Changing a 600 Year Old Business

This week’s post by David Phipps, RIR-York, arose out of his participation at Social Frontiers II, a social innovation day held in Vancouver  on May 30, 2014 that was sponsored by York University, SFU Public Square and Nesta. A shorter version of this post first appeared on the Nesta blog on August 22, 2014 and is reposted here with permission. 

Over the course of Social Frontiers II I saw lots of academic enterprise but not much academic innovation. I saw academic researchers studying social innovation and social enterprise. I saw researchers examining social systems undergoing big social challenges. I saw academic researchers acting like academic researchers.

Christ Church, cloisterTraditional academic culture feels to me like how my “almost priest” husband describes the philosophy of cloistered orders as being “in the world but not of it”. How can we move the academy and its researchers from the role of passionate (sometimes) observer to engaged participant in social change?

My own university, York University (Toronto, Canada) is a relatively new university. We were founded in 1959 but we are operating a 600 year old business model. We have about 48,000 undergraduate students, 6,000 graduate students, 1382 tenured and faculty and 3,500 staff. We are the size of a small city. Our annual revenues last year were $983M. Yet only recently are we making efforts to engage our closest neighbours in Jane/Finch and in York Region, trying to make the university an active participant in the social fabric of our local communities.

We are sitting in one of society’s most privileged institutions but how are we using that privilege to benefit the populations in which we are most interested? I have two suggestions to help move from scholarship to engaged scholarship.

1- Make your partnerships authentic partnerships. I see lots of working with partners. I see far fewer engaged scholars making their non-academic partners co-applicants on funding applications. I see almost no co-authoring of papers with partners. By controlling the funding (“partner” not “co-applicant”) and by controlling the output (authorship) we reinforce our academic privilege. To become authentic research partners we need to share the funding to help our partners make time for this work and share authorship. We need to train our non-academics to be equal partners in research and enable them to use the outcomes of the research. We can’t observe a system and call for change without also being part of that change. In York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit all of our project grants are co-authored with community partners to whom we transfer 75% of the funding. This enables them to hire the staff and lead the research and knowledge mobilization activities. We also co-author the academic and non-academic research outputs. Another champion in this area is Community Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH). They have even created community peer review providing peer review for non-traditional scholarly outputs.

2- Become a pracademic. Social Frontiers was the first time I heard this term even though it dates back 30 years.  Maura Qualye (UBC) used this term that describes a scholar who is also a practitioner in his/her field. Cameron Norman (CENSE Research  Design) and Angel Beausoleil were examples of pracademics at Social Frontiers. Both have adjunct appointments but conduct their study in and with stakeholders. For over 20 years we have combined MD/PhD programs where a student can study for an MD while also completing courses and research for a PhD. S/he graduates with practical (MD) and scholarly (PhD) experience. I have long advocated to SSHRC that we need a practitioner/PhD program where a graduate student not only undertakes that research but engages that research through authentic partnerships with partners. NSERC CREATE funded programs begin to approach this model for research in the natural sciences and engineering.

That’s what you can do. And that will also help drive institutional change. Our 600 year old business model is experiencing internal and external pressures to change.

Internal: We are under extreme financial pressures.  In response to an unsustainable business model many universities are undergoing some form of “program prioritization process”. At York ours is called the “Academic and Administrative Program Review” with a goal to articulate the quality and sustainability of each administrative and academic program. In the Panarchy[1] model it can be argued that universities are in a period of “creative destruction” and this creates opportunities for “renewal” and innovation.

External: Universities are responding to the “impact agenda”. Driven by policies such as the UK Research Excellence Framework as well as CFI and CRC expectations of “Benefits to Canada” and enabled by funding such as SSHRC’s Connections Theme, universities are expected to support and articulate broad impacts of research and learning. Knowledge mobilization is one way of making research useful to society and is embodied in different ways by each of the 10 ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche universities.

External/Internal: Students are demanding engaged educational experiences that lead to meaningful careers that make a difference. Service learning, entrepreneurship, experiential education, co-ops and internships are becoming established models of learning.

Many of our campuses are responding with opportunities for student entrepreneurship like the Pond Desphande Centre in New Brunswick, the RADIUS project at SFU and the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson.

Our 600 year old business model is changing and that creates opportunities to reimagine scholarship and the role of the academy as an active force for social change. And this is what we can do for the next Social Frontiers. Bring your practitioner co-researcher partner and focus on the “how” not just the “what” of your scholarship. At Social Frontiers II I heard great research stories (“what”). I am inspired by “what” but it doesn’t help me because your “what” doesn’t necessarily work in my “thing”. But I can learn from “how” you and your co-researcher partner did your “what” and apply that learning to my “thing”. Social Frontiers III needs to focus on the processes, politics and tools of partnered research for social change.

Our 600 year old business model is changing. And we can all be part of that change.

David Phipps, RIR-York


[1] Pearson, K.A. (2007) Accelerating our Impact: Philanthropy, Innovation and Social Change.


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