Faculty say U discourages community-engaged research

Some say the University has asked them to pursue more lucrative research options, in what may be a violation of faculty members' academic freedom.

Hailey Colwell

While some faculty members at the University of Minnesota get federally-funded research grants, others turn to the community when looking for research opportunities.

But some faculty members have said University officials discouraged them from conducting community research, which can be less lucrative for the University.

The University Senate’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee met with representatives from the University’s Public Engagement Council in April to discuss faculty members’ concerns around the issue.

Now, the committee is looking into whether discouraging faculty members from pursuing certain research grants is a violation of their academic freedom.

The PEC was created in 2011 to advise University members on public engagement issues. These issues have increased as the Office for Public Engagement pushes faculty members to incorporate engagement into research and teaching in addition to community outreach, which they are also required to do.

Another goal of the Office for Public Engagement is to maintain relationships with community organizations rather than work with them on a project-by-project basis, said Associate Vice President for Public Engagement Andrew Furco.

A couple of faculty members have told the PEC they’ve had to choose between community-engaged work and grants that would make more money for their departments, Furco said.

University professors do community-engaged research with a large number of nonprofits that do not provide the standard indirect cost rate — the University’s requirement for reimbursement of processing fees, Furco said.

It costs 62 cents for every dollar to process a grant, he said. The University asks for a 52 percent reimbursement for on-campus research and 26 percent for off-campus research to reduce that cost. When the University accepts a grant with a low indirect cost rate, Furco said, it has to absorb more of the cost.

Furco said he’s looking into whether being deterred from doing community-engaged research is a common issue among faculty.

At the meeting, other faculty members raised questions about whether limiting community-engaged research is unfair to professors in certain disciplines.

Community research is especially important to faculty in the arts, said School of Music Director David Myers.

“The arts, by nature, have to engage people in a process,” he said.

Violin professor Sally O’Reilly directs Bravo!, a summer music program that lets students from the community, across the state and around the world come to the University to study music with faculty members.

Though engaging with the community is important, O’Reilly said, there aren’t a lot of big grants out there for arts faculty.

“If we knew of resources that could help us address some of the expenses that we have, we probably would jump on them,” she said. “But it’s not like the sciences where you have big institutions that fund all sorts of … research.”