06/06/2012 07:22 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

Universities as Community Partners

Every university is located somewhere. But for many of them, the location doesn't matter very much. The twin clichés of the ivory tower and the town-gown problem capture much of the locational philosophy of many universities. The majority of great universities in the US define their missions in terms of a combination of national excellence and research super-starness that places little weight on the issues of the local regions and communities in which they live.

For a subset of universities in the United States, however, location does matter. These are universities that identify themselves as urban and metropolitan universities. These universities define their missions in part as contributing to the social and economic progress of the regions in which they exist. Here is how Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York System and an important thought leader in this style of university work, puts the point: "The idea is simple: by harnessing the collective power of our public urban research universities, we will rebuild America's cities and once again make them places for opportunity, innovation, and vitality."

There are even two coalitions of universities with this shared definition of mission, the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities and the Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities. Members of these coalitions offer numerous examples of powerful partnerships between universities and the cities and regions they live in.

A university is of course primarily a place of learning and discovery. So how can it also take on the mission of contributing to the progress of the region in which it is situated? One part of the answer has to do with the focus of research by faculty and programs. A university can place community impact high on its list of priorities. It can offer incentives and opportunities for faculty pursuing research that has relevance to the community's needs. It can incorporate "community impact" into its system of faculty evaluation. And over time it can recruit faculty who share a passion for community-relevant research.

Another part of the answer is civic engagement by students, faculty and staff. Harnessing the potential for genuine social engagement that many students have and finding ways of channeling some of this engagement into productive channels of community work can have major impact -- for the communities and for the individual students. The Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan is a great example. Several thousand students every year are mobilized through the Center in a wide range of continuing community service and civic engagement projects. Another important example goes even further when programs of national youth service like Teach for America and City Year allow students and graduates to spend a year or two in valuable and impactful community service. Many students are eager to engage with their communities in these ways, and metropolitan universities find ways to cultivate those interests.

A good example of an urban metropolitan university is the University of Illinois at Chicago. UIC has focused much of its attention in the past twenty years on the city of Chicago. The Great Cities Institute works to coordinate efforts by many different academic units in service to Chicago, and it is well-recognized in Chicago that UIC is a great partner in addressing the problems of the city and its communities.

In other words, it is possible for a university to be an important and impactful part of a region's ability to address and solve its problems. A commitment to playing this role is a component of the defining missions of a growing number of universities. And it seems enormously important for our nation's future that universities should look at this kind of serious partnership and engagement as part of their missions. Our cities need universities as partners.