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January 8th, 2019 12:42:06 pm

You-niversity? Perceptions on the public effectiveness of university knowledge production

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Initiatives such as Open Access, citizen science, and publicly-engaged scholarship are changing the nature of academic life, pushing university faculty to reconsider their relationship to the community(ies) within which they live and work. But in the conversation about public scholarship, who represents the voice of the public? Are those outside of the university satisfied with how higher education institutions engage their communities? Do they feel they can access and contribute to the knowledge produced at universities? And how do their expectations about university-community collaboration align with those of faculty members? We explore these questions and others through two short, informal surveys—one directed at faculty, one at members of the public—to better understand how these distinct groups view the changing role of the university in public life. We find evidence that faculty and public support the idea of university-community collaboration in theory—with both groups acknowledging numerous potential benefits for society and for academia—but struggle when putting it into practice. We conclude by discussing some of the potential barriers that prevent successful community-university engagement.

 “To whom are higher education organizations accountable?” (1) 

Are universities accountable to their students? To their communities? To their governments? To humankind? Who represents the public’s interests when it comes to evaluating these so-called “public” institutions?

We found ourselves asking these questions when participating in a course called “Making Knowledge Public”(2) at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. During the course, we discussed the challenges and opportunities of connecting universities with their communities, touching on everything from citizen science and Open Access publishing to Indigenous research collaboration and public policy.

But although our readings and lectures gave us a strong understanding of the benefits, hurdles, and strategies involved in publicly engaged scholarship, a crucial piece seemed to be missing from the picture: Who, actually, is “the public”? And how do they feel about the role of universities in society? In the conversation around public scholarship, we felt we were hearing only scholars’ voices, and none of the public’s.

In an attempt to remedy this imbalance, we reached out to members of our community and asked them about their perceptions on university knowledge production. We created two simple open-ended surveys(3) — one for members of the public, one for professors — to capture how these distinct groups think about the university and its role in the community. In the first, we asked members of the public — that is, people who did not identify as university faculty — to assess whether they felt universities should be accountable to them in any form and if they felt capable of contributing to the university themselves. In the second, we asked university faculty about the importance of their work for the public and how they saw their relationship to the community.

What did we learn? As we outline below, the results of these brief, informal surveys(4) suggest strong support from both within and outside of the university in favour of public scholarship—with both faculty and the public respondents acknowledging the potential benefits of community-university collaboration for society. But our results also reveal a significant gap between dream and reality, with numerous members of the public reporting a sense of exclusion from university life and several faculty expressing uncertainty about how best to put their ideas about community engagement into practice.

Perceptions from the Public

People feel they have the right to access university knowledge

The vast majority of people who answered our “public” survey, 81%, felt they had a right to access the knowledge produced at universities. Why? Money was by far the most popular reason. In Canada, where the bulk of our survey respondents were located,(5) universities are funded in large part by the public, either through taxes (about 50% of the total funding, as of 2018) or tuition payments (about 30% of the total funding)(6). Similarly, in the US, where another large portion of respondents were located, state and federal government funding account for 37% of university budgets, while tuition fees cover 21%.(7) 

The idea that, if we pay for it, we own it, came up in many of the responses — reflecting one common argument in favour of making all research Open Access (OA), or freely available to all. As OA advocacy group SPARC puts it on their website, “Though research is produced as a public good, it isn’t available to the public who paid for it.”(8) It was interesting to see this sentiment expressed by taxpayers themselves, in their own words:

Yes. First, because there is a lot of public money that has been invested in many universities. And second, what is the point of producing knowledge if it is not going to be shared with the general public?(9) 

Respondents also raised several other reasons why university knowledge should be public. Many expressed a general feeling that knowledge is a basic human right and that society would benefit from more people having access to it. Again, the public’s perspectives overlapped with those of OA advocates, like John Willinsky, who have argued that access to knowledge is a basic human right.(10)

Knowledge should not be reserved for the academic elite, this is knowledge that is best used to help the populations putting those theories into practice, or being affected by the phenomena/histories that are being explored and addressed at universities. (11)

 (…) one purpose of universities is for the betterment of society and if that knowledge/research was only to remain on the campus, that objective would not be met.”(12)

Knowing that people still view knowledge as a public good — that is, as something “non-excludable and non-rivalrous, supported by all for the benefit of all”(13) — is comforting, particularly in the face of recent cuts to government research funding, especially in Canada(14) and the US.(15) 

Finally, many respondents viewed access to university knowledge as a matter of transparency and a way of guaranteeing democratic values. In an era where “fake news” is in everyone’s mind, having access to evidence produced by knowledgeable people was seen as an important tool for fact-checking:

Keeping important knowledge in the hands of an elite is not only unfair but dangerous, as this prevents the public from verifying statements made by politicians, governments, the media, or groups or individuals intent on disseminating falsehoods in order to further their own agendas.(16) 

Universities are an important part of daily life

A total of 78.7% of the people we surveyed felt that universities influenced them directly in some way. The forms that influence took varied from person to person, but a common theme that emerged was the economic impact of higher education. For example, many people saw universities as providing important personal benefits, including opportunities for networking, career growth, and immigration, as well as drawbacks, such as student debt. On a societal level, people noted that higher education can help generate new jobs and industry breakthroughs.

They bring a youthful energy to a community in so many ways and act as important cultural hubs through the immigration opportunities they offer.(17) 

People also felt that universities played an important intellectual role in society. Many saw these institutions as “intellectual benchmarks” for the community, essential to shaping public opinion and public policy, and producing public intellectuals (18)— knowledgeable citizens who can bridge the gap between experts and the greater community. On an individual level, universities were seen as encouraging critical thinking and personal development through public lectures, forums, and workshops.

Universities continue to impact my life as structures that I look to as a model of progress within our community… I consider universities to be the intellectual benchmark to which the rest of our community should measure itself.(19)

On a more practical level, many people felt that there were immediate community benefits of universities, such as having access to gyms, libraries, and other public facilities. Activist partnerships between students and outside organizations were seen as another way in which universities and their communities could engage directly.

But not everyone felt the presence of the university in their lives. Some respondents hardly seemed impacted by these institutions in any way, and several mentioned they felt far removed now that they were no longer students themselves:

Now that I am out of school for years, I honestly don’t hear anything from Universities at all (sic). My area is White Rock and here we rarely see university students and their projects/community services.(20)

Not anymore. After graduating, I feel very removed from the academic world.(21)

Citizens can contribute to university research

A majority of people, 76.7% of those we asked, felt they could contribute to academic research in some way. Participating in studies as a subject or data source was one of the most commonly mentioned forms that this contribution could take. But respondents also noted several other ways of getting involved, including volunteering as a researcher or collaborator; building research partnerships between community organizations and academics; and providing feedback, new knowledge, or different perspectives by sharing their lived experiences with researchers:

[I could contribute] by adding important knowledge and insights from lived, practical experience, and also speaking to certain assumptions or interpretations that may not match such lived experience or what is observed beyond the academy.(22) 

Yet, despite a general feeling that it would be possible to contribute to university research, many respondents were unsure how to do so. In some cases, poor marketing was seen as a barrier to participation. For example, several people felt unclear about where to find research opportunities, and noted that calls for participants seldom make it beyond university walls and into the community. Others expressed a general sense of exclusion from the university, and felt that “if you want to contribute at a university either enroll or get a job there”:

I would like to [participate] as a citizen, but the barriers to entry are often prohibitive. Unless researchers go out of their way to market to those outside the university, the path to contributing to research done at universities is unclear at best and discouraged or disallowed at worst.(23) 

I feel like my contributions are limited. I think my capacity for involvement depends on the university's capacity for letting me.(24)

Perceptions from Academics

Academics’ sense of public responsibility mirrors traditional roles

When it came to the professors, most people we spoke with saw their responsibility to the public as falling into one of three main categories: education, research, or civic engagement. Although the way individual professors thought about their responsibilities varied, it was interesting to see how closely these broad categories mapped onto the traditional academic “trifecta” of teaching, research, and service(25) — the three categories outlined in the review, promotion, and tenure guidelines with which faculty performance is assessed.

Importantly, many of the education-related responses were student-focused, rather than public-focused. That is, a large portion of the professors we spoke with seemed to prioritize their responsibility to their students over any teaching outside of the university. Teaching within the greater community was mentioned in many of the responses, but often only as a secondary responsibility (after traditional teaching).

As in, not to my students, but to the public at large? I think of my responsibilities as being to my students, to provide the tools, experiences, [and] histories they’ve enrolled to gain.(26)

When it came to research, many professors emphasized the importance of ethics and societal impact. For example, Dr. Jean McLean, a lecturer in SFU’s education department, felt she had a responsibility “To be engaged with issues that matter to the local and global community [and] to do research that impacts actual people.”

The third category, civic engagement, seemed to be the least clearly defined. People felt that they had a duty to the greater community, but had difficulty expressing what that duty looked like in concrete terms. Responses included phrases like engaging in “big picture thinking,” “challenging the status quo,” “creating culture,” and “providing context.” This abstractness is perhaps unsurprising, given that the review, promotion, and tenure guidelines in Canada and the US tend to follow a similar pattern: specificity around the research and teaching dimensions of faculty life, but vagueness around what “service” to the community involves.(27) 

The public can contribute to research — but how?

Similar to what we heard from the public itself, 85.7% of professors felt that the public could contribute to their research in some way. But just like with the public, what that contribution might look like varied widely.

Many professors saw volunteering for research studies as a primary way for the public to get involved in their work, mirroring what we heard from members of the public themselves. “I can’t do research without the public’s contributions,” one professor told us, “They are the people who answer surveys, get interviewed, get observed, etc.”

Others felt that the public could play an important role in shaping their research questions. For example, one professor said they used public meetings and public radio as inspiration for future projects. By understanding the concerns of the greater community, they felt they could identify key knowledge gaps and points of interest that could be investigated further.

Public participation through citizen science — in which the public contributes to forming research questions and methods, collecting or analyzing data, or interpreting results(28) — was another popular theme that emerged. For example, Dr. Vance Williams, an associate professor and associate chair in SFU’s chemistry department, saw “citizen science as an important, emerging area.” He added that “there are no obvious ways to implement it for chemists” but did feel it could have significant benefits within other disciplines by helping scientists interpret their results, decide on research questions, and keep the betterment of humanity in mind when conducting their work. This sentiment—that the public could contribute to some forms of research, but that this participation was limited to specific fields or projects—came up in other responses as well:

I’m not sure if I’d confidently say this is the case with ALL research, but my research — which addresses issues of cultural production, fan cultures, feminism, anti-racism, reading histories, etc. — is full of areas that non-academics often have expertise in and can contribute valuable perspectives to.(29) 

Finally, a substantial portion of professors felt confident that the public could contribute to research, but were unsure what that would look like. As one person put it, the question of how the public could contribute to research was hard to answer “except in big hand-wavey ways.” Another felt that “people might have [an] insight [or] perspective not yet explored” and that they “might become part of the research” but did not explain how. Again, academics’ opinions seemed to align with the public’s: both felt strongly that publicly engaged research was possible and beneficial, but were uncertain about how to implement it.

The “public” are non-academics and non-experts

Finally, we wanted to understand who professors were referring to when they spoke of the “public”? Were they thinking of students? Academics? “Ordinary” citizens? Or some other group entirely?

Consistent with previous research(30) addressing this question, a majority of the academics we spoke with viewed the public as an “other” and, often, a “non-scientific other”. That is, they saw the public as comprised of people not affiliated with the university and not already familiar with their research. This envisioning of the public aligns well with the so-called deficit model of science communication(31), in which members of the public are seen as passive recipients of academic expertise, rather than active contributors or co-creators of knowledge.

Everyone outside the University excluding our colleagues from other Universities of the same research area.(32)

People who are not affiliated with the university and who are not professionals in my industry (i.e. not students, chemists, etc).(33)

Anyone who is not familiar with my research.”(34)

When defining the public, several professors also mentioned specific demographic factors such as age, education level, geographic location, or language. For example, one person saw the public as “Anyone of reading age who isn’t a specialist in my field,” while another felt the public was comprised of “humans in anglophone countries.”

A third subset of professors felt that the idea of a single public was flawed. For example, Dr. Hannah McGregor, an assistant professor in SFU’s publishing program, viewed the term public as “baggy” and preferred to think instead of “specific publics” —distinct  groups of people with unique characteristics.

Finally, a fourth group of professors held a broad-sweeping view of the public, representing all people regardless of age, background, or expertise. Although no professor specifically stated so in their definition, this more inclusive view left open the possibility that academics could themselves be part of the public:

[I see] the ‘general public’ [as] people who deserve to know what we do as scientists and to whom we can contribute by answering questions.(35) 

People in our communities: local, national, and global. The people we share this earth with.(36) 

Our Conclusions

Even with the best of intentions to engage, we often fail... to recognize and cultivate the voices of the diverse talent who are among the most valuable assets of our urban cores.(37) 

As Open Education advocate and professor Robin DeRosa puts it, “a ‘public good’ is not easy to qualify; and hell, it’s even harder to quantify.”(38) Nothing could be truer when it comes to evaluating the role of universities in public life. The vast diversity of perspectives we collected from both professors and members of the public made it clear that there is no one simple way to define the “ideal” relationship between a university and its community(ies). Rather, the potential benefits of public scholarship and the forms it might take are wide-ranging and varied — capable of effecting change in many personal, societal, and global ways.

But although we are unable to identify a single, clear vision of what a university’s public responsibilities should include — or a strategy for making that vision a reality — we can say with confidence that this question matters. Over just 5 days, we collected 79 responses to our (unpaid) survey from members of the public, far exceeding our expectations. While by no means representative of the views of all people, the overwhelming number of thoughtful responses we received showed us that the public aspects of university knowledge production are very present in the public’s mind. Almost everyone we asked recognized the presence of the university in their lives in some way and felt that they had a right to access and participate in the knowledge produced there. The same is true of professors, most of whom were enthusiastic about initiatives like citizen science and community partnerships, felt accountable to the public in some way, and were motivated to ensure their research was relevant, collaborative, and accessible.

At the same time, this exercise showed us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to public scholarship. Many professors seemed to perceive the importance of their work as resting within the university walls: centred on imparting knowledge to their students and taking the lead in developing research questions, rather than engaging with the public as peers. Meanwhile, and perhaps as a result, a large portion of the public said they felt excluded from university life, noting that access to these institutions appeared to be reserved for students, faculty, and other elite. Whatever the reason, the image of the “ivory tower”(39)of academia seems to persist in the minds of many, casting a long shadow over the way they think about public scholarship.

Finally, although both the professors and the public expressed support for community-university collaboration and public access to knowledge, many were unsure of how to transform these lofty ideals into realities. This may, in part, be due to a lack of clearly defined criteria for identifying what “public scholarship” looks like(40). Without formal guidelines, training, or incentives in place to facilitate community engagement, diving into this unfamiliar domain may seem like a daunting task for many academics.

But the lack of implementation could also be a simple question of resources. Many of today’s faculty work upwards of 60 hours per week(41) and often do not have enough time in their hectic schedules to spend with their own families(42). We saw the toll of these long hours while collecting responses for our survey—a task that proved surprisingly difficult. Although many of the professors we spoke with were warm and supportive, a large portion were either unavailable or simply too busy to help. In the end, we were able to collect only 21 responses over 10 days—about a quarter of what we collected from the public. If professors do not feel they have time to answer a 5-min survey, how should they be expected to find the time to foster meaningful, lasting relationships with their communities?

Despite these challenges, however, we remain positive about the future of public scholarship. There may still be a lot of work to do, but as long as publics and universities are prepared to tackle these challenges together—as our results suggest they do—progress feels not only possible but inevitable. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick so eloquently puts it in her book, Generous Thinking, “it is our mission, and our responsibility, to look beyond our own walls to the world beyond, to enlarge the gifts that we have received by passing them on to other.”(43)


We would like to extend our thanks to the 100 people who participated in our surveys, as well as the many others who encouraged their friends and colleagues to do the same. We would also like to thank all of the authors who made their work Open Access, so we could read and reference it in this article.


Alperin, Juan Pablo, Carol Muñoz Nieves, Lesley Schimanski, Gustavo E. Fischman, Meredith T. Niles and Erin C. McKiernan. “How significant are the public dimensions of faculty work in review, promotion, and tenure documents?” Humanities Commons [preprint].

Alperin, Juan Pablo. “Course: Making Knowledge Public.” Last modified Nov 14, 2018.

Bonney, Rick, Tina B. Phillips, Heidi L. Ballard, and Jody W. Enck. “Can Citizen Science Enhance Public Understanding of Science?.” Public Understanding of Science 25, no. 1 (January 2016): 2-16.  doi:10.1177/0963662515607406.

Bucchi, Massimiano. “Of Deficits, Deviations and Dialogues: Theories of Public Communication of Science.” In  Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, edited by Massimiano Bucchi and Brian Trench, 57-76. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Cantor, Nancy, Peter Englot, and Marilyn Higgins. "Making the Work of Anchor Institutions Stick: Building Coalitions and Collective Expertise."  Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 17, no. 3 (2013): 17-44.

DeRosa, Robin. "The Future of the Public Mission of Universities". Last modified November 22, 2018.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

Flaherty, Colleen. “So Much to Do, So Little Time.” Inside Higher Ed, April 9, 2014.

Fleerackers, Alice. “Preliminary Findings from the Review, Promotion, and Tenure Study.” ScholCommLab (blog), May 30, 2018.

 Jacobs, Jerry A., and Sarah E. Winslow. “Overworked Faculty: Job Stresses and Family Demands.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 596, no. 1 (2004): 104-129.

Jones, Nicola."Canada budget falls flat with scientists." Nature, March 23, 2017.

Mervis, Jeffrey. "Data check: U.S. government share of basic research funding falls below 50%." Science, March 9, 2017.

Mulholland, James. "Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers." The Guardian, December, 10, 2015.

Simis, Molly J., Haley Madden, Michael A. Cacciatore, and Sarah K. Yeo. “The Lure of Rationality: Why Does the Deficit Model Persist in Science Communication?.” Public Understanding of Science 25, no. 4 (2016): 400-414.

SPARC. “Open Access.” Accessed November 2018,

The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Federal and State Funding of Higher Education: A Changing Landscape." June 11, 2015.

Walsh, Gerard, The Cost of Credentials: The Shifting Burden of Post-Secondary Education in Canada (Toronto: Royal Bank of Canada, 2018),

Willinsky, John. The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.


  1.  Juan Pablo Alperin, “Course: Making Knowledge Public,” last modified Nov 14, 2018,
  2.  Detailed questions and responses from our surveys are available here:
  3.  These surveys were not by any means meant to be  a “scientific experiment”, only exercises to get a sense of people’s opinions. The results should be treated accordingly. 
  4.  As we did not collect any demographic data, we cannot provide exact information about where all of our survey respondents were located. However, based off of who we shared the survey with, we do have a general sense that most respondents were based in North America.
  5.  Gerard Walsh, The Cost of Credentials: The Shifting Burden of Post-Secondary Education in Canada (Toronto: Royal Bank of Canada, 2018),
  6.  "Federal and State Funding of Higher Education: A Changing Landscape", The Pew Charitable Trusts, June 11 2015,
  7.  “Open Access,” SPARC, accessed November 2018,
  8.  Renato Pereira, survey response, November, 2018.
  9.  John Willinsky, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006),
  10.  Anaheed Saatchi, survey response, November, 2018
  11. Anonymous survey response, November, 2018
  12.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 23,
  13.  Nicola Jones, "Canada budget falls flat with scientists," Nature, March 23, 2017,
  14.  Jeffrey Mervis, "Data check: U.S. government share of basic research funding falls below 50%," Science, March, 9, 2017,
  15.  Kris Fleerackers, survey response, November, 2018
  16.  Anonymous survey response, November, 2018
  17.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 20,
  18.  Sarah Corsie, survey response, November, 2018
  19.  Carla Oliveira, survey response, November, 2018
  20.  Anonymous survey response, November, 2018
  21.  Anonymous survey response, November, 2018
  22.  Erik Hanson, survey response, November, 2018
  23.  Michelle La, survey response, November, 2018
  24.  Alice Fleerackers, “Preliminary Findings from the Review, Promotion, and Tenure Study,” ScholCommLab (blog), May 30, 2018,
  25.  Anonymous survey response, November, 2018
  26.  Alperin et al., 2018
  27.  Rick Bonney, Tina Phillips, Heidi Ballard, and Jody Enck. “Can Citizen Science Enhance Public Understanding of Science?,” Public Understanding of Science, 25, (2015), doi:10.1177/0963662515607406.
  28.  Hannah McGregor, survey response, November, 2018
  29.  Molly J. Simis, Haley Madden, Michael A. Cacciatore, and Sarah K. Yeo, “The Lure of Rationality: Why Does the Deficit Model Persist in Science Communication?,” Public Understanding of Science 25, no. 4 (2016): 400-414. 
  30.  Massimiano Bucchi, “Of Deficits, Deviations and Dialogues: Theories of Public Communication of Science,” in  Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, ed Massimiano Bucchi and Brian Trench (New York: Routledge, 2008), 57-76,
  31.  José Guimarães, survey response, November 2018
  32.  Vance Williams, survey response, November, 2018
  33.  Haisheng Jiang, survey response, November, 2018
  34.  Pedro Dias, survey response, November, 2018
  35.  Jan Mclean, survey response, November, 2018
  36.  Nancy Cantor, Peter Englot, and Marilyn Higgins, "Making the Work of Anchor Institutions Stick: Building Coalitions and Collective Expertise",  Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 17, no. 3 (2013): 17-44,
  37.  Robin DeRosa, "The Future of the Public Mission of Universities" last modified November 22, 2018,
  38.   James Mulholland, "Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers", The Guardian, December, 10, 2015,
  39.  Alperin et al., 2018
  40. Colleen Flaherty, “So Much to Do, So Little Time,” Inside Higher Ed, April 9, 2014,
  41.  Jerry A. Jacobs and Sarah E. Winslow, “Overworked Faculty: Job Stresses and Family Demands,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 596, no. 1 (2004): 104-129.
  42.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018),

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