The Work Going Forward: Why Neighborhood Partnerships Matter More Than Ever

Richard Guarasci
President, Wagner College
Past President, CUMU Executive Committee

I have had the privilege of visiting a number of campuses these last 18 months. Two observations from my travels provide those of us in CUMU with a unique direction as we turn liabilities into assets. From Omaha to metropolitan Detroit and from Minneapolis to Staten Island I have observed remarkable moments of crisis joined to the potential for positive change.

First, I witness the painful convergence of fiscal, demographic, technological challenges confronting colleges and universities. They aggregate to an era of what could easily produce seismic changes to higher education as we have known it. From the seemingly intractable problems surrounding the attainment of a sustainable business model for both public and private universities to the punishing public narrative that colleges are too expensive, ineffective, and loading students with excessive debt, higher education is vulnerable to a prolonged era of financial instability and overall decline. Coupled with the rise of nativist political populism and the escalation of rank racism and ethnocentrism, our campuses also face a challenge to the accepted goals of broader access, inclusive diversity, and social equity. Some of our critics would have us return to the elitist model of higher learning, largely affordable to only the top half of the socio-economic demographic. In short, higher education as a sector has never been so politically isolated and economically vulnerable in almost a century.

Secondly, my travels illuminate the plight of the neighborhoods that lay within our metropolitan surroundings. Here, the effects of a growing social inequality leave their marks in unacceptable high school graduation rates; health inequalities such as the escalation of diabetes, stress, and hypertension; the further isolation of new immigrants; and the silenced voices and hidden stories of those left on the margins of the current American landscape. Distressed neighborhoods are losing federal and state support at the very time their needs are becoming acute. They desperately need new allies who can partner with them to build their communities through expansion of neighborhood assets and reduction of the coefficients of inequality.

Our distressed neighborhoods need the social capital of the universities just as higher education needs to reclaim its core commitment in educating students not simply for careers, but also as engaged citizens and civic professionals.

And it is happening. In Omaha, I experienced the remarkable partnership between the city and its own metropolitan university, University of Nebraska Omaha. Led by a rock solid president and past CUMU Executive Committee President, John Christensen, the campus has become a national model for creating spaces and strategies to facilitate impactful and collaborative community engagement. The synergies created by proximity and the alignment of student engagement, as well as faculty and staff expertise, combine in the everyday practice in K-12 partnerships that provide tutoring, mentorships, and direct service to schools and after school programs desperate for resources.

In Minneapolis, small private Augsburg College, and new CUMU member, lives out its Lutheran mission by creating a comprehensive neighborhood partnership which focuses on the surge of Somali immigrants that are filling this major Midwest city. The work here is around education, healthcare, and economic development. President Paul Pribbenow is a courageous civic leader who understands the partnership serves as the moral and intellectual heartbeat of learning at Augsburg. Because of this partnership, the larger community is beginning to experience opportunities for advancement and prosperity. This work has changed Augsburg and it is now one of the most diverse small, private urban colleges in the United States.

I recently returned from a statewide student success conference in Michigan hosted by Oakland University.They are beginning to assess the real value of the metropolitan brand as they begin planning a fuller commitment to the neighboring distressed community of Pontiac. They have impressive leadership across the faculty, staff, and administration.

On Staten Island, my institution has built a nearly ten-year comprehensive partnership with the Port Richmond neighborhood. It is a community of 14,000 that is composed of nearly two thirds, mostly un-documented, Mexicans and twenty percent African Americans—all trapped in a web of inequality and powerlessness. In aligning our business, nursing, education, and physician assistant programs, as well as our arts and science majors, with Port Richmond’s health, education, economic, and immigration inequities, we can see hope emerge where despair once dominated. The public scholarship of the performing and visual arts helps this community bring its individual and collective autobiography into the borough’s and the city’s narrative.

These partnerships are a function of the respective needs of universities and our local communities. They are dynamic and inspiring. Many obstacles are present every day. However, so much energy, learning, and achievement is both vivid and palpable. CUMU is one of the national leaders in providing its members with the space and best practices in returning higher education to its founding mission of educating for personal growth, a dynamic economy, and a vibrant and intercultural democracy. From my perspective, this is our best work and our brightest future.