Linking Diversity and Public Engagement


Now more than ever, colleges and universities are crucial institutions for building societies’ capacity to realize democratic values and address the complex problems facing local, regional, national, and international communities.   Higher education and community leaders are grappling with how to fulfill these challenging and sometimes conflicting responsibilities, at a time when they are buffeted by competing values, incentives, and economic pressures.  

group of people in a room

There has been considerable mobilization both within particular institutions and nationally to make higher education’s public mission more central; however, despite increased attention paid to enhancing higher education’s diversity and public engagement responsibilities, that aspiration frequently operates at the periphery of institutional priorities and experiences.  Many higher education institutions acknowledge and embrace public engagement and diversity in their mission statements, but they are not currently set up to facilitate the achievement of these important goals.  The Center brings together strategically placed higher education institutions and communities that are working to figure out how to locate public problem solving at the intersection of research, teaching, and engagement, and how to do so in a way that engages the full participation of diverse communities, particularly those historically left out of this discussion.  Syracuse University and the University of Southern California are two institutions with strategies for hardwiring those linkages into institutional practice.  Both institutions occupy key positions within Imagining America’s national network, and thus are poised to play significant roles in diffusing and scaling up innovation.

Project Descriptin

The Center for Institutional and Social Change has developed a research collaboration with Syracuse University (SU), the University of Southern California (USC), and Imagining America (IA) that proceeds from a shared vision: to build higher education institutions that enable people from all communities, backgrounds, and identities to participate fully, and in the process, to build collective knowledge and capacity needed to solve difficult public problems, a dual agenda we refer to as “institutional citizenship” (Sturm 2006).  Consistent with this vision, the project uses collaborative inquiry to advance three linked goals:  (1) increasing access, success and full participation in higher education for underrepresented groups and communities, (2) building higher education’s capacity to address urgent challenges facing these communities through public engagement, and (3) prompting the institutional re-imagination needed to facilitate the achievement of these goals.

This project undertakes a mixed-method, action research approach combining in-depth institutional inquiry, cross-institutional knowledge sharing, and comprehensive information pooling via an advisory board and IA’s national network.  Specifically, it will map, systematically document, learn from, build upon, and network across innovations within and between a set of strategically placed higher education institutions and their constituent communities: Syracuse University, the University of Southern California, and the national consortium, Imagining America. It also combines the capabilities of university-community initiatives organized around institutional citizenship goals (SU’s Scholarship in Action and USC’s diversity work), a national movement-building organization to create national momentum for this agenda (Imagining America), and an action-research organization providing frameworks, systematic inquiry approaches, and networks to scale out (the Center for Institutional and Social Change) in order to answer two overarching questions: How can initiatives, programs, and universities learn from each other?  How can arts, design, and humanities serve as a particular vehicle for linking diversity/inclusion with public scholarship/engagement?  The work builds on IA’s collaboratories and national institutional network to provide a baseline understanding of best practices, encourage cross-institutional learning and knowledge sharing, and catalyze a national dialogue on these issues.


The Center for Institutional and Social Change partners with multiple stakeholders from Syracuse University, the University of Southern California, and Imagining America.  Our co-principal investigators are Nancy Cantor, Chancellor and President of Syracuse University, and George Sanchez, Vice Dean of Diversity and Strategic Initiatives, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.  We also collaborate closely with Jan Cohen Cruz, Director of Imagining America and University Professor at Syracuse University, Tim Eatman, Project Director for Research and Policy at Imagining America and Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Syracuse University, and Adam Bush, IA’s National PAGE Director.  Other important partners in this work include our national advisory board to the project, campus liaisons, program coordinators, as well as administrators and staff at each institution.