This public communication function would leverage the media and communication expertise within academia and the broader MenschNet stakeholder community. As helpful, its capabilities would also be applied to publication strategies targeting more academically-focused peer review journals (potential name: MenschNet Media or Mensch Media).

4) A program that works with and builds upon existing applied learning programs within the state’s university system to develop applied learning opportunities related to MenschNet and other efforts to address societal problems. A focus of this program would be innovative use of social enterprise models and digital technology as empowering tools to support these efforts (potential name: Social Enterprise and Digital Solutions (SEADS) program).

As part of Governor Whitmer’s effort to reinvigorate the state government as a direct investor in Michigan’s future (as contrasted with the Republican focus on tax cuts and reliance on the private sector as strategies to address the state’s needs), her administration could provide modest but very helpful seed funding and in-kind support for creating a Michigan REC. This could include funds to: 1)  hire a small but capable and committed leadership and administrative team; 2) attract a highly qualified and supportive board of directors and sector-focused boards of advisers and; 3) begin building alliances, agendas, initiatives and supplementary funding sources to support research and development initiatives identified as priorities by the MenschNet management team and board(s).

Though he may be viewed by some as too politically and ambitiously progressive, El-Sayed strikes me as well qualified to help develop and lead a Michigan REC. As reflected in his Radcliffe speech, his campaign and his resume, he would bring to an REC development project a relatively unique blend of: 1) experience as a university-level researcher and educator; 2) experience building and managing a public service-focused organization on a limited budget; 3) the energy, passion, creativity, leadership and management skills of a social entrepreneur and; 4) well developed public communication skills and name recognition.

In terms of which public policy issues MenschNet would focus on, a good starting point might be the issues Whitmer highlighted during her 2018 gubernatorial campaign as needing a fresh approach. These include:

  • Public health (e.g., affordable, accessible and effective healthcare, addressing the opioid crisis, elder care, environmental factors)
  • Education, training and well-paying jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities
  • Infrastructure (e.g., roads, public transportation, energy, clean water, broadband [it’s worth noting here that, to some extent, the Merit-led Michigan Moonshot project will be piloting elements of the REC model as it seeks to align and mobilize stakeholder and expert resources to expand broadband access and its benefits.])
  • Social justice (e.g., women’s and minority rights, poverty, criminal justice, supporting veterans)
  • Making government more accountable to citizens (e.g., campaign finance, lobbying and gerrymandering reform, voting rights)
  • Public finance (e.g., a state infrastructure bank, increasing state support for local governments, re-prioritizing tax & public spending policies, public benefit-focused complementary currency models)

There are likely many smart, talented individuals within academia who share, at least to some extent, the public service aspirations expressed by El-Sayed and members of his audience in the above video. For example, a survey cited on pg. 5 of Engaged Scholarship: History and Present Dilemmas found that 52% of graduate students wanted to serve their community. Confronted by a complex web of wicked problems and policy challenges in a post-truth political environment, society urgently needs institutional systems that encourage and empower these current and future scholars to pursue their public service aspirations as part of a successful and satisfying career. As the name MenschNet suggests, the hope is that such systems can help anchor efforts to address societal problems more securely in a respect for truth…and for each other as fellow human beings.

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