Equitable University-Community Research Partnerships (2022-2023)


Collaborative research partnerships between institutions of higher education and local communities offer a valuable form of scholarship and a transformative approach to teaching and learning. Such partnerships improve research rigor and relevance, build students’ problem-solving skills and educational satisfaction, add valuable problem-solving capacity to community organizations and direct research toward critical community-identified needs.

Yet ethical and effective university-community research collaboration is complicated by numerous factors: university incentive structures, rigid research processes, lack of community clarity on academic processes, and power dynamics that challenge partners’ willingness to voice concerns. Equity implications include exacerbated power imbalance between university and community entities – often falling along racial and ethnic lines – and the limited ability of research to meaningfully address issues of inequality and inequity. 

Project Description

Building on the work of the 2021-2022 team, this project team will address the following questions: 

  1. What are current practices and processes of research partnership at Duke and in the Durham community? 
  2. How are partnerships initiated and structured, and what prompts these processes? 
  3. What challenges are experienced in the partnership process, and what are key indicators and facilitators of fruitful partnerships? 

The team will inform university leaders on mechanisms for enhancing the availability, success and equitable practice of partnership. The team’s work will focus primarily on Durham, given alignment with university priorities; however, this research will also inform partnership across geographic contexts. Beyond Duke, team members will inform a broader knowledge on mechanisms for enhancing university-community collaboration. 

The project will have three key phases:

  1. Foundation: The team will synthesize existing literature on challenges in community-engaged research, through both community and university lenses. This information will be made publicly available to serve as a resource for community and university individuals and entities.
  2. Multipronged empirical data collection: Through primary data collection, team members will explore the initiation and structure of university-community research partnerships, processes, challenges experienced in the process and facilitators of fruitful partnerships. 
  3. Action steps: Team members will create deliverables for university and community players based on their research. Devilerables may include briefs addressing community and university-based challenges; multimedia products to provide education on community-partnered and equitable research; or a network-building event for community entities to build research capacities and/or and connect with researchers. 

Team members will develop and implement interviews with faculty and key informants to further probe experiences, challenges and motivators. To ensure understanding of community perspectives on university partnership, the team will survey local community-area public and nonprofit organizations. Team members will also identify other academic institutions that have grappled with community-partnered research, and then develop case studies to determine their processes, challenges and how this experience can inform Duke’s institutional actions. 

Anticipated Outputs

Academic publication; policy brief; educational multimedia resources 


Fall 2022 – Spring 2023

  • Fall 2022: Establish community advisory group; create team compact; complete team-building activity; conduct literature reviews; develop team working groups; develop data collection instruments; seek IRB protocol 
  • Spring 2023: Complete team-building activity; conduct data collection; start analysis; complete final individual reflections 

This Team in the News

Meet Some of the Teams at the Bass Connections Showcase

Bass Connections Teams Share Research Highlights at 2023 Showcase

Graduate and Professional Student Spotlight: Reflections from the Class of 2023

See earlier related team, Equitable University-Community Research Partnerships (2021-2022).


Image: Aerial view of downtown Durham, by Jared Lazarus

Aerial view of downtown Durham.

Team Leaders

  • Jessica Sperling Smokoski, Social Science Research Institute
  • Noelle Wyman Roth, Social Science Research Institute

/graduate Team Members

  • Ryder Buttry, Masters of Public Policy
  • Elizabeth Doyle, Masters of Public Policy
  • Zoe Loh, Pathology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Caimiao Liu, Psychology (AB)
  • Joseph Rauch, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Zoe Spicer

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Leslie Parkins, Office of Civic Engagement
  • Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Kathy Sikes, Service Learning

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Duke Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Community Engaged Research Initiative