While higher education has a long-held tradition of educating students in the liberal arts, some institutions now find themselves struggling for relevance and even survival in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Expanding the selection of majors they offer is a good move. Many colleges are also leveraging their location in or proximity to cities to engage more fully with the myriad experiences and resources that proximity can provide to students.
However, as Wim Wiewel, Ph.D., President of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, relates in the second chapter of the President to President thought leadership series, “Private liberal arts colleges may find such engagement especially daunting at a time when declining enrollments, budget shortfalls, and tectonic shifts in the higher education landscape nationally and globally are roiling our sector.”
Change compounds change—and brings challenges. One answer may lie in the “Connecting with Portland” initiative Lewis & Clark College is spearheading, a program that focuses on the co-production of knowledge by developing curriculum-based community partnerships. This program, which serves as a replicable model for other institutions, advances the College’s mission while creating added value for students, the campus, and the city.
Today, colleges and universities know that surviving and thriving means engaging fully with the communities in which they reside.
Campuses, large or small, are communities within communities. Literal walls may divide a campus from its geographical location, but ivory tower insularity is a thing of the past. In “The Campus as City: crucial strategies to bolster town-gown relations and run a thriving 21st-century institution,” a new Sodexo-sponsored report by The Chronicle of Higher Education, author Scott Carlson states “A college may be its own domain, but being part of a larger place increasingly means supporting it in numerous ways. The public now expects that. And a financially pressured or otherwise striving institution may need it.”
Partnerships with private companies, local agencies, and community groups are essential to run a successful, thriving 21st-century institution. Inevitably, it’s complicated; maintaining efficient campus operations and being responsible partners means that presidents must deal with a range of complex, interconnected economic, cultural, and environmental issues.
The Campus as City report cites student housing as an opportunity ripe for a paradigm change. Students today base their college decisions on multiple factors, not the least of which is the quality of housing. Therefore, making investments that support or improve a community’s vitality by renovating existing buildings can create a significant recruitment tool for campuses. The results of such efforts at Towson College in Maryland and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, highlighted in the report, are inspiring. Towson’s investment contributed to a significant increase in enrollment—and a revitalized downtown.
While investing in off-campus real estate—such as an old hotel—instead of adding traditional dorms may seem daunting, consider the improved student and community experience that becomes possible when housing integrates the campus and the surrounding city or town. When college leaders look for opportunities to leverage projects to benefit students and residents, they can reinvigorate a neighborhood and inspire further development. While the process must include open and frank communication with all parties affected, the outcome can be a win-win.