Background

Trends in the literature and in the criteria of granting agencies have for some years emphasized the leadership role of universities in working with multiple stakeholders to address complex issues affecting communities in a global society. The Tri-Council funding agencies have moved aggressively to promote and fund community-based research and knowledge mobilization, for example, and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has invested in community-academic partnerships through social innovation and community service learning programs. These trends have contributed to an inclusive conceptualization of scholarship – Community-Engaged Scholarship (CES) – that encompasses intellectual and creative activities that generate, validate, synthesize and apply knowledge through partnerships with people and organizations outside of the academy. Despite these developments, the impacts of CES have not been fully realized nor has CES been fully integrated into the culture of Canadian universities. In particular, tenure and promotion (T&P) policies and procedures and faculty development practices have not kept pace with changing faculty roles.

The Challenge of T&P: T&P policies and procedures have the potential to hinder CES for a number of reasons. First, CES is regarded by some in universities as “service” or “community activism,” and not as rigorous scholarship. Second, commonly employed metrics for judging the quality and productivity of scholarship tend to inadequately capture CES. For example, peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books are essential for communicating results to academic audiences, but they are insufficient for CES because they are not readily accessible or useful to community members, practitioners and policymakers. The applied products of CES such as educational videos, policy briefs, curricula and resource guides, on the other hand, are often not peer-reviewed or disseminated and thus not given sufficient credit and credibility in the T&P process. Third, emerging criteria for assessing the quality of CES work within the T&P process are either underdeveloped or inaccessible. Finally, external reviewers in a given community-engaged faculty member’s discipline who understand and can assess the quality and impact of their CES are often not readily identifiable. Reviewers unfamiliar with or biased against CES may be unable to adequately review a community-engaged faculty member’s dossier.

The Challenge of Developing Community-Engaged Faculty: While specific community-engaged methodologies such as participatory action research and integrated knowledge translation may prosper in some departments and schools, there are few established professional development mechanisms or pathways for graduate students, post-doctoral trainees and faculty members who wish to pursue CES. Faculty development programs rarely explicitly support CES and even fewer incorporate evidence-based practices: efforts that are sustained, longitudinal, multi-disciplinary, experiential and competency-based.

In May 2010, the University of Guelph and Community-Campus Partnerships for Health released a “Call for University Partners” to recruit Canadian universities that identified these challenges as critical to moving forward as community-engaged institutions, were eager to collaborate with peers to tackle them, and could commit institutional resources to the effort.  Twenty universities expressed interest and ten submitted applications. Following a review process that assessed their commitment and readiness for change, 8 universities were invited in July 2010 to form a partnership. Through conference calls and a meeting held in connection with the conference on Community-Engaged Scholarship: Critical Junctures in Research, Practice and Policy, we established the foundation of our partnership.