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Linking Colleges to Communities: Engaging the University for Community Development
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Published June 2007
Author Steve Dubb
Source The Democracy Collaborative
URL Click here to download the full document
PDF: 144 pages, 1.0 Mbytes


Our nation’s more than 4,000 public and private colleges and universities are increasingly referred to as “anchor” institutions. With rare exceptions, once established they almost never move location. Thus, they have a vested interest in building strong relationships with the neighborhoods that surround their campuses.

As such, they are a tremendous potential resource for strengthening America’s communities, particularly in this era of diminishing federal support for local economic and social development. Universities employ two million workers (one-third of who are faculty), enroll more than 15 million students, possess endowments of over $300 billion, hold more than $100 billion in real estate, and purchase hundreds of billions of dollars in goods and services annually. In short, they are economic engines of considerable power in our nation.

Over the past few decades many faculty, students, and administrators have struggled to create space to utilize these resources and break down the isolation to which universities have too often succumbed. There are scores of outstanding examples of campuses that have begun to harness their scholarly and economic power to directly benefit society outside the walls of the campus. These university-community partnerships are becoming an important element in reinvigorating our civic life. Yet, overall, higher education remains a “sleeping giant” when it comes to strategically using its considerable resources to meet the challenges facing our communities, particularly the needs of our most disadvantaged citizens.

This report seeks to answer the question: “How might this sleeping giant be awakened to benefit our communities?”

History shows that universities are highly susceptible to outside influences that have shaped their research, teaching, and institutional agendas. As the following pages demonstrate, dating back to the 1860s, federal and state policy, funding from government, corporate, and philanthropic sources, and student and faculty pressure have altered the direction of higher education. From the federal government’s creation of the land-grant system (the “people’s” colleges) and passage of the GI bill, to foundation-supported efforts that have produced entire new fields of academic research and study, higher education has time and again responded to external forces and embraced new directions.

In our own day, how can public policy and foundation grantmaking power encourage universities to become more directly and usefully involved in the life of their surrounding communities? What incentives can be put in place to move higher education to a new level of engagement with communities and to significantly leverage the flow of university resources to help meet community needs?

In this report, we review the history of policy and funding decisions that have shaped the agenda and direction of higher education. We survey the growing movement for university-community engagement from service-learning and community-based research to university financial strategies that are investing many tens of millions of dollars annually in community development. And in the conclusion of this report, we suggest a strategic framework by which America’s foundations, in particular, could play a catalytic role in awakening the sleeping giant of higher education.

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