« creating informed communities (part 1) | Main | creating informed communities (part 3) »

May 11, 2010

creating informed communities (part 2)

This is the second of five strategies proposed to achieve the goals of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. See Monday's post for an overview.

Strategy 2: Universities as Community Information Hubs

Most people and organizations that produce, exchange, and interpret information have their own axes to grind. They have ideological or philosophical commitments as well as interests to promote--and that is perfectly appropriate. Yet we have always been better off when a few institutions declare neutrality. They volunteer for the role of promoting high-quality discussion, debate, and analysis and they try not to drive everyone to a particular conclusion.

An example was the metropolitan daily newspaper as envisioned in the Progressive Era. I realize that no newspaper was ever fully neutral, nor was neutrality ever the highest criterion of excellence. But metro dailies adopted rules and procedures that were influenced by the ideal of neutrality, such as the separation of their editorial pages from their news pages. They could be held accountable for fairness, balance, objectivity, and accuracy. And--to varying but important degrees--they did enhance public dialogue with neutral information.

But the metropolitan daily newspaper is in grim condition today. Public broadcasting stations have a similar mission--and NPR's audience is rising fast, even as newspapers falter--but broadcasters can't play this role alone. Nor can civic associations like the League of Women Voters; that sector is also in decline.

Universities must step up. As the folks at Community Wealth note, "Institutions of higher education have an obvious vested interest in building strong relationships with the communities that surround their campuses. They do not have the option of relocating and thus are of necessity place-based anchors. While corporations, businesses, and residents often flee from economically depressed low-income urban and suburban edge-city neighborhoods, universities remain."

Moreover, higher education is not just any sector with $136 billion in spending and $100 billion in real estate holdings. The business of colleges and universities is the production and dissemination of knowledge and the promotion of dialogue and debate. They provide an impressive infrastructure for serving their communities' information needs. And some are already excellent models.

Certain networks exist to promote such work nationally, notably Campus Compact (an association of 1,000 college presidents who have committed to "lead a national movement to reinvigorate the public purposes and civic mission of higher education"); the American Democracy Project of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU); and The Democracy Imperative. Land-grant universities have an especially strong heritage of local public service and a remarkable resource in their extension offices, which exist in virtually every county in the United States.

But significant reforms would have to be achieved before colleges could provide community information hubs.

1. They would have to accept this as one of their important missions, not only in abstract statements, but as a matter of real investment. Providing timely information of local relevance and with input from neighbors trades off against other intellectual pursuits. Overwhelmingly, rewards and prestige flow to scholars whose work is original and generalizable. Communities need work that is true, relevant, and accessible. You can do some of both, but you can't add the local work without subtracting a bit of something else. Creating community information hubs within higher education requires at least a modest shift of priorities.

2. They would need to aggregate the scattered knowledge produced by their professors, students, and staff. One of the advantages of the traditional metro daily newspaper was its format--a manageable slice of information every day, with the top news on the front page, a few hundred words of debate in the letters column, and space for the occasional in-depth feature. In contrast, a great modern university produces a flood of material for an array of audiences. Universities need to think about common web portals that accumulate and organize all their work relevant to their physical locations.

3. They would need appropriate principles and safeguards. You can do good by going forth into a community to study it, to portray it, and to stir up discussion about it. Or you can do harm. Much depends on how you relate to your fellow citizens off campus. Relationships should be respectful and characterized by learning in both directions. In this context, "research ethics" means far more than the protection of human subjects from harm; ethical research is directed to genuine community interests and needs and builds other people's capacity for research and debate. Like faculty, students must be fully prepared to do community service well, and held accountable for their impact. One tool that has been proposed to uphold such principles is a community review board (composed of community leaders, faculty, and students), which would have to approve all projects funded as "community service."

Most of the incentives that prevail in higher education work against becoming community information hubs (see this and this). When the incentives in a free and competitive market undermine the common good, some outside force should reward the behavior that we need. In this case, the federal and state governments and private foundations should channel some of their funds toward local information projects in higher education.

May 11, 2010 2:47 PM | category: none



Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

Site Meter