Strengthening engaged scholarship for environmental and social justice (Part 1)

Photo credit: Bannan Institute-Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Santa Clara University
Photo credit: Bannan Institute-Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Santa Clara University

Chad Raphael, Christopher Bacon, and Iris Stewart-Frey of the Environmental Justice Collaborative, Santa Clara University

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us that “… a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (LS 49)

And in an address  at Santa Clara University  nearly 20 years ago, former Father General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ spoke about commitment to justice in Jesuit higher education.  “To make sure that the real concerns of the poor find their place in research, faculty members need an organic collaboration with those in the Church and in society who work among and for the poor and actively seek justice. They should be involved together in all aspects: presence among the poor, designing the research, gathering the data, thinking through problems, planning and action, doing evaluation and theological reflection.”

The Environmental Justice Collaborative  at Santa Clara University is a two-year interdisciplinary faculty seminar on environmental justice and the common good, advancing research, teaching, and university initiatives that contribute to the university’s Jesuit and Catholic vocation as a transformative force.

Faculty Collaborative members Chad Raphael, Professor, Department of Communication, and Christopher Bacon and Iris Stewart-Frey, both Associate Professors, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences developed this paper that identifies eight strategies towards an engaged scholarship for environmental and social justice.

1. Fostering community-engaged scholarship and learning

Environmental Justice concerns more than achieving a fair distribution of environmental risks and benefits.  It concerns more than correcting past injustices.  It is also about procedural justice, about ensuring that the excluded have a voice in making environmental and health decisions that affect them.

This includes decisions about research.  Scholarly and curricular agendas determine how much money and attention are devoted to solving important problems, and whose problems get addressed.  Study designs and the interpretation of results can powerfully influence public opinion and policy, and directly improve the lives of research participants.

Jesuit universities have long recognized the transformative power of community-engaged learning and scholarship for students, faculty and staff, and community partners.  While many kinds of research and pedagogy can be valuable, community-engaged scholarship can most effectively ensure that the “real concerns of the poor find their place in research.”  It can be uniquely transformative because it brings us into direct contact with our environments and with the marginalized, allowing us “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”  When sustained over time, community-engaged scholarship can develop collaborative solutions to address pressing problems with those who most need academic partners, and who we most need to learn from and serve.  It can also result in more accurate and insightful knowledge than academics can discover alone. (Welch, 2016)

While our universities recognize the importance of environmental justice and collaborative learning with the marginalized, we have not fully integrated these values in our institutional policies and practices.  We can take several steps to do so.

2. Clarifying recruitment, tenure, and promotion policies

A recent study examined how 31 Catholic colleges and universities in the US, several of them Jesuit, express their institutional commitments to community-engaged scholarship in faculty recruitment, reappointment, promotion, and tenure policies. (Wagner, 2017)  All of the schools in the sample had earned the Elective Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which recognizes over 300 universities in the US that practice community-engaged education and scholarship. (Carnegie Foundation and Swearer Center, 2018)

Despite these Catholic commitments and Carnegie classifications, the study found only a handful of Catholic schools have clearly articulated how community-based research and learning should be considered in the hiring and promotion process.  Some schools have not yet addressed the value of this kind of scholarship, while most do so ambiguously, especially in regard to faculty teaching and research.  As the author notes, “clear and specific policies that define and name what is meant by community engagement signals to faculty not only what is allowed, but what is desirable and encouraged” in their teaching, research, and service. (p 256)

Studies elsewhere in the world confirm that this problem is pervasive, despite widespread endorsement of university-community collaboration. (Appe, Rubaii, Líppez-De Castro, & Capobianco 2017; Kearney, 2015)  For example, some schools consider contract research performed by faculty for corporate clients to be community-engaged research (Doberneck & Schweitzer, 2017), while many Jesuit institutions would likely not.

Given the alignment of engaged research and learning for sustainability and social justice with the core identity of Catholic and Jesuit education, we need to review our policies and practices for hiring and promoting all administrative, faculty, and staff positions that contribute to scholarship.  This includes the non-tenure track faculty, who teach a large proportion of courses.  It includes staff, who administer much of the co-curriculum, including community service activities.  All university employees have personal and professional connections to the community, which can help advance engaged learning for sustainability and justice.

In reviewing our policies and practices, we should ask ourselves:

  • Are we using common definitions of community-engaged scholarship, sustainability, and social justice in our policies?
  • Do our recruitment criteria and practices clearly state the value we place on knowledge of and commitment to engaged scholarship, sustainability, and social justice? Have we trained our hiring committees to assess these qualifications?
  • Do our standards for faculty and staff evaluation, promotion, and tenure explicitly value engaged scholarship, teaching, and service? Do our standards clearly value sustainability and social justice?  Have we trained all evaluators to apply these criteria?
  • A thorough examination of these questions would benefit from:

  • Consideration of major models of engaged scholarship, especially social justice and university social responsibility approaches (Appe, et al 2017)
  • Reviewing policies and practices developed at other institutions for evaluating engaged teaching, scholarship, and service (Campus Compact, 2018; Engagement Scholarship Consortium, 2018; Jordan, 2007)
  • Understanding the requirements for the Carnegie Elective Community Engagement Classification and considering applying for this classification
  • 3. Promoting interdisciplinary collaborations

    Because problems of sustainability and justice cross the boundaries of academic disciplines, communities need to address these challenges in collaboration with interdisciplinary teams of scholars.  As Pope Francis observes in Laudato Si’:

    “…The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant.  This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests…” (LS 110)

    Engaged scholarship has gained a foothold in some disciplines (especially the social and behavioral sciences, education, social work, health, agriculture, and environmental studies) more than in others (such as the humanities, arts, physical and biological sciences, and math, engineering, and computer sciences). (Doberneck & Schweitzer, 2017)

    We can provide resources to ensure that the faculty and staff in every discipline at our institutions are aware of opportunities to conduct engaged scholarship and to encourage and reward interdisciplinary collaborations with community partners.

    4. Integrating teaching, research, and service

    The more that faculty members can synthesize their teaching, research, and service activities, the more they can build expertise, increase their impact on the university and the world, and align their work with the university’s mission.

    Photo credit: Campus Community Partnerships for Health, 2018
    Source: Campus Community Partnerships for Health, 2018

    As Figure 1 shows, proponents of engaged scholarship recognize that these three areas of faculty work are not entirely separate, that each can be strengthened by a continuous dialogue, and that community engagement can help faculty members to discern more coherent vocations.

    Most importantly, the pursuit of sustainability and justice demands greater integration of the traditional triumvirate of faculty activities.  As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’:

    “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources.  There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm…” (LS 111)

    Faculty and academic staff can especially cultivate this holistic approach to sustainability by synthesizing their educational, scholarly, and service efforts through community engagement. Jesuit universities can more explicitly value this integration in their:

  • Recruitment, promotion, and tenure policies
  • Orientation, professional development, and faculty/staff formation programs
  • (To be continued)


    Appe, S, Rubaii, N, Líppez-De Castro, S, & Capobianco, S (2017). The concept and context of the engaged university in the global south: Lessons from Latin America to guide a research agenda. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 21(2), 7-36.

    Campus Community Partnerships for Health (2018). Community-engaged scholarship toolkit. Retrieved from Community-Campus Partnerships for health.

    Campus Compact (2018). Research university engaged scholarship toolkit. Retrieved from Campus Compact .

    Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching & the Swearer Center at Brown University (2018) Carnegie classification. Retrieved from Swearer Center, Brown University.

    Doberneck, D M, & Schweitzer, J H (2017). Disciplinary variations in publicly engaged scholarship: An analysis using the Biglan classification of academic disciplines. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 21(1), 78-103.

    Engagement Scholarship Consortium (2018). Engagement scholarship consortium. Retrieved from Engagement Scholarship Consortium.

    Francis, P (2015). Laudato si’: On care for our common home. Retrieved from The Holy See.

    Jordan, C (Ed). (2007). Community-engaged scholarship review, promotion & tenure package. Peer Review Workgroup, Community-Engaged Scholarship for Health Collaborative, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health. Retrieved from Community-Engaged Scholarship for Health Collaborative.

    Kearney, J (2015). Challenges for community engagement: An Australian perspective. Educational Research for Social Change 4(1), 26-39.

    Wagner, J (2017). The distinctive mission of Catholic colleges & universities and faculty reward policies for community engagement: Aspirational or operational? (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Vermont and State Agricultural College).

    Welch, M (2016). Engaging higher education: Purpose, platforms, and programs for community engagement. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.


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