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Community-University Research Collaboration Initiative


The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, announces the launch of the Community-University Research Collaboration Initiative (CURCI), an initiative designed to foster community-engaged scholarship and mutually beneficial relationships between university faculty and the greater Knoxville community. The Division of Access and Engagement, Office of Community Engagement and Outreach, and the Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development funded the project. Jon Shefner, Professor, Department of Sociology, and Lisa East, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, will lead the program.

“Through surveying our faculty, we learned they want to work with the Knoxville community, but they feel overwhelmed and overworked by other duties,” Shefner said. “This program offers accommodations to those who want to do the work but have no idea how to make contact with community members.”

Shefner and Javiette Samuel, Associate Vice Chancellor and Director of the Office of Community Engagement and Outreach in the Division of Access and Engagement, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Child and Family Studies, share that the CURCI program will assist in solving the issue.

“Community members and community-based organizations want to work with UTK but often find it difficult to navigate such a large research 1 institution. This program fills that gap,” Samuel said. “We will approach CURCI with an equity lens ensuring the community benefits from our research—helping fulfill our modern land-grant mission.”

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UT faculty and community organization leaders interested in collaborating should reach out to CURCI Director Jon Shefner to start a conversation.

Jon Shefner

Jon Shefner

Professor of Sociology, Director of CURCI

Shefner proposed the creation of CURCI after research with Lecturer of Sociology Lisa East revealed two important findings: the Knoxville community is interested in working with UT faculty to resolve a variety of needs, and UT faculty are interested in working in the Knoxville community but need university infrastructure and a few incentives to facilitate that work.

Shefner’s vision is that CURCI will establish meaningful and enduring collaborations between UT and the Knoxville community and help address the needs of community members, especially from disadvantaged communities. Shefner also hopes CURCI will help move the university into new roles in Knoxville, and continue to fulfill the duties of a flagship, land-grant university in an increasingly urban state.

Lisa East

Lecturer of Sociology, Managing Director of CURCI

East is thrilled to work through CURCI to provide a more formalized and streamlined bridge between the wider community and the university. She sees CURCI as an opportunity to better connect the resources of the university to address community-defined needs and local social problems.

East’s organizing experience began as a student organizer in the environmental and fair trade movements, which inspired her to pursue graduate education. She has continued working with non-profits in Knoxville and the Southeast, and she credits these efforts as an anchor for shaping and sharpening her research, which focuses on organizational development, change, and decline and the internal and external contexts that encourage these processes.

What is CURCI?

CURCI will help connect community members and organizations with UTK faculty while establishing better access flow for collaboration, as well as, creating more equitable research to allow the community to benefit and establishing a funding structure for incentives. It will also help establish, build upon, and streamline processes to identify community needs and activate university resources to meet those needs, ensure that the research outcomes we generate lead to the creation of a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future, and enhance a campus-wide culture of innovation and collaboration at all levels.

Within CURCI, greater engagement and capacity between the UTK and the community can be built by:

  • Creating a structure by which community members can reach out to university faculty and staff for aid. 
    • This work has begun through the faculty survey regarding engagement and the resulting database creation. The work of communicating to faculty about engagement opportunities has to be renewed yearly and in many more in-person venues. CURCI will further build the database of engaged faculty and recruit those that want to become involved.
  • Creating a structure by which university faculty and staff can be connected with community members. 
    • This work has also begun in both of the previous research processes. It can be continued and built annually through outreach to the community from CURCI. CURCI will reach out further to the Knoxville community to make them aware of UTK resources and create relationships in which common work can be done. CURCI will provide guidance to community members about how community needs and university resources might be brought together.
  • Creating a funding structure that incentivizes university faculty and community members to work together.  
    • A revolving fund will be established to address proposals by community groups. That fund will incentivize UTK faculty participation through course buyouts and summer salary and pay for community fellows to push wider initiatives linked to coalitions of community groups. CURCI will issue requests for proposals to community groups, evaluate those proposals by their merit, and determine whether UTK has the resources to address the identified community need. For those approved projects, CURCI will convene working groups of faculty and community members, forge relationships, help identify community needs, and articulate collaborative methodologies to address those needs. CURCI will participate, guide, monitor, and evaluate the community research, working with both community members and UTK participants.
  • Establishing a set of engagement standards that can count toward faculty and staff evaluation and promotion. 
    • Shefner and East’s research clarifies that faculty must be incentivized to pursue engagement work. One way to do that is to fully integrate engagement into tenure, promotion, and review as one of the ways faculty are evaluated; specific Colleges have already led the way in this process and provided a model. This change must be made in consultation with all Colleges and with great care not to increase the already significant burden on faculty.
  • Using pre-existing university engagement resources.
    • University engagement resources, such as the Community Engagement Academy, can be used to recruit faculty into engagement while searching for and implementing other best practices for university-community work.
  • Chronicling the engagement work of UTK disseminating findings in ways that serve the community, faculty, and the university.
  • Advocating for communities with the data derived from projects.
  • Providing standards and monitoring for student-involved engagement work.
  • Providing a model for system-wide engagement efforts.
  • Encouraging faculty to consider the research aspects (and research outputs) of engaged scholarship fosters more engagement in teaching and scholarship.