Typically, universities do not engage the communities around them. As one administrator at Widener University in Pennsylvania said about their surrounding community, “Chester is a place that will suck Widener dry and is not worth wasting the university’s precious resources on” (Harris, & Pickron-Davis, 2013, p. 48). Rather, universities usually dedicate their resources to teaching and research. Research especially raises the profile of the university.
However, that some universities do put resources in to working with their neighboring communities. These universities are not working as a partner as much as a neighbor interested in marketing, to show to prospective students and donors that they are conscious of life outside of the ivory tower. There are other universities that are more genuinely engaged and thinking about partnership as a civic enterprise. But, even with the best intentions, university partnerships can be fraught with difficulties.
For instance, some university partnerships consist of simply sending undergraduates out to tutor low income students in the nearby public schools or co-sponsoring a community event. These tend to be one-way contributions that benefit the universities more than the communities and/or that end when a course or program ends or when a faculty member moves onto another project. However, more meaningful impact can come when universities start by considering the following question, as Clifford and Pretrescu (2012) suggest: (1) Are we giving our clients or partners something useful? (2) Are we enhancing their capacity in some way? (p. 83). These questions force the university to ask if what they are doing is valuable beyond their campuses.
Who decides what is useful or what enhances capacities? Universities cannot answer these questions in a vacuum. They have to dialogue with community members, to listen to their answers to these questions. Faculty members and university administrators are not used to taking a back seat to the work of communities, but by driving the agenda universities will not see the lasting outcomes that they would like to see come out of a partnership with communities.
It has been done before. For example, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform partners with the Coalition for Educational Justice in New York City. They provide them with data and research that they need to make the case for better public schools when they go to the city’s Department of Education. The Annenberg Center does not advance its own agenda by doing that but advances the work of community organizations.
At Towson University, the Office of Civic Engagement encourages this kind of partnership between faculty and local organizations. Through their support, I was able to work with New Lens and the Baltimore Algebra Project to produce a film on the closing of local schools in Baltimore. This was an area of research for me, but was also an area of need for local organizations that needed help addressing an issue that they were concerned about. They wanted a way to convey the importance of the issue of school closings which was not producing the kind of pushback they hoped. They surmised that it was because communities in Baltimore have been disenfranchised and their input has been ignored for so long that they did not think that their voices mattered. Therefore, they wanted a way of presenting the research on school closing in a more dramatic way. I began to provide some data about where the school closings were taking place, and created a map. Next we worked on a video that showed why the closings were happening and how they might impact the communities.
Community organizations drove the agenda for research, and not university faculty. The goal was not to get data for a peer-reviewed journal article. The goal was to get the word out about the issue and to create a campaign. In this case, a campaign that the Algebra Project launched to save Langston Hughes Elementary school. Towson University continued to provide research, advice on strategy, social media spaces and physical meeting space to elevate the work of the community. Although the school closed, the agenda of the communities involved in organizing remains the same. Now, the university is seen as an ally in that struggle, a partner in seeking community justice. The relationship continues and the community seeks the university as a partner.