Agents of Change: Universities and Colleges Are Starting to Take a Prominent Role in Improving Their Surrounding Communities. It's a Mutual Relationship That Pays High Dividends for All

By Singer, Karen | Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Agents of Change: Universities and Colleges Are Starting to Take a Prominent Role in Improving Their Surrounding Communities. It's a Mutual Relationship That Pays High Dividends for All


Singer, Karen, Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education


When Evan Dobelle became president of Trinity College in 1995, he had a clear plan to make the school an active player in community renewal.

"I've been involved in politics and government for a long time, and my involvement has always been making a difference to young people," Dobelle said. "When I came to Trinity, it was obvious to me that the institution was denying its greatest asset, the city, and that we had to take a look at community needs, including a solid education system keeping 15- and 16-year-old kids focused on school. We wanted to do it in a non-gentrified way that revitalized the community, without moving poor people to another part of town."

Dobelle, recently apponted president of the University of Hawaii, was determined to establish a community beachhead, including new schools and housing, in a 15-block area adjacent to a football field where, several years earlier, a murder had occurred while a game was in progress.

That area, known as the Learning Corridor, opened last fall and provided a fitting setting for a conference called Inside Out: Higher Education and Community Involvement.

Dobelle was praised for his pioneering work in community renewal at the conference, where panels explored ways in which universities are redefining their role in society.

"People have talked about `town and gown' relations for years," said conference organizer Linda Campanella, Trinity's senior vice president for operations and planning. "But a recent focus has been on such relationships as mutually beneficial, and institutions of higher learning as potent agents of change, in the role of equal partner with the community.

"For those institutions in urban locations especially, where their future and prosperity are inextricably tied to the fate of cities they call home, a sense of common purpose has become a sense of moral obligation," she said.

Institutions have not always felt this sense of responsibility. Many universities have a spotty record on community involvement. But there seems to be a growing awareness that universities can be catalysts of social change, and a willingness to become active players in the process.

"You need a vision, you need a will, and you need to spend your own money, which many institutions don't want to do," Dobelle said.

Solving Real Problems

"The primary purpose of the university in the 21st century is to conduct research on the pressing problems facing society today. We need to promote the application of current knowledge to societal problems and to prepare its students to address these problems through a curriculum that emphasizes scholarly work in both the liberal arts and in the professions," said Judith Ramaley, president of the University of Vermont.

Ramaley, who was a panelist during a session on building coalitions and communities, offered some ideas to help universities tackle long-term problems of community renewal.

These include developing a set of intellectual assets you can apply to engagement work, as well as clear goals linking engagement to the institution and the types of partnerships needed to meet those goals.

"You have to approach this as a major change process -- a significant transformational approach," Ramaley said. Panelist Barbara Holland, director of the Office of University Partnerships for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, outlined criteria her office has used to award more than 100 grants for community development in distressed neighborhoods.

"There has to be an institutional commitment to engagement and sustainability of campus-community partnerships," she said.

Schools also must explain why they want to become involved. "Show me it makes a difference to the students," Holland said.

Creating Solutions

Elizabeth Hollander, executive director of Campus Compact, a nationwide organization dedicated to facilitating school involvement in community renewal, urged more universities to take part in crafting solutions.

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