What We Have Done

Bringing Theory to Practice celebrated its twenty-year anniversary in 2023. Our mission has remained constant: the transformation of higher education guided by its core purposes. But our work has evolved in response to new contexts and what we have learned over the past two decades. Here’s a brief history.

Origins

 Don Harward and Sally Engelhard Pingree launched BT2P in 2003, alarmed by growing indicators of disengagement among college students. Undergraduates seemed instrumentalist in their studies, disinterested in civic life, and from the evidence of binge drinking, depression, and anxiety, distanced from their own well-being. For Don and Sally, these forms of disengagement were deeply intertwined. Yet academic institutions—siloed between academics and student life, withdrawn from their communities—failed to address them systemically. BT2P was the response: an initiative in which holistic innovation, campus by campus, would drive systemic change across higher education.

2003-2018: Campus-by-Campus Innovation

Over the fifteen years of Don Harward’s leadership, BT2P created a broad network of campus change-makers, a rich trove of research and practice-wisdom, and significant publications.

With support from the Charles Engelhard Foundation, The Endeavor Foundation, and others, BT2P funded 550 projects on some 350 campuses. The projects fostered community partnerships, student health and well-being, and active, engaged learning. Over time, BT2P’s original triad of civic development, student well-being, and engaged learning, came to include more deliberate attention to education for meaningful work and to equity and inclusion. Grant-funded projects included curricular experiments, integrative first-year experiences, student-life initiatives, faculty development, and research and assessment.

At the same time, BT2P shared the work of this network and reflected on its implications for educational change. It hosted more than twenty conferences and workshops, launched a triannual newsletter, and published seven books on undergraduate reform, civic education, and student well-being. One hundred forty authors have contributed to our books and journal issues. Some four thousand colleagues get our Bringing It letters every two weeks. And we work closely with national and regional associations, networks, and other allies across higher education.

2018 to the Present: Collaborative Change

 Over the years, we learned that change in higher education needed networked collaboration, and starting in 2018, BT2P shifted its change strategy.  We focused less on stand-alone campus innovations and more on organizing a national community of change-makers, and amplifying the voice, values, and practices of that community in the national conversation about higher education.

These evolving priorities led to new initiatives, including The Way Forward and the PLACE Collaboratory.

The Way Forward

 The Way Forward was active from 2020-2023. Its goal (described here) was to respond to the multiple, overlapping crises—the pandemic, economic precarity, the reckoning over systemic racism—facing American society and American higher education. As part of The Way Forward, we launched a podcast with thought leaders and innovators in higher education, and we funded fifteen multi-institutional grants, involving more than fifty colleges and universities in collaborative projects that offered creative educational responses to the crisis. We convened the grant teams regularly in a community of practice and provided them with follow-up grants to amplify, disseminate, and extend the public reach of their work.

The PLACE Collaboratory

 The PLACE Collaboratory (Partnerships for Listening and Action by Communities and Educators) was a humanities-based civic engagement initiative, active from 2019-2023 with generous funding from the Mellon Foundation. A two-tiered project, PLACE brought together faculty, students, and community partners from four urban areas, twelve academic institutions, and more than 20 community organizations. The partnerships created eight local projects, focused on significant public problems such as climate change, housing insecurity and basic needs, gentrification and entrepreneurship, immigrant and Indigenous rights, and racial justice. The PLACE Collaboratory embodied three goals:

  • each local project was defined by community voice rather than academic agenda-setting;
  • each project centered the role of public arts and humanities;
  • and each project empowered students as civic actors and co-creators.

At the same time, PLACE was a national community of practice through which students, faculty, staff, and community partners came together to advance humanities-based civic engagement, authentic university-community partnership, student learning, and social change.

You can learn more about the PLACE Collaboratory and the implications of this work for higher education, civic engagement, and public humanities in our multi-media digital book.

Our collaboratories and multi-institutional grants grew out of the recognition that our work with educational change-makers to advance improvements in areas like student well-being, engaged learning, and the civic responsibilities of universities, produced important innovations but that these have too often remained siloed. These initiatives allowed us to test whether and how networked collaboration could amplify and spread innovative practices—and ultimately led us back to the BT2P’s core questions about transformative change in higher ed, aligned with the sector’s core purposes.

Our Work Today: Paradigm Shift

Our collaboratories and multi-institutional grants allowed us to test whether and how networked collaboration could connect and amplify innovative practices that too often remained piecemeal, siloed, and episodic.  Our current work on the Paradigm Project raises this emphasis on holistic and collaborative change to the next level.

The immediate context for the project is the current turmoil in higher education and its relationship to U.S. society. The emergencies of 2020-21 amplified long-festering problems: racial and class inequity in student access and success, languishing completion rates, rising levels of tuition and debt for students, rising levels of job precarity for faculty, declining public trust in academic institutions and the value of a college degree. The Paradigm Project grew out of BT2P’s assessment of the current moment, the inevitability of big change, and the imperative to mobilize the creativity in higher education to make that change positive.

It’s urgent to move from piecemeal innovation to systemic transformative—and to bring together a broad coalition of faculty, staff, and leaders in and out of the academy to make it happen. The Paradigm Project works to change higher education, to support a national community of higher ed change-makers, and to influence public discussion about the future of higher ed. Learn more about the Paradigm Project.