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Public Engagement and Organizational. Identity in U.S. Higher Education

David Weerts et Gwendolyn Freed
p. 17-39


The identities of U.S. colleges and universities are changing in response to the growing national movement promoting public engagement in higher education. Public engagement emphasizes a shift away from an expert model of delivering university knowledge to the public, toward a more collaborative model where stakeholders play a significant role in creating and sharing knowledge for the mutual benefit of institutions and society. This conceptual paper explores how U.S. colleges and universities are evolving in this emerging context. The paper begins with a brief history of U.S. higher education and the ways U.S. institutions traditionally have viewed their societal roles. Then, we discuss the emerging strategy of “public engagement” and how colleges and universities are institutionalizing engagement to reflect their unique missions, histories, and geographic settings. The section that follows conceptualizes ways in which institutions project their engagement identity to external stakeholders. We conclude by offering new directions for research to explore intersections of engagement and organizational identity in the U.S. context and around the world.

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I. Introduction

1 This paper examines how the identities of U.S. colleges and universities are changing in response to the growing national movement promoting pu­blic engagement in higher education. Briefly summarized, public engagement emphasizes a shift away from an expert model of delivering university knowledge to the public, toward a more collaborative model where stakeholders play a significant role in creating and sharing knowledge to meet needs of institutions and society alike (Boyer, 1996 ; Kellogg Commission, 1999). Engagement is defined as a « mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity » (NERCHE, 2015).

2 The paper begins with a brief history of the development of U.S. higher education, highlighting how colleges have shifted from traditional roles of “outreach” (one-way service to society) to “engagement” (two-way reciprocity for mutual benefit). We examine the epistemological shift that undergirds the public engagement movement and how it shapes – and is sha­ped by – organizational identities among U.S. colleges and universities. Following this section, we explore how actors within “engaged institutions” make meaning of their organizations and how this relates to identity on their campuses. In doing so, we describe three frames of engagement that align with an institution’s unique history, mission, and geography. Drawing on path dependence theory, we conceptualize the process through which institutions adopt salient identities congruent with these en­gagement frames.

3 We then turn our attention to how institutions project their engagement image within these three frames. We show how institutions cultivate enga­gement images among external stakeholders to enhance opportunities for resource development. Finally, our paper offers a research agenda to investigate relationships among engagement, organizational identity, and in­stitutional transformation.

II. Organizational Identity and Higher. Education’s Evolving Role in Society

4 A brief historical overview of the U.S. higher education system provides context for the public purposes that have animated colleges and universities from their inception. Contemporary understandings and practices of public engagement have their roots in the founding vocations of many institutions. Among members of a campus community this work often speaks directly to such questions as “Who are we ? ” ; “What do we stand for ? ” ; and “Where are we going ? ”. For this reason, organizational identity is a compelling lens through which to examine the evolving societal roles of U.S. colleges and universities.

5 Organizational identity literature has brought new explanatory power to “intangibles” in higher education (Stensaker, 2015 :103). Clark (1970, 1972) was among the first social scientists to call attention to unspoken yet intensely felt and lasting values, commitments, and stories that can bond and galvanize students, faculty, alumni, and friends of a college. Albert and Whetten (1985) introduced the term organizational identity to describe shared characteristics and beliefs that are distinctive, central, and enduring. Identification within a group can confer a feeling of “oneness” and “belongingness” (Ashforth/Mael, 1989 :135) and support “sensemaking” among members (Weick, 1995). Identity influences decision-ma­king and other organizational behaviors (Gioia/Thomas, 1996).

6 More recent ideas complicate or elaborate the root construct of identity in ways that can shed light on the public engagement movement in U.S. higher education. For example, it has been argued that identity is neither static nor incidental in organizational life but rather is a core process of as­similation and commitment that has direct bearing on performance outco­mes (Ashforth/Harrison/Corley, 2008). Identity plays a role not only inter­nally but also externally, in image building, branding, marketing, and fundraising (Puusa, 2006 ; Weerts/Morphew/Freed, 2014). Identity exists within, but also among, organizations in uncertain circumstances and environments (Glynn, 2008). Identity is adaptive (Gioia/Schultz/Corley, 2000). It can be a tool to mediate or manipulate continuity or change (Stensaker, 2013 ; Glynn/Lockwood/Raffaeli, 2015). Thus, identity can be seen as both “essentialist” and “strategic” (Stensaker, 2015). An historical review of the societal roles of U.S. colleges and universities supports these conceptions of identity as consequential, contextual, maneuverable, and ultimately instrumental.

7 As the diverse, decentralized U.S. higher education system has evolved, so too have notions about how institutions would enact their identities in relation to their communities, states, and society as a whole. The earliest colonial colleges had the central social function of educating the sons of the elite (Vine, 1997), but they also had “public” missions, with strong commitments to serving society through their close integration of church and state affairs – an arrangement that was viewed as symbiotic in the early founding of the nation (Dyer, 1999 ; Furco, 2010). According to Dyer (1999), colleges established prior to the Civil War had a powerful emphasis on democracy and broadening access to higher education. Many of these institutions emerged as today’s premier liberal arts institutions, still committed to developing a social ethic in U.S. higher education.

8 In the late 19th century, a fledging group of research universities sought a place for knowledge creation within a larger public narrative about the public purposes of higher education. Many of these institutions were established or bolstered by the Morrill Land-Grant Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. This legislation approved the sale of federal lands to support universities that were focused on practical arts such as agriculture, mechanical arts, and mining. The land-grant movement expanded access to higher education and facilitated westward expansion (Cohen/Kisker, 2010 ; Thelin, 2004). In the early 20th Century, the emerging American research university, especially those with land-grant roots, delivered short courses and extension programs, and faculty gave expert advice to business and agriculture (Roper/Hirth, 2005). By the middle of the 20th century, investment in U.S. research universities resulted in innovative products that accelerated commercialization and technology transfer. Such advancements improved quality of life and were viewed as part of higher education’s role serving the public (Roper/Hirth, 2005).

9 Public opinion quickly soured in the 1970s, however, when many campuses saw violent antiwar protests, and the country struggled with soaring inflation and unemployment, an oil crisis, wage and price controls, and corporate downsizing (Lazerson, 1997). U.S. colleges and universities, once heralded as the answer to social ills from racism to poverty, were de­nounced by the 1980s as wasteful purveyors of empty promises (St. John/Parsons, 2004). Government leaders questioned the utility of re­search funded by taxpayers (Altbach et al., 2005 ; Furco, 2010 ; Newman et al., 2004). State investment as a percentage of total higher education budgets began a long and sharp decline (Oliff/Palicios/Johnson/Leachman, 2013 ; Quinterno, 2012) ; tuition, in turn, began to outpace inflation. New public accountability standards tied performance-based funding to graduation rates, efficiency, and responsiveness to public needs (Ewell, 2007). By the end of the millennium, one prominent report suggested that public colleges and universities had grown out-of-touch and indifferent to society (Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities, 1999). U.S. higher education had an image problem.

III. The Emergence of “Engaged Institutions”

10 Growing scrutiny of U.S. higher education prompted scholars and leaders in the field to re-envision the relationship between the academy and the public, and to think about the broader relevance of their work (Boyer, 1990 ; Glassick/Huber/Maeroff, 1997 ; Lynton, 1995). They constructed meaning around the new term, engagement (Boyer, 1996), and distinguished it from prior notions of service and outreach. Engagement leaders pro­moted a new epistemology, seeking to transform the ways scholars viewed their teaching, research, and service. Historically, university service and outreach were seen as linear and unidirectional activities with a clear division of labor among experts (e.g., university scholars) and community par­tners. Community partners were seen as consumers of knowledge “delive­red” to them through the dissemination of information from the academy. In contrast, engagement professionals came to view knowledge as socially and culturally mediated by partners, requiring university and community actors to collaborate on all phases of knowledge creation and application. The unidirectional focus on knowledge delivery was replaced with the notion of exchange, a two-way interactive process of institutionalizing and implementing ideas for public benefit (Walshok, 2005 ; Weerts/San­dmann, 2008).

11 Soon, professional associations formed to elevate the public commitments of colleges and universities to the broad notion of engagement. In 1985, three campus presidents founded Campus Compact, a coalition of U.S. campuses committed to reviving the civic roles of their institutions. The organization, which has pioneered efforts in service-learning and other civic learning programs in the U.S., has grown to more than 1,100 members, representing a quarter of all higher education institutions in the U.S. (Hartley, 2009). Similarly, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (now Association of Public and Land-grant Universities), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the American Association of Community Colleges develo­ped various initiatives to promote a renewed public ethic among presidents, faculty, staff, and students.

12 Resource opportunities also prompted scholars and institutions to consi­der engagement as part of their research and teaching portfolio. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development created the Community Outreach Partnership Centers (COPC) program, which provi­ded grant funding to institutions focused on community vitality. Not long after, the U.S. Congress passed the Urban Grant Program and National Community Service Trust Acts, providing financial incentives to launch service-learning programs and urban-institutional collaborations. Such funding agencies as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) soon required grant proposals that demonstrated broad impacts involving communities (Furco, 2010). At the state level, prominent higher education leaders began to counsel their colleagues that the future of public support for higher education would be tied to institutional engagement with communities (AASCU, 2002 ; Bloomfield, 2005 ; Duderstadt, 2000 ; Zimpher, 2006).

13 Another important factor driving change has been the accreditation process. U.S. colleges and universities are loosely governed by a variety of accrediting bodies that set standards for programs and conduct periodic re­views to determine if the standards have been met. The U.S. government requires that higher education institutions be accredited in order to receive federal funding. At the beginning of the 21st century, accrediting agencies began to include engagement among their accreditation criteria. Sandmann, Williams, and Abrams (2009) found that some institutions began leveraging the accreditation process to promote engagement priorities on their campus.

14 The confluence of these factors created a new cadre of institutions com­mitted to the values and practices of engagement. By 2006, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching created a new classification of “community engaged institutions”. The first classification included 77 institutions in 2006 and has since grown to 361 as of 2015 (NERCHE, 2015). Furco (2010 :388) summarized the central features of an engaged institution :

Therefore, a post-secondary institution becomes an ‘engaged campus’ when through the establishment of authentic and genuine partnerships : (1) the intellectual, disciplined-based resources at an institution are harnessed, organized and used to address community issues and concerns ; and (2) the community issues and concerns are incorporated as a legitimate part of the scholarly, academic work of departments, faculty and students (Altbach et al., 2005 ; Holland, 2000 ; Zlotkowski, 2000).

IV. Changing Academic Culture and Practices: Engagement and Organizational Evolutions

15 While there is significant momentum for engagement in the U.S., progress has been uneven across sectors and institutions. Institutions face for­midable challenges related to organizational culture and structure that impede change processes throughout higher education, no matter the innovation (Tierney, 2008). Whether a campus emerges as an engaged institution depends on the ability of organizational boundaries to expand and accom­modate engagement philosophy and practice. In their study of engagement practices at U.S. research universities, Sandmann and Weerts (2008) explored how engagement was being integrated into the core functions of institutions. Drawing on Levine’s (1980) boundary expansion framework, the researchers found that the degree to which engagement was institutionalized related to its compatibility with institutional norms, values, and goals. They found that young, urban, and less research-intensive institutions were able to make sense of engagement as a natural expression of their values and larger identity. In these settings, engagement was more easily woven into “meanings” about academic work and fit into widely held ideas about teaching, research, and scholarship. Conversely, rural, re­search-intensive land-grant institutions had more difficulty integrating engagement since such campuses were more entrenched in the one-way expert model of outreach. These campuses struggled to make meaning of en­gagement in a more systemic way across the institution. As a result, they were more likely to silo their engagement activities into separate units that protected the academic core of the institution. In this way, engagement was largely expressed on the periphery, allowing the deeply held values of the institution to remain unchanged (e.g., traditional teaching and scholar­ship). The researchers concluded that institutions express engagement in ways that are compatible with their unique cultural and structural boundaries (Sandmann/Weerts, 2008).

16 These findings dovetail an earlier study by Chaffee (1984), who found that institutions rely on a combination of adaptive and interpretive appro­aches to adjust to changing environments. Adaptive strategies are outward looking, and lead institutions to act in ways that accommodate for changes in the environment. In the present case, engagement as an “innovative practice” calls for adaptive strategies resulting in new partnerships, structures, or models that are deeply responsive to community or societal needs. Meanwhile, interpretative strategies affirm long-standing institutional values and determine how structural adaptations “make sense” within an institution’s unique story. That is, engagement must be viewed as compatible with the institution’s view of itself. A combination of adaptive and interpretive strategies has been shown to be most effective in helping institutions adjust to environmental changes related to politics, resources, and public expectations (Chaffee, 1984).

V. Aligning Engagement with Institutional. Narratives Three Engagement Frames

17 The foregoing analysis emphasizes that engagement must be embedded in a college or university’s unique mission and culture to become an institutionalized practice. Accordingly, across the diverse landscape of U.S. hi­gher education, we see evidence that three distinct, but overlapping, forms of engagement have emerged. Institutions tend to situate themselves within one or more of these engagement frames that are compatible with their distinct histories, missions, and places. The frames help campus actors make sense of engagement in relation to their unique institutional contexts, while strategically projecting their engagement image to advance larger goals.

18 First, the “civic learning frame” emphasizes the role that colleges play in preparing students for participation in a democratic society (Boyte/Hol­lander, 1999 ; Ehrlich, 2000 ; Saltmarsh/Hartley, 2011). Institutions emphasizing engagement through the civic learning perspective tend to be private liberal arts colleges and focus on preparing leaders for service to society (Morphew/Hartley, 2006). This frame supports the two-way model of knowledge sharing, but is primarily enacted through teaching and learning, namely service-learning. Campus Compact, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U, 2014) and the American Democracy Project (associated with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities) are examples of national associations that promote the civic learning frame among member organizations.

19 A second group of institutions tends to focus on partnership development toward the broader outcome of community revitalization (Moore, 2014). Institutions in the “community revitalization” frame tend to be regional public universities in urban or suburban locations offering ample engagement opportunities. These institutions view their relationships with their regions and municipalities as symbiotic. Thus, they are inclined to co-create knowledge with communities for a specific set of social and eco­nomic goals. Service-learning programs and community-based scholarship are common practices at these institutions. Institutions situated within the community revitalization frame tend to have less intensive research missions than their sister land-grant universities and are more likely to reward community-based scholarship (Holland, 2005 ; Weerts/Sandmann, 2008). The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU) are exam­ples of national associations that support community revitalization as a priority.

20 A third group of institutions emphasize research and scholarship as it relates to their civic identity. Such institutions fall within the “engaged scholarship and public impact” frame and are typically large public re­search universities. They include land-grant universities and other re­search-intensive institutions (sometimes called state flagship universities) that have amassed a robust research infrastructure for nearly a century or more. They tend to be among the most prestigious American universities in international rankings due to their research reputation and funding. Often affiliated with the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and/or Association of American Universities (AAU), such institutions are international in scope and view the impact of their scholarship in a global context. They are likely to describe their work as addressing large societal problems such as climate change and world hunger. Historically, these institutions have been the most entrenched in a unidirectional view of outreach, emphasizing the dissemination of knowledge developed in labs and expert-driven methodologies (Weerts/Sandmann, 2008). Increasingly, however, enclaves of scholars within these institutions incorporate participatory approaches to research, engaging community partners in developing research questions, collecting data, interpreting findings, and co-creating strategies to address difficult societal problems (Fitzgerald/Burak/Seifer, 2011a, 2011b).

VI. Institutional Adoption of Engagement Frames

21 Several factors play a role in steering institutions to adopt one or more of the engagement frames as their salient civic identity. We suggest that path dependence theory is instructive in understanding this process. Briefly summarized, path dependence refers to the notion that a sequence of historical events shape, and even limit, the path an organization may take in the present or future. Organizations assume various paths as a result of positive feedback and accumulated advantage over time. Past decisions constrain how organizations understand themselves and how they behave relative to competitors, the environment, or other factors (Schreyögg/Sy­dow, 2011 ; Marquis/Tilcsik, 2013 ; Pierson, 2000).

22 There is evidence that path dependence theory helps explain how U.S. colleges and universities have come to understand and express their uni­que roles in society. As briefly summarized in the introduction, institutional founders played a critical role in creating and nourishing identities of U.S. colleges. Clark’s (1970) classic work, The Distinctive College, explained that an institution’s distinctiveness derives from its passion, perso­nality, and commitment to ideas and principles. These commitments are reflected in an institution’s unique values and structures, and also find expression in its civic mission. As discussed previously, early leaders of liberal arts colleges emphasized training the elite classes for national leader­ship, and thus, were committed to civic learning and democratic education from the start (Dyer, 1999). Meanwhile, Progressive era leaders of land-grant universities advocated the pursuit of knowledge for applied purpo­ses, and thus, sowed the seeds of engaged scholarship (see Hoeveler, 1997). Likewise, many regional public universities have their roots in the normal school or teacher training movement. Such institutions responded directly to the educational and social needs of their communities (Cohen/Kisker, 2010).

23 As faculties were hired, they reinforced various views about the roles of their institutions in society. Scholars began to categorize groups of faculty as “local” or “cosmopolitan” (Riesman, 1956 ; Birnbaum, 1988). On one hand, local faculty are typically employed at regional public universities, are generally loyal to their institution, and prioritize local service and tea­ching over research. On the other hand, cosmopolitan faculty are typically employed at major research universities, are more loyal to their discipline than their home institution, and are visible nationally and internationally. The dominant values of local and cosmopolitan faculty are reinforced within a campus culture, and faculty rewards and policies perpetuate establi­shed views of the institution (O’Meara, 2005).

24 We suggest that an institution’s most dominant engagement frame is tightly coupled to faculty culture and rewards. For example, past research suggests that faculty at regional public universities (e.g., local faculty) are more likely to be rewarded for direct engagement with community partners as compared to faculty at research universities (e.g., cosmopolitan fa­culty) (Holland, 2005 ; Weerts/Sandmann, 2008). Thus, the community revitalization frame emerges as most salient for regional universities while engaged scholarship and public impact is most prominent for research uni­versities. Similarly, teaching excellence is highly valued at liberal arts institutions, and thus is firmly connected to the civic learning frame.

25 Frame salience can be further understood by examining political and market forces that segment and stratify institutions according to their historical identity. As U.S. higher education blossomed in the 20th century, formal bodies such as state-level governing boards and systems emerged to regulate and, in some cases, manage the ambitions of state institutions (McGuinness, 2011). These systems ultimately limit institutional paths ba­sed on their widely understood purposes and mission. Similarly, market forces influence institutional paths as they relate to image, stakeholder values, and resources. For instance, institutions that have nourished identities as “prestige” or “convenience/user friendly colleges” have developed successful market positions aligned with these identities (Zemsky/Sha­man/Iannozzi, 1997). Thus, they are prone to remain on these paths through accumulative advantage and positive reinforcement in the U.S. hi­gher education marketplace. As Graf (2009 :570) explains,

[…] universities gravitate towards strategies that best take advantage of the given institutional conditions. However, while they cannot fully determine the characteristics of their institutional environment, the institutional context still gives them enough leeway to choose – within certain limits – their own ‘paths’. Thus, the assumption is that institutional structures condition university-chosen strategies, even if they do not determine them.

26 Drawing on path dependence theory, we summarize that that institutions adopt engagement identities based on accumulative advantage and positive reinforcement over long periods of time. Specifically, research universities with cosmopolitan faculty seek to distinguish themselves with the “engaged scholarship and public impact frame” because it furthers their legacies as knowledge-producing institutions. Liberal arts colleges with a mix of cosmopolitan and local faculty distinguish themselves with the “civic learning frame”, which builds on their accumulative advantage as institutions known for their teaching and public leadership focus. Finally, regional public universities build on their assets of committed local fa­culty to bolster their institutions’ unique niche in the realm of community revitalization. In all three cases, historical precedents limit adoption of strong engagement identities in each of the frames. For example, small li­beral arts colleges with minimal research infrastructures are unlikely to be aligned with the engaged scholarship and public impact frame. Path dependence theory suggests that past decisions limit future decisions, even if the environment changes and pushes the institution to change course (Schreyögg/Sydow, 2011).

27 In concluding this section, we emphasize the notion of frame salience, meaning that the frames are not mutually exclusive. Rather they may overlap and with some being more prominent based on such mediating factors as place, public/private authority, and mission. For example, a major re­search university located in a challenging urban environment may view it­self prominently within an engaged scholarship/public impact identity but also closely identify with community revitalization in efforts to restore its local neighborhood. In this case, geography is a mediating factor that may enhance its identity as an institution committed to engaged scholarship/pu­blic impact and community revitalization. The Venn diagram depicted in Figure 1 illustrates the overlapping nature of these frames.

VII. Engagement and Institutional Image

28 Thus far, we have examined how engagement in U.S. higher education is expressed in a way that reflects institutional history, mission, and place. Our discussion of path dependence and frame salience is anchored within an essentialist view of organizational identity, which suggests that organizational identity is closely linked to an organization’s predominant cultu­re. The essentialist perspective emphasizes the limits of leaders in facilitating organizational change (Stensaker, 2015 ; Hatch/Schultz, 2000a, 2000b), and suggests that engagement must be framed in ways that closely align with an institution’s historic identity.

29 In this section we explore how the three engagement frames might be understood through the strategic view of organizational identity. Distinct from the essentialist perspective, this lens emphasizes how organizational identity can be leveraged to advance strategic interests through use of language, symbols, and myths (Stensaker, 2015 ; Fiol, 2002 ; Strati, 1998). Specifically, there is evidence that U.S. colleges and universities are maxi­mizing their engagement identities to attract the support of their primary resource providers : legislators, philanthropists, students, and families. Institutions are harnessing their engagement stories to help raise institutio­nal visibility, bolster state appropriations, attract philanthropic support, and recruit students. We will consider specific cases in which a strategic approach to organizational identity intersects with three engagement fra­mes : community revitalization, engaged scholarship and public impact, and civic learning.

VIII. Community Revitalization, State. Appropriations and Philanthropy

30 As relative levels of state support for higher education declines in the U.S., regional public institutions are particularly vulnerable due to their historically heavily reliance on state appropriations. Unlike American research universities, they primarily serve place-bound students and lack the prestige and research infrastructure to build robust research portfolios or endowments (Kelderman, 2014). In this complex environment, we see evidence that regional public institutions are using their “community revitalization” identities as a competitive strategy to attract public and private support.

31 One longitudinal study of state appropriations for higher education found that over a 20-year period, appropriations were higher for institutions located in politically significant, urban areas with ample opportunities for engagement focused on regional needs. These campuses were known for promoting authentic exchange relationships with community stakeholders as opposed to those campuses in the “lower than expected support” categories that emphasized traditional outreach or civic learning (Weerts, 2014). This study found evidence that regional institutions rely on their community revitalization identities as a means to increase their state funding.

32 The community revitalization frame also has been employed by regional public universities as a strategic tool to attract private support. Lang­seth and McVeety’s (2007) case description of Portland State University (PSU) illustrates how its engagement identity – through the community re­vitalization frame – was leveraged strategically to generate private dollars. The authors explained that declining state support for higher education in the 1980s prompted PSU to distinguish itself from other institutions. By fully embracing its urban mission, the university became known by a new motto, “Let knowledge serve the city”, that was inscribed in large letters on a skyway bridge spanning campus to community. By the early 2000s, engagement became central to PSU’s identity through robust curricular re­forms and a revised faculty promotion and tenure processes (Lang­seth/McVeety, 2007).

33 In 2004, PSU launched a $ 100 million fundraising campaign that promoted messages of engagement closely aligned with the theme of commu­nity revitalization. One major donor explained, « We didn’t attend Portland State, but we’re enrolled in its vision » (Ibid. :125). Identity can be highli­ghted to reposition, legitimize, or enhance organizational image (Glynn, 2008), and in this case, elevated reputation attracted heightened resources. PSU exceeded its campaign goal by $ 14 million.

IX. Engaged Scholarship, Public Impact and State/Federal Investment

34 U.S. land-grant universities and other premier research universities enjoy robust and diverse resources to fund their far reaching scholarly activities (Salmi, 2009). But like regional public universities, they also have ex­perienced cuts in state appropriations during the past three decades. They received the least stable state support among public sectors of higher education between the late 1980s and early 2000s (Weerts/Ronca, 2012). They, too, rely on their engagement identity as a strategic tool to attract resources, but in nuanced ways. This is seen in state and federal level strategies to secure appropriations and grant support.

35 Research universities are creating campaigns around public impact the­mes to regain state support. For example, in 2014, the University of California System – a system of 10 premier research universities – launched a major branding, marketing, and public relations campaign emphasizing public impact themes. Advertisements superimposed the word “public” in giant block letters over attention-getting visuals. In one example, “Public Transit” is superimposed on the image of an exoskeleton developed by UC Berkeley scientists for people with spinal cord injuries. According to the university, the campaign was designed to highlight the system’s contribution to the « common good », and « its roots in the university’s public identity » (University of California, 2014).

36 The UC example illustrates how research-intensive institutions communicate their unique public value to state lawmakers. In this respect, they differ from institutions that would primarily view themselves within the community revitalization and civic learning frames. Research campuses tell stories of their research prowess to illustrate how traditional scholar­ship benefits society. Importantly, the UC example reveals that imaging around research university scholarship often remains unidirectional. UC experts featured in the campaign example are addressing the important issue of alleviating paralysis, which may or may not have an engaged component that reflects partnership and reciprocity. This case further supports the notion of path dependence, which suggests that entrenched practices that are positively reinforced over time are bound to retain these practices in the future, even when the environment shifts and promotes new ways of organizing (Schreyögg/Sydow, 2011). Simply put, research universities remain known for their historic role in disseminating know­ledge which is largely uni-directional.

37 There is evidence that organizational identity can be “edited” (see Sten­saker/Norgård, 2001) in ways that promote a contemporary view of engagement among research universities. This is revealed in how American re­search universities have responded to a criterion established by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds nearly 24 percent of federally supported basic research across U.S. colleges and universities (National Science Foundation, 2015). Since 1997, NSF has required investigators to demonstrate how their grant proposals will go beyond basic discovery, and result in “broader impacts” such as economic competitiveness, increased participation among women and minorities in science, increased public-industry partnerships, and other outcomes (Markin, 2013). Engaged scholarship has been touted as a key mechanism by which research universities can compete on this criterion.

38 In sum, the emphasis on “public impact” stories is a strategy employed by research universities to meet the changing requirements of a shifting funding context. Since « universities gravitate towards strategies that best take advantage of the given institutional conditions » (Graf, 2009 :570), the engaged scholarship and public impact frame is compatible with research universities in the “essentialist” and “strategic” perspectives of organizational identity (Stensaker, 2015). This identity attracts federal dollars to an institution while updating its long-standing emphasis on scholarship.

X. Civic Learning Frame and Student Recruiting

39 As noted earlier, the civic learning frame is dominant among institutions in the liberal arts or private college sector in the U.S. (Morphew/Har­tley, 2006). Such colleges are as diverse – or even more so – than their counterparts in the public sector. They are rarely provided direct appropri­ations from state governments, although are eligible for state and federal grants which students carry with them to the institution. While some are well known by their prestige, endowments, high tuition, and large number of highly qualified applicants, the majority are less prestigious, have difficulty attracting high quality students, and have modest endowments. Across the sector, private colleges are experiencing stress brought on by rising prices and competition from new markets (Lapovsky, 2005).

40 Since private institutions rely heavily on tuition revenue to survive, pressure to attract students is becoming increasingly intense. A public image of engagement has become a strategic asset in recruiting students to these and other U.S. colleges and universities. Today’s prospective students want to identify with institutions that are committed to providing a community-based curriculum, and they make enrollment choices based on their perceptions in this respect (Pope, 2010). Colleges and universities seem aware of this, increasingly projecting images of themselves in the context of vibrant community partnerships (Dempsey, 2010). We see evidence of this at Tulane University, an institution that has leveraged its civic learning identity coupled with community revitalization to attract a ge­neration of civic-minded students.

41 In late August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina temporarily displaced thousands of students at Tulane University, a selective private institution. Within months, senior administrators announced $ 60 million in budget cuts (Selingo, 2005). Recognizing adversity as a unique opportunity for reinvention and renewal, Tulane announced a new “Partnership for the Transformation of Urban Communities”, moving engagement from the periphery to the core of its identity. Specifically prioritizing civic learning, the university grew its Center for Public Service, increased and enhanced public service requirements for graduation, and launched the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching. Tulane’s new image included such key messages as, « Giving back to the community isn’t just a slogan at Tulane – it is part of our DNA » (Cunningham et al., 2013 :2). Applications for en­rollment increased significantly (Pope, 2010), as did charitable contributions. Then-President Scott Cowen stated that Katrina had « triggered a profound and permanent change to the culture of Tulane University » (Co­wen, n.d., para. 1), enabling it « to set the standard for public service for the next generation of universities » (Ibid., para. 4.).

42 In concluding this section, we note that while institutions across the three engagement frames seem to prop up the “essentialist” elements of the campus, they also can use the engagement frames to make strategic identity moves. Path dependence suggests that institutions are ultimately constrained in their paths by past decisions. However, engagement gives institutions « enough leeway to choose – within certain limits – their own “paths” » (Graf, 2009 :570). Our analysis suggests that institutions accentuate their long-term civic identities in ways that support their own survival. In this way, engagement and identity help explain both continuity and change in higher education, constructs that Stensaker (2015) described as the dominant ways to categorize organizational identity literature.

XI. Conclusions and Future Research

43 U.S. colleges and universities have been profoundly influenced by their founders’ visions and regional contexts that shape their contributions to the public good. In this article, we posited that path dependence is useful in understanding how institutions maintain stability and initiate change as it relates to the emerging national focus on public engagement in higher education. Due to accumulative advantage and positive reinforcement over long periods of time, institutions retain salient aspects of their herita­ge, infrastructure, and culture in the way they express their long-held narratives about service to society. Accordingly, they gravitate to various forms of engagement practice that are compatible with their long-standing institutional identities. In an era of scarce resources, institutions leverage these identities to bolster public and private financial support, recruit students, accentuate their brand, and strengthen their overall value proposition. In doing so, institutional expressions of engagement can be seen as both “essentialist” and “strategic” (Stensaker, 2015).

44 Our analysis of public engagement and organizational identity prompts us to offer new directions for research in a U.S. and comparative context. One set of challenges in the field is the congruence between an institution’s espoused image of engagement and the reality of engagement as an institutional practice. A report by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities declared,

While the idea of public engagement is frequently embraced by university presidents, there is considerable evidence that deep engagement is rare – there is more smoke than fire, more rhetoric than reality (AASCU, 2002 :13).

45 We suggest that literature on corporate communication could be instructive in this domain. Past studies of corporate image explore public expectations of a good company and how a company would like to be perceived, suggesting a symmetrical symbolic relationship. This work explo­res the truthfulness of how organizational behaviors are represented in reality (Wan/Schell, 2007). We suggest that this symmetry be explored in in­stitutional contexts related to engagement and public perceptions of higher education.

46 We also recommend that civic identies and engagement practices be ex­plored in a comparative context. Engagement is not strictly a U.S. phenomena, but rather is a growing practice around the world. A compelling avenue for research would be to examine how engagement might be adop­ted differently among various cultural contexts, and how this might relate to the three engagement frames advanced in this present analysis. To what extent might these frames be similar or different outside the U.S. ? International studies might explore engagement levers and challenges as they differ across individualistic and collectivist cultures. Other studies might focus on how unique understandings of higher education globally impact how engagement is understood in a worldwide context. Still other studies could explore how external forces driving engagement agendas (e.g. demographic change, institutional striving, financial pressure) might vary across global contexts. Knowledge from these studies could inform cross-cultural collaboration that focuses on solving global problems.

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Structured summary

This conceptual paper examines how the identities of U.S. colleges and universities are changing in response to the growing national movement promoting public engagement in higher education. Public engagement emphasizes a shift from an expert model of delivering university knowledge to the public, toward a collaborative model where sta­keholders play a significant role in creating and sharing knowledge to meet needs of institutions and society alike (Boyer, 1996 ; Kellogg Commission, 1999). Engagement is a « mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partner­ship and reciprocity » (NERCHE, 2015).

Our paper draws on scholarship in organizational identity and higher education to theorize how U.S. colleges and universities are editing their identities in response to the public engagement movement. Our historical overview of U.S. colleges and universities suggests that an institution’s civic identity is both “essentialist” and “strategic” (Stensaker, 2015). Engagement is cast as compatible with the institution’s history, mis­sion, and view of itself, but can also be maneuvered and leveraged to promote strategic goals. We posit that this process can be explained by path dependence theory, in which an organization can be shaped, and even limited, by historical events, positive feedback, and accumulated advantage. Past decisions constrain how organizations understand themselves and behave relative to competitors, the environment, or other factors (Schreyögg/Sydow, 2011 ; Marquis/Tilcsik, 2013 ; Pierson, 2000).

Informed by path dependence theory, we draw on literature suggesting that three patterns of engagement practice and identity have emerged at U.S. colleges and universities. First, the “civic learning” frame emphasizes the role that colleges play in preparing students for participation in a democratic society (Boyte/Hollander, 1999 ; Ehrlich, 2000 ; Saltmarsh/Hartley, 2011). Institutions emphasizing the civic learning per­spective tend to be private liberal arts colleges traditionally focused on preparing leaders for service to society (Morphew/Hartley, 2006). Second, institutions in the “com­munity revitalization” frame tend to be regional public universities that regard them­selves in symbiotic relationship with their urban or suburban communities and municipalities. Third, institutions in the “engaged scholarship and public impact” frame are typically large, globally-significant research universities, including land-grant universities, that have amassed and accentuated a robust research infrastructure for nearly a century or more. Emphasizing frame salience, we suggest the frames are not mutually exclusive but may overlap and based on such mediating factors as geography, public/private authority, and mission.

Our paper highlights past research suggesting that institutions leverage these three distinct and overlapping identities to nurture their historic view of themselves and promo­te their value proposition among key resource providers. Institutions in the civic learning frame leverage their identity to promote student recruiting, while institutions pro­mote the community revitalization in pursuit of public and private financial support. Institutions in the “engaged scholarship and public impact” frame seek to secure federal grants and enhance their research image. This literature supports the notion that an institution’s civic identity is both “essentialist” and “strategic” (Stensaker, 2015). In conclusion we call for future research examining congruence of engagement identity and practice, and comparative analyses of engagement across global contexts.

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David Weerts et Gwendolyn Freed, « Public Engagement and Organizational. Identity in U.S. Higher Education »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 47-1 | 2016, 17-39.

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David Weerts et Gwendolyn Freed, « Public Engagement and Organizational. Identity in U.S. Higher Education »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 47-1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 12 octobre 2016, consulté le 05 juillet 2020. URL :; DOI:

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David Weerts

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America.

Gwendolyn Freed

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America.

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