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Colleges: The Little Engines That Could


Brian C. MitchellBrian C. Mitchell

In the recent blizzard of press over the cost of higher education, the impact of technology and the continued relevancy of the curriculum, much of the ongoing effort by colleges and universities to improve their environment has been lost.

For much of their history, most colleges and universities stood as well-defended “cities upon a hill,” isolated by perceived images of wide green lawns, brick walls and massive gates sending an unwelcome and exclusionary message to outsiders.

By concentrating on the academic enterprise, colleges and universities failed to develop an organic, systemic relationship with their environment. As urban environments changed — and many older urban centers declined — local pressure to increase tax revenue set higher education institutions against their communities.

Reactions differed depending upon the circumstances encountered. Almost every educational institution produced an economic impact brochure that included an indirect economic benefits calculator to maximize the impact of the college on the local community. These are useful exercises because they create research from which talking points can be drawn to defend higher education institutions against charges of decades of perceived neglect and indifference toward their environment.

Some university leaders moved quickly to address local environmental concerns. The best example is the University of Pennsylvania, where leadership took an aggressive position to open engagement with the citizens of West Philadelphia to spur significant redevelopment. The result is an improved environment driven practically by safety concerns, politics, investment opportunities and the curb appeal necessary to attract students and their families. Happily, at places like Penn, there was also a growing sense that it was “the right thing to do.”

The Penn example illustrates the importance of the partnerships made possible by the size and complexity of large universities, whether public or private. Large budgets, burgeoning student populations and sophisticated investment and development counsel create the complexity and scale necessary to affect transformative physical changes within the region. When open community-based dialogue infuses decision-making, drawn from grassroots, long-term discussions of meaning and substance, good stuff happens.

There are dozens of examples like Penn across the country. Additionally, new combinations of colleges and universities in close proximity to one another are creating synergies that scale up effectively to the level made possible by large public and private universities. The good dialogue that occurs in Boston’s Fens neighborhood, for example, provides an excellent example of how colleges can work in partnership with one another and collectively with their community.

Unfortunately, many colleges and universities lack the size, complexity, resources and consortia with close geographic proximity to make the decision to build out the broader environment an easy one. Since budgets are rationing tools, why should small-and mid size colleges prioritize their environments?

The reasons are obvious even if the strategies to produce change are undefined and often obscure. Within their communities, higher education institutions are typically large employers and perceived locally as employers of choice. It is important to attract faculty and staff of good quality through efforts to create a vibrant and dynamic community. The more dynamic and attractive an environment created by the college, the better the chance to retain qualified employees who will locate close to it. The argument is basic. It’s where we live.

Students and their families choose a college for many reasons. Anecdotally, perhaps the simplest explanation is “you know it when you feel it.” Curbside appeal is relevant and extends far beyond the college gates. Colleges and universities that enjoy a good synergy where students are actively engaged in the community show better. In tuition-driven institutions, when an applicant questions during a campus visit whether I really want to live here for four years, it relates directly to the college’s bottom line economically.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — it’s the right thing to do.

For most higher education institutions, four factors must come together for them to play a larger role in building out their local environment.

The first is the willingness of the committed. A college community must see and value the environment in which they live as a priority. To do so, there must be broad discussion about what a college can do as an economic engine and a community asset.

Second, higher education institutions of whatever scale have assets. In building out the broader environment, what assets can be reasonably assigned to their community? Must a museum be located on a university campus? Can a bookstore be relocated downtown? Can a downtown theater be restored to offer important new programming and learning opportunities for students? Must all administrative offices be located in valuable on-campus space? How can a synergy from these and other forces be created to introduce a new dynamic within the town?

Third, colleges and universities must see their environment as a learning laboratory. The local environment is that place where theory and practice converge. How a college community handles its relationship with the town says much about what it values.

Finally, state and federal officials must see colleges and universities as persisting economic engines that not only jumpstart growth and richer environments in cities like Philadelphia and Boston but also, adjusted for scale, in towns across America. What economic growth and redevelopment and tax policy changes must occur to build upon current programs to bridge the partnership between town and gown?

One lingering after effect of the Great Recession will be the need to revitalize where we live. Good-faith conversation and smart investment strategies at the institutional, town, state and federal levels can ignite “little engines that could” to rebuild America from the bottom up.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is the president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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