Policies and practices aimed at developing more engaged universities that are responsive to the needs of society have become key features of the higher education landscape of most countries. Visions of universities ‘engaged’ in matters of local importance increasingly require academics to reframe their scholarship as some form of ‘engagement’. This requirement has been addressed in many different disciplines and has been met with ambivalence. Academics who see engagement as a new form of ‘public good’ find it enhancing of their teaching and research activities, while others view engaged work as unnecessary and problematic ‘third mission’ activities that impede on ‘normal’ academic work. This article aims to contribute to these debates by interrogating the paradoxes of action and inaction. Drawing on recent experiences in reviewing a policy on homelessness for a municipality in South Africa, the article seeks to bring the ambiguities and challenges of engagement into greater visibility.