UCT must catch the scholarly engagement wave

06 December 2010

Assoc Prof David Cooper Engaging academics: Assoc Prof David Cooper presented a talk on engaged scholarship, based on his recent case study in the US.

UCT is driven by academic conservatism; meaning there is a focus on basic research, but an absence of appreciation of a new global academic revolution with a "third mission" (alongside teaching and basic research) of university engagement in societal development.

One implication is that current academic promotion and merit award criteria pay scant attention to scholarly engagement.

This was the argument of Fulbright scholar Associate Professor David Cooper of UCT's Department of Sociology, at a presentation on 22 November titled The Concept of Engaged Scholarship.

A member of UCT's University Social Responsiveness Committee, Cooper spoke on his case study of engaged scholarship at Michigan State University in the US as part of his Fulbright work this year, where - along with 30 similar international researchers - he focused on the theme, The University as Knowledge Centre and Innovation Driver.

"Where the third mission is pursued, a focus is around the 'triple helix' of industry, government and university relations," said Cooper. "Universities need to open themselves up to a 'fourth helix' of civil society, with social science in particular becoming involved in the wide range of social research fields available, such as transport, low-cost housing and many more."

During his stay in the US, Cooper saw a growing debate on engaged research and its aspects, including public sociology, service learning (earning academic credit by serving the community) and translational research, in which the National Institutes of Health is stressing the translation of research findings from the laboratory to the clinic, then back to the lab for further development.

But Cooper points out that the difference between civic involvement and engaged scholarship is crucial in understanding university-based social responsiveness.

"Not all outreach activity necessarily falls under the definition of engaged scholarship," he explains. "As well as serving the community, engaged scholarship must fall within the scholar's field of study and contain some form of innovation, or new knowledge."

UCT's dual mission of positioning itself as a research powerhouse as well as an Afropolitan university needs consolidation through engaged scholarship, says Cooper.

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