The Chronicle Review

The Neighborhood University

Alamy Stock Photo

Student volunteers from Wayne State U. pull weeds in Detroit’s Roosevelt Park.
July 30, 2017

We asked five scholars on urban campuses what responsibility their universities have to the cities in which they reside.

M y university bought the first 100 acres of our current campus from real-estate developers in 1910, for $5. Presumably the developers deeded the land for this nominal price less from a philanthropic devotion to advancing knowledge than through a pragmatic calculation about how the university would speed development and increase the value of the adjoining properties they’d acquired — land, it should be underscored, that they had acquired from an African-American fraternal organization that had recently collapsed.

Universities have an obligation to analyze the policies and actions that produced the significant inequalities of wealth and race that define the contours of American cities. We also need to be critical about how our institutions have been complicit or willing agents of those policies and actions, whether slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal, or gentrification. Finally, we need to continue to try to animate that critique by embracing initiatives — e.g., access and affordability, humbly and openly engaging with our local communities through community-based learning, etc. — that help redress inequalities for which our institutions bear some measure of responsibility.

— Robert K. Nelson, Director, Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond

Urban universities must give back to their cities and to the vulnerable populations within them. Typically, universities deploy student interns to nonprofit groups throughout the city, but they can do so much more. They should set up long-term, reciprocal partnerships with local governments to help solve issues of inequality. They can do this by applying to private foundations for research funds to develop urban labs that will produce tacit knowledge facilitating effective policy action. For instance, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation supports a new urban-research lab within the Washington, D.C., government, staffed by local professors of different disciplines taking on some of city’s most pressing challenges.

Universities should also deploy their endowments in creative and socially responsible ways. Urban institutions should devote a percentage of their investments to local challenges, such as shortages in affordable housing. What could the D.C. affordable-housing trust fund accomplish if area universities bestowed on it 10 percent of their investment funds? We must ensure that universities contribute with their people and investment power to make cities more equitable, livable, and inclusive spaces.

— Derek S. Hyra, associate professor of public administration and policy at American University and author of Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Iam proudest to work at a public university when I see the fruits of widespread campus efforts to cooperate with schools and community-based organizations on projects that empower various sectors of the city.

The Center for Community College Partnerships at the University of California at Los Angeles provides year-round mentoring and guidance to community-college students to pursue bachelor’s degrees. The UCLA Latin American Institute convenes K-12 teachers every summer for workshops that prepare them to teach about Latin America. The UCLA Labor Center houses innovative programs to support some of the city’s most vulnerable workers.

When welcomed by the community, these partnerships can become fruitful research sites for college professors while providing college students with powerful learning opportunities. Such collaborations encourage scholars to translate their research findings for broader audiences, thereby extending the reach of the university’s mission to make knowledge accessible and productive beyond the walls of the institution.

— Leisy J. Abrego, associate professor of Chicana/o studies, University of California at Los Angeles

The phrases "ivory tower" and "town/gown" evoke the popular if not prevailing view that colleges and universities are removed or set apart from the communities they inhabit. Gates at multiple entrances to campuses, decorative or real, reinforce that erroneous idea. But such views ignore the significant economic, social, and political space that institutions of higher education have always occupied, as well as the significant power they wield.

In many communities, universities are the largest employers. While students and faculty members may have limited connection to or understanding of the communities within which their campuses sit, the much larger number of staff members who support the research and teaching within these institutions may have deep roots in the local community, and also represent experiences that move across a much more diverse cross-section of the local population in terms of race, class, and gender.

Their sense of what it’s like to work for these institutions provides a different angle on our understanding of our mission. We can effect positive change by providing reasonable work hours, fair wages and salaries, and access to education to the service workers, manual laborers, and office workers who enable students and faculty members to do their best work.

All of these practices can help improve local economies as much as the high-level research efforts in the sciences, medical, business, and law schools that create other forms of professional labor and labor systems.

— Leslie M. Harris, professor of history, Northwestern University

In Lowell, Mass., people have come together to make a life and a living along the banks of the Merrimack River. The University of Massachusetts at Lowell in one form or another has been a part of this since the 1890s, when it turned out textile engineers, machinery designers, and teachers.

At first a place where the commonwealth’s first-generation college attendees could receive an affordable education, it must remain so even as we strive for 21st-century academic and research excellence. In the search for the next large donation or corporate sponsorship, the institution must not forget that it is first and foremost an urban campus situated in a diverse city and region faced with myriad social and economic problems.

Thus our curriculum must focus on the application of research to solving these problems. Campus leaders should say to every child growing up in the shadow of our buildings: "Do well in school. When you’re ready for college, there will be a seat for you to join our engaged and engaging community of problem solvers."

— Robert Forrant, professor of history, University of Massachusetts at Lowell