Alan Reifman, Ph.D.

Alan Reifman Ph.D.

On the Campus

Universities, Community Development, and Service Learning

Universities' development efforts in adjoining communities can be controversial

Posted Mar 01, 2012

Many U.S. universities are located in older, inner-city communities, where problems such as blighted buildings, abandoned spaces, and crime can make the areas unattractive to prospective students and faculty. Some schools have taken an active role in neighborhood redevelopment, spending millions in university funds and involving their adminstrators and faculty in the planning and oversight of the changes.

Such redevelopment efforts potentially can mesh with—and even enhance—students' and faculty members' academic experiences. In disciplines such as architecture, interior design, business adminstration, natural resources/environmental management, and education, faculty can contribute design and policy ideas, and students can complete development-related projects for course credit (part of what is known as service learning, to be discussed below).

However, universities' heavy roles in redevelopment can be controversial, as some on campus question the consistency of such endeavors with schools' academic missions and worry that extensive community involvement will weaken schools' academic reputations.

Two universities engaged in community redevelopment, which by coincidence are/were headed by social-personality psychologists, are Syracuse University and the University of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia). Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor (a former Michigan professor from whom I once took a graduate course) was the subject of an October 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education article (here's a link, but a subscription is required). Though the article airs both pro and con views regarding Cantor's vision on community development, the headline, for whatever reason, reflects only the negative ("Syracuse's Slide").

On the one hand, the article notes that under Cantor's leadership, Syracuse "has helped refurbish parks, taken over an abandoned building where drug dealers once grew marijuana, and turned an old furniture warehouse into a new home for academic programs in art, drama, and fashion design. The university is encouraging professors to focus their research on the city, while giving free tuition to local high-school graduates." The article also acknowledges that "no one here believes the university can thrive in the midst of a dying city."

Opponents, on the other hand, cite Syracuse's recent decline in the U.S. News & World Report national rankings and loss of membership in the Association of American Universities, a group of leading research institutions. (That correlation alone does not prove causality must be kept in mind here.) Typical of crtics' views is this quote from one professor: "My discipline is not the town of Syracuse."

Former Penn President Judith Rodin begins her 2007 book The University & Urban Revival by recounting the horrible crime problem in the West Philadelphia neighborhood near the university when she began her position in the mid-1990s. A pair of homicides had claimed the lives of a Penn graduate student and medical researcher and, during one particularly violent month, there was an average of roughly one armed robbery per day.

In collaboration with community organizations, governmental agencies, and businesses, Penn spearheaded a major revitalization to the west of campus. The effort included action in the areas of business/economic development, housing, public safety, and neighborhood schools. Rodin claims success in all these domains, including "a 56% reduction in robberies [and] a 28 percent reduction in assaults..." from 1996-2002.

In contrast to the Syracuse situation, Penn's standing on traditional academic metrics rose during the period of extensive community involvement (again, the distinction between correlation and causality should be kept in mind). Writes Rodin:

Far from robbing Penn's academic future to pay for this progress, the University's engagement as urban developer has played a critical role in enhancing Penn's academic reputation. All of the markers of academic success—rankings, faculty awards, student applications, selectivity, growth in endowment—have soared to record levels. Our U.S. News and World Report ranking... went from sixteenth to fourth during my ten years as president (p. 183).

Some might question whether Rodin's assessment is overly rosy, given her own role in the redevelopment. She does acknowledge some of the stumbling blocks along the way, however, such as business developments that fell through and the existence of critics. One of the latter was quoted as saying, "I'm not sure why we should take $19 million away from the College and build a shopping center when that is not what our core mission is" (p. 116).

Shopping centers may seem distant from universities' academic missions, but Penn does seem strong overall in linking academics and community development. Rodin cites Penn as having "led the revolution in academic-based service learning, in which faculty and students worked with neighborhood public-school teachers and students..." (p. 41). In addition, Penn was ranked as the No. 1 university in 2003 in service learning by U.S. News and World Report.

As noted above in connection with Syracuse, having vibrancy in the surrounding community and city at-large presumably can help a university attract top faculty and students. Penn administrator Tony Sorrentino was quoted thusly in a 2006 Philadelphia Weekly article: "Colleges are more and more in the place-making business. They realize that if they want to be competitive and attract the best and brightest, it's not just about having the best libraries, research labs and dorms."

It is important to note that, whereas community redevelopment efforts like Syracuse or Penn's can create increased opportunities for service learning, community redevelopment is not required for service learning. Even without a major redevelopment taking place, students can receive service-learning placements in existing community agencies.

Definitions of service learning tend to incorporate at least the following three components for students: (1) a community placement to assist an agency in providing service; while (2) applying course concepts; and (3) reflecting on the process (often assessed via student papers). As one example of working with an existing organization, my Texas Tech Human Development and Family Studies colleague Jacki Fitzpatrick has included a service-learning component in her Families in the Community class that places students in a Ronald McDonald House adjoining the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center's teaching hospital.

As a second example, which I have come to understand as potentially a service-learning experience only after the fact, I collaborated in 2009 with a former student who works at the local food bank to have students in my research methods class go out to food-distribution events to interview recipients as part of a national survey of hunger in the U.S.

Service learning (independently or in conjunction with massive community redevopments) appears to be establishing a solid footing for itself. Whether its long-term future is as a niche component of higher education or, as Cantor and Rodin seem to suggest, a leading-edge trend, remains to be seen.

Several information resources on service learning are available. The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse can be accessed at this link. My home university, Texas Tech, also has an extensive website devoted to the institution's service-learning program. Many other schools provide community involvement and service-learning programs, two notable examples of which are Marquette University and Portland State (Oregon). Further, interested readers may consult the Journal of Service Learning in Higher Education, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, and other scholarly outlets for additional information.

About the Author

Alan Reifman, Ph.D.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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