By the late 1990s, the national conversation about higher education’s civic purpose was well established, reinvigorated during the previous decade. Newly created centers for service‐learning and community partnerships were advancing higher education’s commitment to engagement. However, values of reciprocity and mutual benefit sometimes went unrealized, and humanities, arts, and design were underrepresented.
Within this context, Julie Ellison and David Scobey were developing an engaged arts and humanities presence at the University of Michigan, especially through Scobey’s Arts of Citizenship program. Across the country, there was recognition of an informal “movement” growing among artists, humanists, designers, and other scholars in the cultural disciplines who passionately wanted to claim engagement at the core of their identities as intellectuals and artists.
Across the country, there was recognition of an informal “movement” growing among artists, humanists, designers, and other scholars in the cultural disciplines who passionately wanted to claim engagement at the core of their identities as intellectuals and artists.
Imagining America (IA) was launched at a 1999 White House Conference initiated by the White House Millennium Council, the University of Michigan, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The name Imagining America reflected the theme of the White House Millennium Council that focused on renewing participation in all walks of U.S. life: “Honor the Past – Imagine the Future.” The 1999 Conference participants became the basis for what would become Imagining America’s consortium of colleges and universities, and the University of Michigan agreed to be the initial host campus, with Julie Ellison as founding director. In 2007, Syracuse University became the next institutional host, and Jan Cohen-Cruz served as director through 2012.
Achievements of IA’s early years:
- fostering a national network of campus-community collaborators in humanities, arts, and design
- developing an analytical framework to identify and critically consider the range of emerging artistic and scholarly endeavors
- promoting public scholarship as an important and legitimate enterprise in higher education
In 2007, IA transitioned to its second host campus, Syracuse University, with Jan Cohen-Cruz as director. By that time, IA had taken its place among other national organizations that push the boundaries of civic engagement in higher education.
By that time, IA had taken its place among other national organizations that push the boundaries of civic engagement in higher education.
In 2008, IA released its prominent report based on several years of research, Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University, by Julie Ellison and Timothy K. Eatman, IA’s research director. During this time, IA developed Collaboratories to leverage IA’s intellectual and creative capital by drawing on the expertise of investigators from the consortium. The primary goal of collaboratories was to incubate and nurture work through exploration of shared interests. Many of IA’s current research initiatives grew out of these collaboratories, and continue to probe into the impact of public scholarship, regionally, nationally, and globally.
Timothy K. Eatman and Scott Peters served as faculty co-directors from 2012 to 2017, and ushered forward a model of cultural organizing explored through IA’s Summer Institutes, which have taken place in communities across the country including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Baltimore and Eastern Kentucky. The Institutes provide a space for working teams of campus and community leaders to engage in deep reflection and discussion about theories and practices of organizing that draw on the strengths of arts, humanities, and design fields.
Imagining America Today
Led by faculty director Erica Kohl-Arenas, IA is currently based at UC Davis, its third host campus, as of July 2017. Comprised of a network of college and university members and community partners, IA’s annual programming includes convening a national conference and cultural organizing institutes, and collaborative research and action projects.
IA contributes resources to an expanding membership; offers opportunities for undergraduate and graduate student leaders, including the Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) network, an annual cohort funded by IA that acts as a incubator for scholarly writing, innovative thinking, and bold experimentation; and provides significant leadership to the field of engaged scholarship in higher education as evidenced in Public: A Journal of Imagining America, IA’s peer-reviewed, multimedia e-journal focused on humanities, arts, and design in public life.Learn About Our Work