Universities for the Civically Engaged

Universities for the Civically Engaged

Call it the new town/gown gestalt. Institutions are helping to establish bridges between campus and community.

IN HIS POEM "MENDING WALL," Robert Frost declares, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out."

For too long, America's urban colleges and universities built higher fences around the campus, with the idea of keeping poverty, crime, and downtown blight at bay. Yet this status quo strategy failed to consider the larger socioeconomic and geopolitical implications of Frost's statement.

To be sure, urban college and university leaders and their internal constituencies may have felt safer on campus. Sadly, they fenced their lofty academic ideas and community service commitment within the campus walls. For some, however, times have changed, and a new generation of civically engaged colleges and universities has really figured it out.

Consider Clark University in Worcester, Mass., the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. These exemplary urban institutions have led the way in tearing down walls, welcoming the community on campus, and leveraging the academic enterprise to work for the betterment of their host communities.

Long-term town/gown relationships depend on 'a shared vision, mutual respect, and a shared  will to succeed.'
-John Bassett, Clark University

The results of their noble efforts are palpable: engaged students, committed faculty, stronger communities, better prepared applicants, and safer local streets. Whatever you call it-an urban renaissance, town/gown collaboration, or self-preservation-it comes down to committed institutions stepping up to address the failure of private, governmental, and nonprofit sectors to establish two-way bridges between campuses and community.

With nearly 800 four-year colleges and universities situated in urban settings in the United States, according to The College Board, the lessons learned from these town/gown experiments are important for the future of American higher education and for the future of our cities.

Clark University provides a remarkable model of a community-based strategic partnership with its surrounding neighborhood in Worcester, known as Main South. Clark has helped to renovate housing, and it co-founded and helps to operate an award winning high school. In collaboration with the Main South Community Development Corporation, Clark has helped renovate hundreds of housing units, sold homes to first-time homeowners, and leveraged millions in grants and housing tax credits. These investments by Clark and public and private entities represent a nearly $100 million effort. The new Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark promises to help disseminate this type of strategic town-gown partnership model across the landscape of urban America.

What is truly amazing about Clark's collaboration with Worcester Public Schools for the University Park Campus School is that all of the school's graduates have gone on to college, despite being first generation college attenders. Not surprisingly, 73 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 67 percent speak English as a second language. Clark faculty and students teach and learn at the school and serve as mentors and models for neighborhood children and families.

Clark's president, John Bassett, has said he now can envision the creation of a Worcester learning corridor built on the success of the University Park Campus School. That would be a proud legacy for this venerable urban institution at which Robert Goddard conceived the early beginnings of rocket science and Sigmund Freud gave his first and only American higher education lecture series.

That said, Bassett is candid in sharing that undertaking this kind of genuine community partnership is by no means easy. "It cannot be a top-down, one-shot charitable endeavor. It has to be a real partnership with the community built on mutual and admiration," he says. "With a shared vision, mutual respect, and a shared will to succeed, communities and universities can build long-term relationships in which the lives of everyone involved are improved."

Evan Dobelle, former president of Trinity College and a long-time proponent of civic engagement by urban colleges, puts it this way: "If you don't do something significant to improve the neighborhood, the college is sending the wrong message-that it is okay to have that kind of America. ... These efforts are all about sustaining democracy in urban America."

Trinity spearheaded a $250 million public/private partnership for neighborhood revitalization. In the wake of its civic efforts and community investments, applications increased, the combined average SAT scores jumped, and the college's rankings rose. Dobelle says, "Kids are coming to school with a different agenda today. They want to be part of a community." But, he stresses, college leaders cannot dictate the terms of a partnership. "You have to listen closely to the people in the surrounding community-and don't be surprised if they are skeptical. After all, they have heard it all before."

For its part, the University of Pennsylvania serves as a prime example of what can be achieved in a high-crime neighborhood if a community and university work together. Former President Judith Rodin notes that urban colleges and universities have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. "We teach our students about civic engagement. You can't do that and not be role models for civic engagement," she says.

Penn renovated housing, offered faculty members incentives to move into the surrounding neighborhood, and invested millions to build a public school. The university also refaced campus buildings so they opened onto the street, making the campus more open, inviting, and an integral part of the surrounding neighborhood.

'Don't be surprised if [community members] are skeptical. They have heard it all before.'
-Evan Dobelle, formerly of Trinity College

Public health is also a key component in Penn's civic engagement. The nursing school's Living Independently for Elders program provides nearly 300 West Philadelphia seniors comprehensive nursing and medical care. The program saves the commonwealth an estimated 15 to 20 percent in Medicaid reimbursement costs. Since implementing the redevelopment initiative, Penn has witnessed its U.S. News & World Report rankings rise, its applications increase, and its selectivity rates improve.

Stephen B. Sample, president of the University of Southern California, puts it nicely: "For a century and a quarter USC has been a university in the city and of the city. This has never been truer than now, when we have joined with our neighbors to ensure our streets are safe, our children are healthy and well educated, and our local businesses, the arts, and our extraordinary cultural institutions thrive."

Sample championed five community initiatives in 1992 aimed at providing educational, cultural, and developmental opportunities for children in the immediate neighborhoods. The efforts made the streets safer, encouraged minority entrepreneurs in the vicinity of the campus, and encouraged more employees, especially lower- paid employees, to purchase homes near the university. The university also gave employment preference to people in the neighborhoods around USC.

To ensure the buy-in of the campus community, USC launched the Good Neighbors Campaign in 1994, through which faculty and staff donated more than $7 million of their own money. And by 2000, the Princeton Review selected USC as "College of the Year" based on its commitment to community involvement.

So what are the keys to a successful community-based town-gown partnership in an urban context? Bassett and Dobelle concur that getting faculty and staff buyin and board of trustee support is critical in the early stages of the development process. And why not? These institutions are committing precious resources to an urban redevelopment strategy that for some represents a risky proposition.

George Mason University (Va.) Professor Richard Florida, who authored The Rise of the Creative Class (HarperBusiness, 2005), has this to say: "It is no longer enough to have a stable business climate. ... Communities must build a critical mass of people climate. Recognizing that tax incentives are no longer enough to attract and sustain new business development, colleges and universities must also revitalize their surrounding communities- building a culture of neighborhood diversity, stability, and sustainable growth."

Clearly, the future of urban colleges and universities is inextricably bound up with the economic health and sustainability of their surrounding communities. What this means for students and faculty is that the urban higher ed laboratory of the future will focus on an often-overlooked community resource-the neighborhoods that surround their campuses.

James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).


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