Chiang Mai University was the first regional university in Thailand, founded in January 1964 under a Royal Charter granted by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej under the Education Development in Regional Program. Chiang Mai University has been expected to engage with the rich and precious cultural people in Lanna community to increase economic growth. To serve the expectations of Chiang Mai people and other 16 provinces, Chiang Mai University thus was designed to be a comprehensive university including of three main groups, humanity and social science, health sciences, and science and technology.

CMU’s research management system has long been driven by the dominant international university agenda involving science-orientation, publication in peer reviewed journals and quantification of impacts for national and international ranking. To boost such publications, CMU has set up the research management mechanism, namely Research Administration Center (RAC) to foster research for academic excellence. Similarly, Chiang Mai University systematically supports research for commercialization to increase product value and enhance the competitiveness of the private sector such as an industry, a startup company, and a large scale SME. CMU hosts the management of the Northern Science and Technology Park (NSTP) as a university-industry linkage unit, supporting by the Ministry of Science and Technology since 2012. However, these research management system and mechanism does not readily encourage socially-engaged research in the community level. Socially-engaged research (SER) tends not to fit easily into such research ecology system.

Institutionalizing Socially-Engaged Research at Chiang Mai University
In fact, it is important to state that CMU scholars from all faculties have provided the services to northern community since the first decade in terms of free professional services, granted-development projects, and community-based research driven projects. Furthermore, CMU has set up the University Academic Service Center (UNISERV) since 1989 originally aimed to utilize CMU human resources, knowledge, technology and facilities form all faculties to serve northern community through the multi-disciplinary approaches. Most service projects were undertaken under the “knowledge transfer” approach by which knowledge from CMU scholars was disseminated to local community. However, it is very important to note that such academic research-driven approach was not guaranteed the improvement and sustainable development in the community if the target groups have not fully participated in the decision making process since the early stage of need assessment, co-planning, and evaluation.

During the 8th to 10th National Economic and Social Development Plan (1996-2001, 2002-2006), the government has launched the “Sustainable Development Policy” due to the failure of the “top-down” development projects. Accordingly, university scholars were encouraged to apply sustainable development concept and approach for research and academic service. At the faculty level, a number of CMU scholars have applied such research mythology for empowerment as “participatory action research (PAR) methodology” to empower community co-researchers in learning process to co-create situated practical knowledge for a better community management. These projects have empowered community researchers and stakeholders with great outcome and impacts. CMU core research team of these projects have also learned how to facilitate socially-engaged research and willing to coach the young scholars. At this stage, CMU has no clear vision and management system for academic service.

Institutionalizing SER at the University Level: It was the beginning of the 11th National Economic and Social Development Plan (2007-2011), that “university social responsibility” has been included in the CMU’s Vision. The key factor contribute to the success of Institutionalization of Social Engagement at CMU is the key leader. In 2012, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Avorn was assigned to be Assistant to President for Research and Academic Services in 2012. This was another opportunity to move forward another step. CMU has launched the “area-based” scheme by facilitating CMU scholars undertake the multi-disciplinary community-based research and development in such districts and sub-districts as Om-koi, Phrao, Maejam, Sribuaban, Umong and the community around university campus such as Suthep, Changphuak, and Nimman. Recently in November 2017, Dr. Avorn has been assigned to be the Vice President for Societal Engagement. It is really an opportunity to fully and formally institutionalize socially-engagement research within CMU research ecology system under the CMU Vision: An Excellence University Committed to Societal Engagement and Sustainable Development. The Center for Societal Engagement has been formally set up as an administrative structure and data center with full time staff and specific budget provision.

Management of the institutional obstacles: Even though, there were such concrete research for application that could empower local people to manage their community better, however the institutional obstacles found to be a) an incentive and financial support has emphasized on increasing of publications, b) many academic researchers do not see SER as a “real” research, and c) there are a number of CMU SER scholars who have not been rewarded institutionally because there is only one set of key criteria for the selection process such as a number of publications, citations, and H index. Despite these barriers, CMU has pursued a program to institutionalize the SER to empower community to meet sustainable development goals (SDGs). In 2002 there was the collaboration between the Division of Community-Based Research (CBR), Thailand Research Fund (TRF) and the Faculty of Agriculture, facilitated by Associate Professor Dr. Avorn Opatpatanakit, former part-time TRF-CBR coordinator, in establishing the community-based unit called the “Center for Community Engagement” as the TRF-CBR Node for facilitating CMU scholars to do SER with local community in upper northern community. Furthermore, this Community Engagement Center also collaborated with TRF-CBR to facilitate the Community-Based Research for Master Research Grant (CBMAG) and the Community-Based Research for Undergraduate Students (CBPUS). Both schemes also applied the integrated CBR methodology by which master and undergraduate students become core research team, collaborating with community people who participatory identify research questions and action plans for co-design learning process that could empower all stakeholders.

Facilitating SE researchers to Prepare SES Document to Apply for Professorship: Many academic researchers do not see SER as a “real” research. Yet, according to Boyer (1990), socially-engaged research is a research and scholarly service because … service activities have tied directly to one’s special field of knowledge and relate to, and flow directly out of, this professional activity. Such service is serious, demanding work, requiring the rigor – and the accountability- traditionally associated with research activities (Boyer, 1990). For the research methodology perspective, SER process … is dynamic which new intellectually understandings can arise out of act of application. In such activities, theory and practice vitally interact, and one renews the other (Boyer, 1990). The argument is that SER can be considered as…a scholarly service that both applies and contributes to human knowledge (Boyer, 1990). In 2013, the Higher Education Commission Announcement No. 9 was announced in the Government Gazette on 8 March 2013. It was the first time in Thailand that the HEC Announcement on professorship promotion has formally included the socially-engaged scholarship document to be applied for professorship. Accordingly, Dr. Avorn has facilitated the process to encourage CMU SE scholars to “prepare document” for professorship promotion using the “Socially-Engaged Scholarship” document which consists of the following content, including:
1) Situations before changes
2) Participations of key stakeholders
3) Process contributes to changes
4) Expertise contributes to changes
5) Prediction of what will happen after changes
6) Evaluation towards changes in term of outcome
7) Sustainability: Guidelines for monitoring and maintaining improvements

Institutionalizing SER within CMU ecology system is a “work in progress”. SER scholars have been engaged in a wide variety of participatory action research and service learning projects involving communities in diverse agenda such as cultural heritage restoration, health promotion, agricultural development, environmental development and community development. Since 1997, there were up to 95 community-based research and service learning projects.

Challenges to Promote Societal Engagement at CMU during the 12th Education Plan (2017- 2021): It is important to note that the goal of institutionalizing SER at CMU is to achieve Service Excellence for northern community and Upper Asian. CMU-SER emphasizes the management of societal engagement across the communities, public sectors and funding agencies – focusing on Creative Lanna, Food and Health, Energy and Environment to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in northern Thailand and upper Asian communities. It is committed to driving forward integration of community-led, research-backed to achieve a real impact on its practice in community and public services to be first in mind of northern community. At the heart of this will be a commitment to collaborative societal engagement and co-production of knowledge among CMU SER, public and funding agency agencies. Its range of activities will include community-based research, scholarly community service, service learning with communities, public services, and funding agencies.

During the 12th Education Plan during 2017-2021, CMU will emphasize social engagement to be the first in mind of northern people in solving high impact problems based on expertise of CMU academics in collaboration with community researchers, government sectors, private sectors, and NGOs partners. Challenges for us include:
1) Adjusting management system and structure to serve the development of high impact socially-engaged projects by adjusting the “CMU Center of Socially-Engaged Research”,
2) Facilitating to develop of high impact socially-engaged center of excellence at the faculty level,
3) Revision of the KPI of CMU socially-engaged academics and faculty / research institute/ center that can be counted as a contribution to annual promotion which based on the quality and impact with proper weight.
4) Revision of the SER granting to be a three-year Seed funding
5) Developing the in-house/on the job training course on socially-engaged research and scholarship for researchers, program Officer, Mentor, vice dean and supporting staff to build CMU SER expert.
6) Developing data center for CMU socially-engaged knowledge and innovation the could concretely serve community in northern Thailand

After a long journey, CMU scholars will keep going to empower northern community and upper Asian to meet sustainable development goals.

Avorn Opatpatanakit


Bio: Associate Professor Dr. Avorn Opatpatanakit currently serves as the Vice President for Societal Engagement, Chiang Mai University, Thailand. She has previously served as Assistant to the President and Vice President for Research and Academic Services. Prior to CMU, she was the part-time coordinator for Community-based Research Division, the Thailand Research Fund. A graduate of a University of Western Sydney at Hawkesbury, Australia, she earned a PhD in Agriculture and Rural Development with the thesis entitled “Empowering Women in Rural Development: A Collaborative Action Research Project in Northern Thailand” in 1997. Since then, she has the passion and has long been dedicated for societal engagement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s