From the Director: Internal Scholarship and a Strategy for Change

By Don Harward, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice Project

We at BTtoP have been focused on what we have called the “scholarship of engagement”—advancing with your help (through commissioned studies, publications, conferences, and campus grants) a broader and deeper analysis of the conceptual and practiced dimensions of higher education’s core purposes and their multiple connections. In addition to highlighting engaged learning, the civic, and students’ preparation for meaningful choices—including purposeful work—we have begun emphasizing the inclusion of well-being as a core purpose, reasserting well-being as an integral part of higher education’s purpose and promise.

We have also concentrated on compiling and promulgating the evidence that supports these claims of connection. We refer to this work as the “scholarship of reflection.” What do we know from more than a decade of support? What are the insights and evidence gained from the work of nearly 350 institutional projects? Our objective is to establish the evidentiary basis for what confirms a “compelling case.” At the AAC&U Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, January 21–24, 2015, we made an initial, partial presentation of that evidence—and the full report and its significance will be featured in materials published this year. Please look for it!

The gradual development of BTtoP, and the recognition of its importance and unique voice of support for campuses, has been an intentional movement from establishing the necessary connections among core purposes (including seeing their source in a campus culture that expects and values engagement), to confirming them through multiple forms of research, to now developing a strategy for how those gains could be used both within and beyond the institution to advance positive change.

A “scholarship and practice of change” refers to the design and implementation of a strategy that will be initiated by using a “compelling case” to influence the expectations of constituencies within and beyond higher education. The promulgation of a compelling case for higher education could gain traction by first altering the conversations within the faculty and boards of trustees, as well as among students—indirectly advancing changes in policy, practices, and priorities. We have provisionally concluded that the immediate strategy for championing such a compelling case will be to generate a coalition of interest among associations and higher education institutions of all types; to have them fully involved in the development of a case; and to use their own patterns of dissemination and communication with their own constituencies to promote the case.

Making this case to the public at large will be particularly challenging—but necessary if expectations are to change. Using the urgency of having all students as whole persons be fully engaged in whole aims of their higher education institution—by addressing the most basic and existential threats to their future—will be a convincing appeal for changing expectations and opening opportunities to link convictions to meaningful actions. Doing so will rely on the students’ latent aspiration for making a difference—for having their education prepare them for a world they really will inhabit, and giving them agency for shaping it.

Providing the inspiration to do so, however, will require each institution’s own willingness to demonstrate through its actions and messages that it truly values and makes manifest its full purposes—going beyond self-interest to contribute to the common good.

Discussions of change must also address the difference between making transformative change and simply adjusting current patterns and practices. But what is sufficient? What is necessary for making the substantive changes we collectively advocate?

BTtoP, in collaboration with others, will work to construct a compelling case, and a coherent strategy, as well as cite and support best practices. One special role for the Project may be to bring together experienced voices in leading changes with those whose vision of the future includes the needs of tomorrow’s students and the impending threats and challenges that higher education must help to address. The outcomes could include major re-imaginings as well as practical bold steps—steps that would be sustainable and messages that would “have legs.”