American Colleges Must Better Serve Their Communities

American Colleges Must Better Serve Their Communities
AP Photo/Richard Drew

America is on fire. Today, as the heat of frustration and anger burns across the country, there is a moral call to action for colleges to be in the front line of justice as the door to massive social transformation bursts open. That is because universities exist to nurture the best the human spirit has to offer, that of scholarship in service of democracy. These are the days to make that civic commitment real, through the kind of learning that brings the college into the community, rather than sequestering it behind ivy covered fences. 

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Institutions of Higher Education across the country are issuing fierce statements to their campus communities about their dedication to forging a more representative polis. It is time for them to act upon that conviction. There is no better season to dive into the process of reimagining what an American college education can be than during a genuine transition period such as ours, especially since so many universities have the financial wherewithal to take this summer and lay the groundwork for curricular change.

In the wake of Covid-19 and initial fiscal concerns, many colleges expressed concern that they could not do more, and may do less going forward, in terms of how their courses are structured. However, it turns out that returns on endowment investments have rebounded since the March dip. Congress recently passed an aid package for American universities, allocating $14.25 billion for emergency relief.

Private college enrollment is not doing as poorly as projected a few months ago. Public universities may be less expensive, but they also require tuition, and they are doing okay in their student deposits. In short, colleges are holding their own economically while many communities around them are swelling with frustration and fear of an even bleaker tomorrow. What can American colleges do to make good on their rhetoric of justice?    

The answer is right at their campuses’ doorsteps. As leading American political thinker Michael Walzer explains, justice starts locally. Students, their professors, and their college administrators should serve the neighborhoods where their campuses exist. Universities don’t pay property taxes in their role as public interest non-profits. Colleges benefit from the subsidies provided by local taxpayers. Even if only for the sake of economic reciprocity, colleges ought to give back in practical ways to their local host governments and the neighborhood residents who live beyond their gates. Considering their commitment to democracy and their economic privilege, universities have a responsibility to the communities in which they exist. Not all have lived up to this responsibility as readily as expected. For example, Yale University, the third richest university in America, refused to open its emptied dormitories to house its host city’s first responders, and only relented after public pressure.

There is an emergent moral call for colleges to use their endowments to support research, staff, and students in jeopardy during this period of economic uncertainty. Teaching and research matter now more than ever because the world is going to have to recalibrate its institutional and social structures to respond to a global socio-economic order in freefall.

Here are some of the questions American colleges need to answer right now: How can we get more students in service roles within our local communities? To which civic and governmental partners should we send them? How can we work more effectively with community change agents and municipal offices? How can we support our cities and towns through deepened philanthropy and strategic partnerships aimed at more efficient service delivery? How can we mobilize our cadre of research experts, facilities, and impassioned students to make our communities better places to live and work, especially with massive social dislocation and economic pain going on just beyond our campuses? Can great universities also offer classes and programs to retrain the uprooted middle class, and open up programs to graduating high school students who might never have had the chance to go to college, but now need higher education more than ever?

If colleges don’t devote a significant portion of their substantial human, intellectual, and material capital to civic ends, they will forfeit a moral claim to social value. Higher Education is a hub of thought leaders, specialized researchers, and young talent available to reach deeply into the wells of civil society and public service to share in the working out of a more responsive democracy. It is not a question of colleges’ resources. The resources are there. It is a question of will.

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