Letters to the Editor

Colleges' History Is Tied to the Public Good

October 17, 2011

To the Editor:

Robin Wilson's recent article on "Syracuse's Slide" (The Chronicle, October 2) provokes further consideration of our understanding of scholarship and the role of higher education as a "public good." At the article's core is the premise that there is a conflict between engagement and academic excellence, and between diversity and excellence. To the contrary, both engagement and diversity not only contribute to, but also are essential for, academic and institutional excellence.

This argument has considerable historical grounding. The founding purpose of both colonial colleges and historically black colleges and universities was to educate young people for service to others. Fulfilling America's democratic promise was the founding purpose of land-grant universities. And the defined urban-serving mission for higher education dates from the late 19th century, notably the founding of the Johns Hopkins University, the first modern university, in 1876. Since the end of the cold war, there has been a re-emergence of engaged scholarship, with leading academics and university presidents making the intellectual case. That argument, simply stated, is that universities, particularly urban universities, would better fulfill their core academic functions, including advancing knowledge and learning, if they focused on improving conditions in their cities and local communities.

Over the past couple of decades, Syracuse's Scholarship in Action and myriad other programs across the country have been addressing universal problems as they are manifested locally (substandard housing, inadequate schools, poor health care). The knowledge generated is nationally and globally significant. At the same time, they are fulfilling their core commitment of educating all students of ability, regardless of economic, racial, or ethnic backgrounds, as well as helping these students develop as democratic citizens. In the 21st century, community engagement and diversity are defining characteristics of a truly excellent university.

Since 2009, leaders of higher education (and other types of anchor institutions) have joined together to form the Anchor Institutions Task Force. The task force develops and disseminates knowledge to help create and advance democratic, mutually beneficial institution/community partnerships. Members—there are now over 120, including 35 college and university presidents—are guided by the core values of collaboration and partnership, equity and social justice, democracy and democratic practice, and commitment to place and community.

These higher-education leaders, including Nancy Cantor, have helped to advance the quality of life in their institutions' communities, as well as research, teaching, and civic development on campus by implementing these principles. Syracuse is in fact demonstrating what an anchor institution can and should do.

Ira Harkavy
Anchor Institutions Task Force
Associate Vice President and Director
Netter Center for Community Partnerships
University of Pennsylvania

David Maurrasse
Anchor Institutions Task Force
Marga Inc.
New York