"Location, location, location" may be considered the realtor's mantra, yet colleges and universities also know it well. Some institutions are situated in rural parts of the country, others in small and mid sized urban centers that have seen tremendous decline and disinvestment. Yet another group find themselves in major bustling metropolitan areas. All share the same challenge -- how to manage our role and relationship with the community. Place matters!
Institutions are no longer able to ignore their surroundings or be seen by the community as the ivory tower. The primary reason is enrollment. Students don't make those important college choices by themselves anymore. It has become a family affair. And families are looking not only at the quality of a college or university but also at the institution's relationship with its surrounding community. As a result, improved "town-gown" relationships have become strategic priorities for many institutions, with many making bold steps to move the needle in their respective communities. These efforts have included:
• Getting involved with economic development programs that promote growth and development of new businesses and organizations. This can provide opportunities for students for internships and employment after graduation.
• Collaborating with local businesses, nonprofits or government officials to renovate neighborhoods. This could simply include organizing a neighborhood cleanup day or working directly with organizations like Habitat for Humanity to assist residents fix structural issues at their respective homes.
• If financially feasible, institution's should invest in property acquisitions and rehabilitations around the campus. This helps with the revitalization process.
• Involvement in housing programs, such as home renovations for adaptive reuse by students, or tearing down homes to create green spaces or urban/suburban gardens. In some cases, it also includes selling land to private entities to build structures that will increase the tax base of the local city, town or village.
Despite well-thought-out previous efforts, if we are truly to make an impact, we can and need to do more. In the case of the State of New York (and perhaps other states), colleges and universities should get involved with regional economic councils regarding local economic development policy and project implementation. This is key to ensuring that colleges and universities are at the table and getting the support they need while also contributing to regional development activities.
Colleges should also consider moving a part of their campus to the downtown of their city in order to become an institutional anchor. Although this move can be controversial, there are many cases where this has become an effective tool in stabilizing a city's downtown such as in the case of the University of Buffalo's downtown campus.
Another opportunity is through business development programs, such as incubators, microfinance, and accelerators. These efforts can be very effective at promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. It can also be used as a tool to cultivate creativity among students, faculty, staff and community members. Stony Brook University's three incubators, two New York State Centers for Advanced Technology, the NYS Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology (CEWIT), the Small Business Development Center, and the workforce development programs of the Center for Emerging Technologies are primary examples.
Additional ideas to consider:
• Invest in community centers that focus on providing service opportunities for students to help local nonprofit organizations. This not only benefits the community that students are working with but the students' benefit as well.
• Develop community-based learning, service-learning, or civic-engagement courses and programs that utilize the city, town or village that you're located in as a learning and service laboratory. This can serve dual purpose as a means to give back and also as a way to learn about redevelopment and social issues impacting communities.
• Partner with local entities on projects that benefit the city and institution, such as street signage, sidewalks and curb improvements.
• Provide expertise and counseling assistance to committees or councils appointed by local governing bodies, such as city and town councils, and mayors' offices. These resources can be particularly important to communities involved in city development and revitalization efforts. Important is to share the human capital of a university or college with their location.
The relationship that colleges and universities have with their respective communities is symbiotic. When our communities are vibrant, we all benefit. Each of our respective communities will have its own set of challenges and opportunities, but it's our shared responsibility to support those efforts in ways that make sense for our respective institutions.
Along with prospective parents and students, colleges and universities are looking for opportunities that will enrich the experience for both students and the surrounding community. But in order to do that, we need to rethink strategies and resources. If properly considered, it could offer everyone involved a world of opportunity.