The quality of an institution’s relationship with the community in which it finds itself depends on so many things, not least of all one’s expectations for the other. Colleges and universities have historically contributed to the economic well-being of their neighborhoods, and their neighbors have often come to rely on them for services. In a world of shrinking budgets and great need, how to balance the two so that everyone feels they’re getting what they want? How can boards play a role? And how do you define community, anyway?
For institutions located within struggling urban or rural areas, the adage “a rising tide lifts all boats” may guide their philosophy to community engagement and investment. Others encounter populations with very specific needs, ultimately tailoring their missions to incorporate a long-term response to distinct geographic or systemic issues. Each college or university handles its relations with its community a little differently—yet can learn from the experience of others.
Four institutions—two public, two private; one East Coast, one West Coast, and two Southern—shared their stories of the different ways they engage with their surroundings, how they came to have those relationships, how their campuses and communities have benefitted, and how their boards have helped make it happen.
In, and of, the Big City
Set on five acres on the Muddy River, just blocks from Fenway Park in Boston, Wheelock College has a unique mission going back 126 years. Founded by Lucy Wheelock, who advocated for the inclusion of kindergarten into public schools, the college has always been committed to being of service to children and families.
All first-year students, no matter their major, are required to take a course on human growth and development. “It really serves as the foundation for our pedagogy and our philosophy about what the college experience should be,” said Jackie Jenkins-Scott, president of Wheelock since 2004. “Every student leaves here, we hope, with this unique commitment to children and families.”
Students are also offered the option of taking a year-long Jumpstart seminar, part of a national literacy and reading program to prepare preschool students for kindergarten. The seminar exposes students to the theory and practice of child development through their engagement with children in inner-city schools in low-income communities. About 80 students take part each year. “They’re out in the community the second week of the fall semester. It’s very inspiring to me,” said Jenkins-Scott. The program is about a decade old and has the full support of Wheelock’s board. “Our board believes very much in community and connection to community.”
The college’s most significant commitment to the community, however, may be a more recent one, undertaken four years ago, when the city of Boston put 12 community centers on the budgetary chopping block. Then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino approached Jenkins-Scott with a public-private proposal: Given Wheelock’s well-established interest in children and families, would the college consider taking over one of the community centers to keep it running?
“Normally, colleges are not asked to run a community civic center,” said Jenkins-Scott, with a laugh. The board and administration pondered the pros and cons of such an undertaking. There were arguments to be made on both sides. “But we felt it was a wonderful opportunity to live the mission and the values of the college and to integrate our curriculum in a creative way. It was a great opportunity for our students to have another place for civic engagement. In the long run, we felt we had so much to learn by undertaking this endeavor.”
The college took over the Mattahunt Community Center in 2011 after refurbishing the facilities, which include a swimming pool, athletic fields, a basketball court, and a new computer center with wi-fi access. Located in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, about 20 minutes from Wheelock, the center serves a large number of immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and South America, as well as African Americans. More than 200 families use the center each day for academic enrichment, Boys and Girls Clubs activities, and sports.
The Mattahunt Center, in a neighborhood that lacks a high school, is adjacent to an elementary school; many Wheelock students studying education, social work, and juvenile justice do field placements at both sites, and other students volunteer. The center is staffed by Wheelock employees who are paid by a combination of foundation and corporate support. Once a month, Sodexo, which provides food service to the college, sponsors a family dinner at the center, providing a meal, cooking lessons, and talks on healthy eating. Many Sodexo employees live in Mattapan, and the dinner night is extremely popular in the neighborhood, with as many as 150 families attending. Sodexo covers all the costs.
The popularity of the partnership between Wheelock and the community center has led the newly elected mayor, Marty Walsh, to ask the college to continue running the center for two more years, although the original plans called for the relationship to revert after four years to the more informal one of volunteering. What does that mean for the college and the board?
“Part of a trustee’s job is to ask the tough questions about ability, impact on college’s budget, reputation, values,” said Jenkins-Scott, whose board did that four years ago and will do it again now as it reconsiders ending the formal relationship. “Those are the kinds of issues and questions trustees ought to be looking at when colleges take on projects or community-engagement work. We were very fortunate our trustees asked those tough questions. We believe taking this on does a lot to enhance our value and reputation, and our ability to be a solid community contributor to Boston in a very challenging time. And we have done this without impacting the budget of the college.”
Steve Aveson, a Wheelock board member for 10 years, was part of the original decision-making process to run the Mattahunt Community Center. It wasn’t a tough call, he said. “It was such an essential, correct thing to do based on our mission statement,” he said. “There was no trouble getting enthusiasm across the university, even from the conservative financial people. We can’t spare an extra penny, but we can’t spare a wasted opportunity, either. It’s such an excellent fit for our students, our faculty, and our engagement with the community in which we reside.”
What advice would he give another institution considering taking on such a risk? “It has to be the truth,” he said. “It should not be done as an ornament or an accessory or an extracurricular or just because it’s the right thing to do. You have to do it because it’s core to mission.”
Rejuvenating a Sleepy Southern Town
Nestled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, James Madison University (JMU), in Harrisonburg, is a public institution that has seen exponential growth on its campus in the last 20 years and in the surrounding community in the last decade. The two are not unrelated.
Founded in 1908 as a women’s college, JMU experienced a rapid expansion during the administration of its fourth president—in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s—putting up almost two dozen new buildings, tripling its faculty and staff, and adding doctoral programs. That pace has continued into the 2000s, with the purchase of a hospital and a high-school campus, and construction of additional buildings, including a new library and performing-arts center. It is now home to more than 20,000 students.
The surrounding city, alas, was not keeping pace with the institution. Enter the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, a group founded in 2003 by concerned citizens, including JMU faculty members and administrators. Focused on saving structures with historical significance, the group worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, private and public developers, state government, and the university to utterly transform the city of nearly 50,000, which has now been designated a Virginia Main Street by the National Trust.
Today, the city is the fastest-growing in Virginia, and its downtown is home to more than 25 independent restaurants, 40 specialty retail shops, and a number of museums and galleries, earning the area the designation of Arts & Cultural District. Rosetta Stone, the language software company, has offices in Harrisonburg, and there are more than 500 residential units, located in a mix of renovated historic buildings and new construction.
JMU’s board has been a consistent supporter of the institution’s engagement with the community. “In a strategic sense, our board of visitors leads the university to be highly engaged with the community,” said Jonathan R. Alger, JMU’s president since 2012. “The board recently adopted a new strategic plan, which includes community engagement as a core element. We had many conversations about the importance of being good neighbors and community participants during the strategic-plan adoption process. So our commitment to be engaged with the local community comes right from the top of our organization. This commitment reflects the priority we place on being a good ‘steward of place’—the opposite of an isolated ivory tower.”
There have been some tensions in the past over the university’s decision to purchase existing buildings, which were then taken off the tax rolls. In 2005, JMU bought the recently vacated Rockingham Memorial Hospital campus for more than $40 million, incorporating it into the university’s North Campus, where it now houses the career and academic planning offices, health center, and counseling and student-development center. The hospital moved to another site, and in 2007, the two entered into the JMU-RMH Collaborative, working together on educational partnerships; research in the biomedical, biotechnology, and bioengineering fields; and sustainable environmental efforts. In 2006, the university purchased the vacant Harrisonburg High School property for $17 million and turned it into the College of Education. Funds from the sale enabled the city to build a new middle school.
In mid-2014, JMU began leasing 30,000 square feet of office space in the Ice House, a downtown complex built in 1934 that had been vacant for nearly 10 years until a public-private partnership resurrected the building. The principal developers are both JMU alumni, and the site, which is half a mile from campus, will eventually include 100,000 square feet of office, retail, and residential space.
At about the same time, JMU, the university foundation, and the city of Harrisonburg entered into a public-private partnership to build a new hotel and conference center. JMU is leasing the land to the developer, and the JMU Foundation is funding the construction of the conference center, putting up $10 million to do so. JMU is kicking in $15 million for a parking garage. The foundation will be repaid for its investment with taxes generated by the project.
“With this deal, JMU made the decision to put a very valuable corner located on Main Street between the university and downtown onto the tax rolls,” said Alger, who noted that the board was involved in all of these decisions. “Taking properties off the tax base is a perennial concern for any municipality with a large state institution within its boundaries.”
Alger said the university makes significant financial contributions to the community, including an annual donation to the city “in support of our mutual partnership”; money toward construction of a community bike path; and more than $1.6 million annually to the city for bus services, which benefit both local residents and the campus. He also noted that Aramark, JMU’s food service provider, pays $89,586 12 Trusteeship annually for a business license and paid $341,117 in food taxes in 2013. “If we operated our own food services, we would not pay food taxes,” he said.
Lois Carderella Forbes, a JMU alumna who just completed an eight-year term on the board of visitors, said that it was a very intentional decision to engage more deeply with Harrisonburg, one that was incorporated into the university’s strategic plan. Prior to her board stint, she served on the JMU Foundation board, and recalled that town-gown relations were strained then.
“At one time, there was animosity in the community toward JMU,” she said. “I think they perceived years ago that JMU wanted to be unto itself and not part of the community, so we felt it was important, as part of the strategic plan, to engage the community as much as possible in activities and decisions.”
One way they did that, and something Forbes would recommend to any institution trying to improve its engagement with the surrounding community, was to send students out as representatives of the university. She noted that in addition to volunteering at food banks and community cleanups and other service projects, students who perform at the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts (Forbes and her husband are the university’s single mostgenerous donors) have been sent to elementary and secondary schools in the region to put on productions for the children.
“Students in Harrisonburg don’t have that opportunity. They’re not seeing the arts, going to plays,” she said. “We’re taking JMU out into the community in a good way and helping kids who are growing up there to perceive the university as a great thing—something that will help them even if they don’t go to school at JMU, that it’s helping their community.”
Building a Sustainable Institutional Commitment
As recently as a decade or two ago, downtown Durham, home to Duke University, was plagued by crime, not hipsters and locavores. Big tobacco had fled the city, leaving chunks of it abandoned and decaying. A town built to last by wealthy industrialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had been laid low.
“Twenty years ago, Durham was a hindrance to our recruiting,” said Tallman Trask III, executive vice president at Duke. Then, the university was renting 30,000 square feet of space downtown; today, said Trask, it’s over 1 million. That’s been part of a conscious choice not to build any additional administrative space on the campus. It’s also been part of a deliberate strategy to contribute to Durham’s resurgence, he said. “If we could find the right partners, we wanted to help turn some things around. We didn’t want to buy a lot of stuff; we wanted to make investments with other partners.”
That’s just what Duke has done, starting in 1996, when it created the Duke- Durham Neighborhood Partnership, which now falls under Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs. When the partnership was formed, Duke agreed to lease office space downtown in a development that was being promoted by local basketball legends Christian Laettner and Brian Davis. But the real commitment was to the American Tobacco building, which was abandoned in the late 1980s. Duke leased 100,000 square feet, which it maintains today. The building is now home to more than 60 businesses.
“Fifteen years ago, 2 million square feet in Durham were abandoned,” said Trask. “Today, the biggest space for rent is 2,500 square feet.”
But it’s about more than just renting space, which, incidentally, as Trask pointed out, keeps the property on the local tax rolls. Through the efforts of the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, Duke has its hand in the continued revitalization of the city and the K–12 education system, as well as the creation of affordable housing for university employees, part of a broader effort to encourage employees to live in the city proper.
Phail Wynn came out of retirement in 2007 to take over that office. The former president of the Durham Technical Community College, he was no stranger to Duke (despite having received his master’s and PhD from North Carolina State), to the problems of the community, or, for that matter, to problems between Duke and the community.
“I was aware of the fact that there was a great deal of tension between Durham and Duke. There was an uneasy partnership, perceptions of Duke being arrogant, aloof, and uncaring,” said Wynn. “There needed to be a revisiting of the historic and new partnerships, and the creation of a new sense of trust so that new planned partnerships could take place and be effective.”
Wynn came to the university a year after its board of trustees voted on a new strategic plan, one that spoke of strong engagement with Durham and the region, and of enacting Duke’s core value of knowledge in the service of society, he said. “The board was very much aware of the need to become more engaged in Durham and to have a more sustainable presence in Durham as a partner in the region. My role was to create new partnerships and renew partnerships.”
Those partnerships have included a significant commitment to the city’s public schools to help address concerns about early literacy, reading proficiency, suspensions, dropouts, graduation rates, and overall performance. That has manifested itself in four pre-K programs, year-round afterschool reading programs, summer reading academies, Latino youth outreach programs (and outreach to parents, to help curb the recruiting of Latino youth into gangs), and a four-year study looking at high-risk factors for middle-school students. Much of this is funded, Wynn said, through the Duke employee-giving campaign, “Doing Good in the Neighborhood,” which raises about $600,000 each year to underwrite these and other programs and provide services to public schools.
Duke is also partnering with the city and with the nonprofit Center for Community Self Help, a community development lender, to create an affordable housing program for low-income Duke employees. The program provides a $10,000 forgivable loan for a home purchase, and it recently created a Duke Homebuyers Club, which focuses on education about financial literacy, savings strategies, and credit repair.
In addition, Duke is a prime provider of healthcare in the region, operating the Duke University Health System, of which the Duke University Hospital and the Duke Regional Hospital are a part. Michael Marsicano, who received his undergrad, graduate, and doctoral degrees at the university, serves on the healthsystem board and is in his eighth year of service on the Duke governing board. He calls the healthcare relationship between Durham and Duke very significant.
“It’s an extraordinary benefit to the community,” said Marsicano, noting that the community has high expectations of the university and its role therein. Asked whether these expectations can always be met, he was thoughtful. “The expectations of the community sometimes probably exceed Duke’s mission, and exceed Duke’s ability to be there for the community,” he said. “Duke absolutely maximizes its outreach to the community within its mission. Durham has served Duke well and I don’t want us to miss that point. Duke has grown so quickly and Durham has been able to satisfy that need. It’s been a huge benefit to Durham, but also to Duke.”
The fates of the university and the community are “intertwined,” said Laurene Sperling, chair of the Duke board’s institutional advancement committee. And in order for the two to have a good relationship, “it takes a very deep caring for the other. The university must care for the community in order for the community to care about the university.”
Healthcare, housing, public education, tax payments. All of this is part of a broader effort, said Wynn, to create a “culture of community engagement and community outreach”—a culture he doesn’t believe existed previously.
“One of the things we’ve been doing is working on building a sustainable institutional commitment among faculty, staff, and students and building partnerships we think will be sustainable and will continue,” he said, noting that the board’s 2006 strategic plan was the real impetus for this. “The structure has been put in place that these efforts will continue. The board is committed to it, and the culture is being built within the board, the institution, and the student body.”
A Young Campus, Growing to Meet the Need
“Our engagement has been directed at populations at risk of not getting an education,” said Karen Haynes, president of California State University San Marcos (CSUSM). A relatively young institution, only in its 25th year, CSUSM is located in northeastern San Diego County, tucked away inland, far from the historic Gaslamp Quarter and the famous zoo that draws so many visitors to the city of San Diego.
Cal State San Marcos is governed by a system board that has authority over all 23 member institutions; in addition, the president relies on an active local advisory council. Because of the nature of the system structure, the university has less direct board oversight than the other institutions profiled in this piece.
Since Haynes took over the presidency in 2004, CSUSM has more than doubled its student body, from 6,000 to 13,000, and has very consciously reached out to three populations in particular that have been historically underserved by the region’s institutions of higher education: native peoples, former foster youth, and veterans. The institution has the highest concentration of all three groups within the CSU system, making for an eclectic mix with very different needs. That has necessitated much strategic thinking.
There are 18 Native-American tribes represented in the CSUSM service region, said Haynes, with seven more found in two adjacent counties, “but I recognized that we really didn’t have any strategies to connect to that population,” when she became president. The institution subsequently created a tribal liaison position in 2004, adding a Native Advisory Council the next year as part of its Tribal Initiative. The council advises the president on the university’s relations with neighboring tribes and those tribes’ educational needs.
Cal State San Marcos is the only university in the state system to have the liaison position, and it is also the only one of the system’s 23 institutions that is increasing its native population, which is now 3 percent of CSUSM’s enrollment. The campus has established a California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, and native students have a variety of scholarship options for which they can apply that are partially funded by matching funds from the surrounding tribes.
Such outreach is particularly important, said Haynes, because Native Americans have among the lowest college-going and college-graduation rates in the country, rates matched only by those of CSUSM’s other target populations: former foster youth and veterans.
Cal State San Marcos, alone within the CSU System, has a guaranteed admissions agreement for any young person formerly in foster care who meets the admissions criteria. It also has a long-term relationship with the San Pasqual Academy, a nearby residential high school for children in the foster care system. Cal State San Marcos has established the ACE Scholars Services program, which offers supportive services to those students once they’re on the campus, including help with transitional housing, scheduling, and internships. They can get that assistance at the Jan and Esther Stearns Center for ACE Scholars, recently established through a private donation of $1 million.
Located near several military installations, most notably Camp Pendleton, one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the country, CSUSM also offers veterans a variety of services, including a veterans center (housed in a building that was a gift from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey) and a veterans coordinator, who serves as a liaison to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Veterans & Active Duty Educational Steering Committee serves as the campus body that addresses the goals of the California Veterans Educational Opportunities Partnership. Veterans make up 11 percent of the Cal State San Marcos student population.
“They’re very responsive,” Roberta Achtenberg, a member of the CSU system board for 15 years, said of Cal State San Marcos. “We encourage all of our campuses to be as responsive to the community’s needs as is possible. We have an emphasis on service learning throughout our various campuses, and that really gets people intimately involved in the work of their communities.”
It was with Achtenberg’s prompting that the CSU Institute for Palliative Care, housed at Cal State San Marcos, was established in 2012, 18 months after the idea was conceived. It is the first statewide educational and workforce-development initiative focused on palliative care. Cal State San Marcos has also been responsive to the shortage of nurses in the region, opening the School of Nursing in 2006, in partnership with a major health consortium, Palomar Health. Overall, the Cal State system issues 60 percent of the state’s nursing degrees.
All of these initiatives are focused on working in tandem with the community, both to educate students and to respond to real needs. Does that ever get tricky? “I think there is always that possibility that a community may think a university is able to solve all problems or be the owner of all problems,” said Haynes, who is a social worker by training. “I think we’ve been relatively successful with this large community—parts of three counties, different cities, multiple school districts. We’ve worked very hard, say with veterans’ resources, to show where a college can be part of the solution, but we are not a social-service agency, we are not a job-training agency. We try to anticipate where the community may turn to us for something that’s not within our mission or ability to provide. The more engaged you are in the community, the more people want to bring you problems and expect you will have solutions.”
Community relations and the board’s role therein can run the gamut, depending on the need the institution encounters, its academic and social mission, how realistic the community’s expectations are, and, most fundamentally, how the institution defines community. The institutions profiled here have all focused their efforts locally, in some cases investing large sums of money to get a community back on its feet (which, not incidentally, helps the institution, too), in other cases taking on a small project nearby that provides concrete educational opportunities for its students and incalculable benefits to the lives of those touched by the institution’s actions.
As Steve Adeson, board member of Wheelock College, sees it, it’s not that complicated a decision, in the end. Whether to invest in the community or not comes down to one question any college or university board must be able to answer: What do we stand for, and why do we do what we do? “I would say to another college, be true to yourself,” he said, “and do it for core reasons.”