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Engaging with Difficult Issues: Reflections on the ACSP 2016 Presidential Sessions

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lois Takahashi, ACSP President; Professor, University of California Los Angeles

Carissa Slotterback, ACSP Secretary; Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

There is little doubt that our academic lives are now more than ever fraught with tension, distress, and anger. Though many of us have engaged over our entire careers with inequality, inequity, and unfairness, many of us have not been exposed to the rancor, disrespectful, and frankly debilitating conversations that seem to permeate daily public discourse.

There is no better group to tackle these issues than ACSP’s membership. We all care about improving lives, places, and policies, though we may disagree on the focus and the methods for getting there.

It is in this vein that we convened two Presidential Sessions at the ACSP annual conference in Portland, Oregon, one on “difficult conversations” and the other on “civic engagement.” These two phrases are in quotes to signify their importance as labels that should receive high priority attention, but also because the definition of both is widely variable and can motivate strong disagreements.

The Presidential Session on “difficult conversations” was motivated in part by the tension embodied in a recent exchange on the now ended PLANET, an email distribution listserv for faculty and researchers that had a loose and informal affiliation with ACSP. PLANET was started by Bill Page as a way for friends to exchange information and talk about issues through email. The group expanded rapidly over the past decade and in many ways did not keep up with the expansion of planning programs across the globe and the movement of doctoral students trained in ACSP member schools to jobs in a much broader set of institutions in and outside the US. ACSP responded by convening a task force on communication, with members intentionally representing faculty from large and small institutions, students, lecturers, ACSP interest groups, and the ACSP Governing Board. Responding to concerns such as disrespectful dialogue and lack of access, the task force explored ways to create multiple conduits of communication for ACSP members and non-members. The task force also developed “netiquette” guidelines and recommended that ACSP establish a special Committee on Communications. The Committee is working on communication tools and policies to proactively support engaging, inclusive conversations among our members and others interested in what we do.

But what the tense exchange on PLANET and subsequent conversations made clear was that there are many difficult issues for which wide exchange was and may continue to be challenging and for some seemingly impossible or career threatening. For that reason, in addition to the communications strategy that ACSP has implemented, we convened the “difficult conversations” Presidential Session, with Lisa Bates, Associate Professor, Portland State; Jennifer Cowley, Vice Provost, Ohio State; and Petra Doan, Professor, FSU as panelists. The conversation among the panelists and the audience was enlightening, and sometimes painful, however, there were several takeaways for Lois Takahashi, who acted as the moderator for this session:

  • conversations within departments and schools do not adequately accommodate the lived experience of many newcomers to the academy
  • we do not always agree on what is “difficult”
  • active and authentic listening is a powerful act when engaging in “difficult conversations”.

“Difficult conversations” are not limited to the professional interactions among administrators, faculty, students, and staff. In the second Presidential Session, we tackled the issue of “civic engagement” and the conversations and relationships we engage in when we work outside the relatively comfortable boundaries of academia. Panelists represented a wide range of experiences and strategies: Wim Wiewel, President of Portland State and former ACSP President; Carissa Slotterback, ACSP Secretary and Associate Professor, University of Minnesota; Martin Kaufman, Professor, Department of Earth and Resource Science, University of Michigan-Flint. Each of the panelists discussed important examples of engagement that provided models and lessons for how to engage productively in engagement of various types.

Using Flint, MI, as a jumping off point for the discussion, Marty Kaufman highlighted the engagement of he and his research team in investigating contaminated drinking water and its impacts on Flint’s residents. Informed by his work mapping the City’s water pipes using GIS, he talked about the challenges of logistics – there are few maps or institutional memory about the infrastructure – but also about working on a politically incendiary issue. Carissa Slotterback discussed her role in the Office of the Vice President for Research and with the Resilient Communities Project at the University of Minnesota working to connect and enhance partnerships within the university and with community partners. She stressed the role of relationships, trust, and long-term commitment. She encouraged planning researchers to build “communities of research and practice” that enhance our legitimacy and the relevance of our work. Wim Wiewel provided a bounty of examples in his role as President of Portland State, including supporting his faculty even in the face of severe pushback from government and private sector groups. He stressed the importance of rigorous and relevant research as one hallmark of engaged research, and that the role of the President in part was to ensure that if the research was rigorous, even if the results are unpopular, that the university publicly supported its faculty. Engagement was more than forming partnerships, it was also about the university’s role in providing research results that sometimes opposed popular albeit unsubstantiated policies and practices.

In all, these Presidential Sessions provided examples, lessons, and strategies in engaging in difficult but important conversations and efforts. ACSP plans to continue these conversations online on our UNIVerse online forum and in Denver and beyond at our ACSP annual conferences. We hope that you will share your experiences on these topics, as well as your ideas for future Presidential Sessions.

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The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning promotes education, research, service and outreach in the United States and throughout the world by seeking to:

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