When does town-gown collaboration work?

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week, Judith Sebesta is blogging about “College for All, Or Just For Some?”College may indeed be not for everyone, as I argued in my article, but I’m using my first post of the week to talk about how universities can serve the public good in new and important ways. In particular, reciprocal partnerships between a university and the community in which it sits can be transformative.

I was encouraged by a recent report in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the relationship between Wayne State University and Detroit, which is not only healthy and productive, but apparently key to the city’s recovery.

These collaborations don’t always work. But when they do, they represent the best of the mission of higher education, particularly when inter-institutional partnerships are involved. Another inspiring example is the Semester in Detroit program, in which the University of Michigan brings students to live at Wayne State University and intern with political officials, area nonprofits, community groups, small businesses, or museums. The students also take a core course in Detroit history and an elective course such as urban planning. Call me utopian, but surely everyone involved here are winners.

That said, I’m not naive. Sometimes these collaborations can easily become one-sided, exploitative, and even “colonial.” And I know that higher education has become an increasingly big business itself. I also have experienced, first-hand, when differing values of the larger community undermine what should be the inherent values of the institution.

The last university at which I worked – a regional, public state institution — is in a conservative, overwhelmingly Christian community. I remember how shocked I was at the first Board of Regents meeting I attended to hear a prayer invoked, and I soon realized how much Christianity pervaded the campus. Although I believed the school’s leadership of the university was trying to cultivate a relationship with the community, embracing Christian values so blatantly should have been the terrain of a faith-based, not public, institution.

The Robbins Report, commissioned by the British government in 1963, highlighted among its objectives the need to “to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship.” I invite readers here to comment on which inter-community collaborations, like the above, they’ve encountered, and whether they successfully met this objective.

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