How Colleges Can Spark Economic and Community Development

In my last post, I discussed what I, and many of my colleagues, consider the growing crisis in higher education and the stiff challenges that those of us in America's colleges and universities now face. It is, to me, a crisis that threatens the legitimacy and the political economy of higher education as we have known it for more than a century in this nation. But, amidst of all the gloomy stories that continue to be reported about higher education, I think there is room for hope and even optimism.

Universities can help to demonstrate their relevance to an ever more skeptical public by ramping up civic engagement programs within their local communities and by creating specific partnerships. And, these partnerships are exactly what many communities need to help them grow and thrive amid tough economic times.

This is a new moment in America: we have the opportunity to replace the usual town-gown tensions with a relationship that can benefit all.

Here's why I believe this. Local communities are in desperate need of an infusion of resources that can provide creativity, expertise, and labor, but they often can't afford them. At the same time, universities and colleges want to show their value to skeptics and their various stakeholders. For example, there is a movement around a group known as the Anchor Institutions Task Force, led by institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, Wagner College and others, to create beneficial institutional and community partnerships.

Our neighborhoods have many assets (non-profit organizations, hospitals, schools, colleges and universities churches, among others), not simply problems, but they need creative solutions and long-term commitments in order to make any real progress.

What I've seen here in my own backyard, through something we call the Port Richmond Partnership (a cooperative initiative between Wagner College and Staten Island's Port Richmond Community aimed at making measurable differences in the quality of life in that neighborhood) is that our communities need optimism, vision and hope, most of all. But who is providing this? Local non-profits are often understaffed and underfunded. Local governments, these days, are reeling from the loss of state and federal subsidies, and have lost much of the ability they had to help with comprehensive development programs. And, this is where I see an opportunity.

Universities have many of these resources already: expertise, research, labor and leadership. They have fields dedicated to research and discovery, but, just as importantly, to applied learning, and their missions often make claims of providing service to society. Here, if you'll pardon the expression, is where those of us in higher education, can put our money where our mouths are. We can make a big, meaningful difference in our local communities.

The key part of making these partnerships work isn't massive amounts of cash. It doesn't require the spending of new university resources.

To make these partnerships work, we need to realign the existing resources that are earmarked for teaching, research and student life toward our community partners and help them to engage the real world problems that are a part of everyday life.

Already, we have armies of students, and many faculty and staff members already involved in civic work, but this can be better focused. I believe this work is at its best when it is intentional, strategic, and when it is linked to genuine, and demonstrable student learning outcomes. What we need to add to this bottom line, though, is demonstrating positive community impact.

So, our job is to create a new pedagogy of community partnerships and civic learning. In this model, the curriculum will be taken from real world problems that allow students to see the interplay between theory and practice, and communities will be the beneficiaries.

How can we ensure that these civic-campus partnerships are successful? I think to do so we must meet four conditions:

First, they must be sustainable. That means they'll need to be affordable to the campus and not perceived as adding expense, but that they are adding value to the community.

Second, student learning needs to be understood by all community and campus stakeholders as critical and primary to ensure long-term sustainability.

Third, we must set clear, measurable goals that lead to positive impact in areas of health, economic development, college readiness and provide opportunity to develop new leadership capacity in neighborhoods.

Finally, the partnerships must be democratic. I call this the acid test. Campus and community goals and needs must be understood as intertwined. Leadership from the campus and the community must build professional and personal trust, and stick to each other through thick and thin. When faculty members and students value this work, the chance for success increases tremendously.

Ultimately we have a path to retain American higher education's historic commitment to educate generations of informed and engaged democratic citizens through the conjunction of theory and practice, curriculum and engagement, and campus and community. It is in our hands to realize it, and in doing so we may just be identifying a key part of higher education's next step in redefining itself, and helping rebuild America, for a new era.