Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

'Anchors in the Community'

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

'Anchors in the Community'

Article excerpt

NO LONGER SELF-ENCLOSED ENCLAVES, UNIVERSITIES JOIN HANDS WITH RESIDENTS, GOVERNMENT AND ORGANIZATIONS TO CREATE SAFER, BETTER NEIGHBORHOODS

Ten years ago, Myrtle Gordon and her neighbors feared turning their lights on because it was likely to attract a drive-by shooting of their homes, in Columbia, S.C. Stepping out, they could see the illegal liquor houses and drug dens that riddled their neighborhood, and which surrounded Benedict College.

Now, crime and blight are nearly gone. In their place is a mix of renovated and new woodframe and brick homes, as well as bungalows and Victorian and patio homes. The neighborhood's appearance has been restored to that of several decades ago. Families and working professionals, including Benedict employees, are gradually moving in, replacing transients and drug dealers. The transformation, Gordon and other residents say, has resulted from the private, historically Black college helping to clean up the community and ignite housing and economic revitalization.

Benedict's efforts, financed through grants as well as corporate and individual contribulions, are part of a growing wave of higher education institutions across the country improving their surrounding neighborhoods. These colleges and universities that were once self-enclosed enclaves are now assuming the role of community developer. They have joined hands with residents, government and organizations to create safer, better neighborhoods in urban areas, especially where minorities and immigrants live.

"Now, we can walk and feel good about the area," says Gordon, who has lived near Benediet all her life. She retired after teaching in public schools for 33 years. "No changes are made in this community that we are not aware of"

Indeed, it's a list of changes that Benedict has sparked in this area north of downtown Columbia. College officials steer students - who must finish 120 community service hours before graduating - toward neighborhood improvement efforts. The college is more than just a name partner of the Benedict-Allen Community Development Corp., but has employees filling one-third of the CDC's board seats. Benedict President Dr. David Swinton himself serves as board president. The college purchased a vacant lot and established a park, complete with basketball and tennis courts and a children's playground. Although university-- owned, it will open in 2003 as a public space. "It's wonderful to have green space again," Gordon says.

But should academia actually have handson involvement in community development? What are the risks and benefits to the school? And, do students get short-shrifted when resources are spent on neighborhoods, rather than only within classrooms?

"The environment should reflect the values of the college," Swinton says. "How can we teach students about hard work and quality work if we're in a rundown area ourselves? That would contradict what we're trying to do. At minimum, we should use our knowledge to improve the community. Service is part of our general mission."

Furthermore, some school leaders believe investing in the neighborhoods helps keep their own institutions in business. In response to growing urban decay, "we can build bigger and bigger fences around ourselves, or we can watch parents move their kids to another school, or we can do something about it," says Dr. John Bassett, president of Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Under previous Clark President Dr. Richard Traina, school officials in the mid-1980s began efforts that led to renovation and new construction of more than 300 units for low- and moderate-income families in an eight-- block radius around the private, predominantly White university. Most units are three- and four-bedroom triple-deckers. Owners can not only live there, but also rent out the other two levels. To emphasize Clark's commitment to the neighborhood, Traina even moved out of the posh president's house two miles away and moved into one of the refurbished homes. …

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