Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life at the University of California, Davis, has received $500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch a national IA Leading and Learning Initiative to shift institutional culture in higher education toward greater support of public scholarship in the humanities, the arts and design.
This three-year initiative will work toward two primary outcomes — to increase awareness of the value of research and creative practice that engage diverse communities in addressing pressing public issues, and at the same time, build the institutional capacity needed to support and enable such work.
Imagining America’s campus host, UC Davis, is grateful for the new award and is excited to host this new initiative. UC Davis Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph M. Hexter said: “This generous and forward-looking grant from the Mellon Foundation recognizes IA’s and UC Davis’ shared commitment to, and record of achievement in, publicly engaged scholarship of the highest quality and impact. It will enable us to take our collaboration to the next level and advance our work to promote socially beneficial change.”
To accomplish these goals, IA will convene a national cohort of campus and associational leaders and graduate fellows to guide research, host organizing institutes, and deploy a multimedia communications campaign to share powerful examples of public scholarship from across the country.
The research project of the IA Leading and Learning Initiative — which will be guided by a cohort of national campus and associational leaders and engaged graduate fellows — will begin with a mapping of the diverse approaches to pursuing public scholarship in the humanities, the arts, and design. Next, IA researchers will identify institutional practices, policies and innovations that fortify public scholarship, from revised tenure and promotion guidelines, to mentoring and peer-support systems, to campus organizing. Finally, researchers will develop an analysis of the way forward, with a focus on the complex and challenging process of brokering change in higher education.
This initiative furthers IA’s longstanding commitment to playing a leadership role in helping institutions of higher education better fulfill their commitments to serving the public good. As IA described over 10 years ago in its report “Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University,” there is often a disconnect between a university’s mission to benefit the public and the extent to which it recognizes and supports engaged faculty, staff, students and research partners.
Public and activist scholarship has mobilized the resources of universities to make a difference on such critical regional challenges as immigrant rights, housing equity and local effects of the climate crisis. Yet the work of public and activist scholars is often underappreciated by university leaders and peers, due to an overly narrow understanding of what counts as valuable knowledge and a lack of awareness that work of this type requires rigorous research methods and creative excellence.
“At a time when society is deeply divided and when many people are fearful, discouraged, and struggling — through enduring inequalities across social, economic, racial and gendered lines — there is a clear need for collaborative and community-based knowledge-making,” said Erica Kohl-Arenas, associate professor of American studies at UC Davis, Imagining America’s faculty director, and the lead researcher on the new initiative. “Public scholarship — including both research and creative work such as public histories, community art-making and poetry — have a unique power to bring people together to study and reflect on the world as it is and to imagine what it might be.
“Strong voices speaking out on urgent social and environmental issues are necessary if we are to create the just and healthy world that we want. IA believes that institutions of higher education have an important role to play in lifting scholarship that inspires public ideas, creativity and critical hope, all desperately needed today.”