In this issue of Diversity & Democracy, David Hoffman, Craig Berger, and Beverly Bickel from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) point to what they call "the visionary's dilemma." They ask: "How can a movement gain traction when the dominant culture's theories, knowledge, politics, and conventional mechanisms for social and institutional change reflect the status quo?" Meanwhile, from their vantage point at the University of Massachusetts Boston, John Saltmarsh and his colleagues wonder: Should relatively young institutions "try to improve their status by conforming to traditional norms that confer prestige on research institutions"? Or should they "place themselves on the cutting edge of academic innovation and thereby risk being devalued by the broader academic establishment?"
These challenging questions suggest two images: an image of being limited or boxed in by the status quo, and an image of acutting or leading edge that promises to break out of and ultimately transcend current limits. These images are both present in one version of "the story of now" in American higher education, to borrow from Marshall Ganz's public narrative framework (Ganz 2010, 522–27). In this version of the "story of now," many scholars and administrators at higher education's leading edges hold deep commitments to public engagement, seeing it as a way of securing equity, justice, dignity, and reciprocity; of advancing an ethos of full participation (Sturm et al. 2011); and of supporting cultural practices that align with the idea of democracy as a way of life. But while scholars and administrators with such commitments are growing in number, they often find themselves in conflict with various aspects of a powerful status quo that threatens to overwhelm, push out, or co-opt them.