Institutions of higher education have an obvious vested interest in building strong relationships with the communities that surround their campuses. They do not have the option of relocating and thus are of necessity place-based anchors. While corporations, businesses, and residents often flee from economically depressed low-income urban and suburban edge-city neighborhoods, universities remain. At a time when foundations that help establish community-based projects are commonly unable to continue with ongoing involvement over long periods of time, universities can play an important role. Universities are inherently an important potential institutional base for helping community-based economic development in general, and civically engaged development in particular. The question is how to tap this potential in a major way.
In 2006, colleges and universities in the U.S. spent more than $373 billion on goods and services – this is over two percent of the nation's gross domestic product. These institutions collectively employ 2 million workers (only a third of these jobs are faculty; the remaining two-thirds are administrative and support staff positions) and are among the fastest-growing employers in the country, adding 300,000 jobs between 1990 and 1999. America's colleges and universities also hold more than $100 billion in real estate.
Beginning in the 1980s, an expanding movement within higher education has been attempting to make universities more relevant and responsive to the communities and states in which they are located. At one level, more than 800 university presidents have signed the “Presidents' Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education” committing themselves “to helping catalyze and lead a national movement to reinvigorate the public purposes and civic mission of higher education.” As the Declaration concludes, “We believe that now and through the next century, our institutions must be vital agents and architects of a flourishing democracy.” Additionally, 677 university presidents have signed the "Presidents' Climate Commitment" ensuring their universities dedication to slowing global warming. At another level, several institutions have done pioneer community-building work. The chart below provides an overview of such efforts and suggests some of the elements that might be included in a comprehensive approach:
Engaged University Practices
Over 1,200 colleges in Campus Compact; 37% of students at member colleges participate. Labor value exceeds $9 billion. Growing focus on sustained problem-solving efforts.
From 1994-2010, HUD disbursed over $80 million in partnership center grants to more than 184 colleges for community development at minority-serving institutions.
Meeting Community Needs
What was once an initiative primarily devoted to service learning has now broadened considerably. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, is internationally recognized for its work in West Philadelphia on a wide range of initiatives such as university-assisted community schools, public school reform, urban nutrition, and faith-based programs. Portland State is a national leader in core curriculum reform as well as programs in community development and training to increase the capacity of community-based organizations. The University of Minnesota's Center for Democracy and Citizenship's “Community Information Corps” has launched an initiative to bridge the digital divide in St. Paul's West Side (largely immigrant) community. And many land grant institutions such as Penn State and Michigan State have launched broad efforts to re-emphasize outreach, while Oregon State became the first Research I institution to alter tenure rules to better reward community-based scholarly work.
Despite such positive examples, however, many thoughtful individuals who have sought to engage universities in community building activities have come away skeptical that this can be achieved. Universities often seem like walled-off cities with special, narrow concerns to those who have dealt with them, either from the perspective of a poor community, or from those who seek to help achieve community development goals.
Nevertheless, a new and deeper understanding of the educational importance of engagement is emerging. Leading scholars have shown that by strategically focusing higher education's many resources—from academic programs and research to business practices—universities can improve their core intellectual and academic work—in part by giving students and faculty real-world experience which can inform both research and teaching. In 2006, these efforts achieved institutional recognition with the creation of a new elective Carnegie classification for Community Engagement, for which over 300 colleges and universities had already qualified by 2010.
By strategically building on these existing efforts, huge resources—literally tens of billions of dollars—could be unlocked in coming decades for community benefiting purposes. Higher education may indeed prove to be, as some have imagined, a "sleeping giant" that could help leverage a much wider range of community partnership and wealth building efforts.