Towers And Silos And Walls, Oh My!

The popular (if convenient) rap on college and university professors expressed by practitioners, legislators and even some academics is some version of, “They have no idea what goes on in the real world.”

Like many generalities, there is some truth to the perception academic types spend their time in the so-called “ivory tower,” huddled in their little isolated silos studying some obscure subject, safely walled off from the bother of actually solving everyday problems.

To the extent this scenario is true, it affects both parks and recreation managers and academic researchers: but in discipline-specific ways.

On one hand, practitioners immersed in the moment-to-moment operation of their organizations often barely have time to lift their heads to see a broader perspective. The questions they need to answer most immediately are who, what, when, and where, as they rush to meet the unceasing expectations of their numerous stakeholders. The downside is they may not see the forest for the trees: the dreaded “lack of vision,” or “mission creep.”

On the other hand, academics, often really are sensitive to the need for practical solutions do work to keep their heads up, seeking answers to the broad questions how and why. The problem in academia may be its gaze is focused so far upward as to be “in the clouds,” or miss the trees for the forest.

These two seemingly opposite views have long plagued the parks and recreation field and are rooted deeply in its history.

The academic discipline with which parks and recreation traditionally has been associated is leisure studies (although a recent trend is to drop the “leisure studies” name in favor of agglomerations comprised of parks, recreation, hospitality, and tourism management, i.e. RPTM). At the risk of oversimplification, leisure studies principally emerged from the social sciences (e.g. sociology, psychology) in the late 1960s as researchers took increasing interest in people’s behaviors during their “free (non-work) time” and what exactly did it mean to be “leisurely.”

Coincidentally, parks and recreation programs during the period (primarily public/governmental) were playing a significant role in providing services to the large generation of children now called the “baby boomers.” As a result, many people spent “free time” in parks and recreation settings, and the link between leisure and parks was forged in the public’s lived experience.

Although this connection is logical enough to a casual observer, the theory-oriented social scientists actually had little in common with parks and recreation’s service-provision activities. And, the recreation field was not yet managed by college-educated or certified professionals. This initial disconnect has afflicted both groups ever since. Leisure studies journal editors continually call for theory-oriented research (and lament that they’re not receiving sufficient amounts of it), and practitioners argue those same journal articles are too theoretical and do not offer enough useful, “real world” advice.

While the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) attempts to broker between these two groups in several ways the players remain unnecessarily segregated. For example, the NRPA sponsors a Leisure Research Symposium (LRS) featuring professors presenting current research at its annual conference. But, LRS sessions seem to be frequently scheduled in conflict with non-LRS activities, in rooms off the beaten path, at or near the conference’s conclusion. This pattern is repeated at some of the annual state-level conferences, while other state affiliates do not include an LRS at all.

Another NRPA function is to accredit leisure studies-related college and university departments (curricula) -- about 100 higher education institutions currently submit to the process. One of the benefits of accreditation is that students who graduate from such programs can immediately sit for the Certified Parks and Recreation Planner (CPRP) exam. Again, there appears to be a disconnect -- among the approximately 3,500 students who graduate every year an average of only 300 take the exam. Put another way, less then 10 percent of the folks able to sit for the exam actually do.

Similarly, few professors also hold their CPRP; the majority of certified professionals are parks and recreation practitioners.

So what are we of both professional persuasions to do? In higher education, three initiatives promise to span the apparent gap.

The first is called service learning. The idea, of course, is not really new, but the renewed emphasis placed on it is. Phrases such as “engage the world beyond our campus” are beginning to appear in strategic plans, as college and university administrators respond to external pressures to show accountability and relevance.

Second is the concept of praxis, which refers to students’ self-integration of theoretical and practical learning through intentional reflection on designed experiences. Thoughtfully comparing, contrasting, and connecting their academic knowledge with that gained in the field produces valuable insight leading to wisdom.

Third is the scholarship of engagement. For several years, higher ed has followed the “Boyer Model” (after Earnest Boyer, a respected educational theorist), which segmented professors’ obligations into four “scholarships”: discovery, integration, application, and service. Professors who wanted to earn tenure or promotion were judged on their performance in relation to these four duties. More recently, a fifth scholarship, engagement, has been added, explicitly emphasizing connection to the “real world” mentioned in the opening sentence.

On the parks and recreation management side of the equation, a recent survey reported over 95 percent of current practitioners have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree, with over 45 percent of them holding a more advanced degree. The exposure of these professionals to the postsecondary environment, and its conceptual orientation, may produce the levels of appreciation and comfort sought by the three academic initiatives discussed above.

In this more collaborative environment, then, bricks made available by dismantling the towers, silos and walls can pave the way to the endless benefits parks and recreation offers us all.

Kim S. Uhlik, Ph.D is an Assistant Professor in the School of Exercise, Leisure, and Sport at Kent State University. In August he will be affiliated with the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he will coordinate their Leadership and Administration emphasis. You can contact him at