Can universities advance, rather than impede, economic justice? And, if so, how? Those questions were at the heart of a plenary conversation held at this year’s annual Campus Compact conference. Participating in the panel conversation were Richard Guarasci, former president of Wagner College; Nyeema Watson, Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion, and Civic Engagement at Rutgers University-Camden; and Bobbie Laur, Campus Compact’s newly installed president.

The conversation took place amid a growing movement over the past decade marked by universities, which claim to be community-engaged “anchor institutions,” partnering with community groups to address economic inequality. Seven years ago, for example, Campus Compact—an organization of over 1,000 institutions of higher education nationwide that focuses on promoting civic engagement by universities—called on its member campuses to sign onto a “Civic Action” statement, in which signatories pledged to embrace their “responsibilities as place-based institutions, contributing to the health and strength of our communities—economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, and politically.” By early 2018, 464 university presidents had signed the statement.

These strategies have had some practical impacts. In recent years, a growing number of universities have sought to shift hiring practices to hire more residents of color and to change procurement practices to support BIPOC-owned businesses, although the latter can be especially difficult to implement. As Jen Faigel of the Boston-based nonprofit food business incubator Commonwealth Kitchen explained two years ago in NPQ, there is often a large gap between institutional statements in which colleges say they wish to buy more from local BIPOC-owned businesses, and such colleges’ willingness to make the business model changes that would be needed to make that shift happen (such as reducing the size of contracts or buying goods and services directly rather than through third parties).

And then there are vast inequities, at least within elite universities, in the core educational mission itself. Back in the fall of 2019, Andrew Delbanco, President of the Teagle Foundation, warned participants at a conference of anchor institution advocates of a serious dysfunction within higher education that the movement needed to address if it wanted to be credible. Citing public data, which showed that you were often more than 60 times as likely to be admitted to elite universities if your family was among the wealthiest one percent instead of in the bottom 60 percent, Delbanco observed, “The haves are getting more; the have-nots are getting less. Higher education is doing more to replicate inequality in our country than to resist it.” More recently, writing in NPQ, urban studies professor Davarian Baldwin of Trinity College observed that universities have turned many of the nation’s cities into de-facto campuses, with private nonprofit university power diminishing public voice, impeding democratic accountability, and reinforcing economic inequality. “The prosperity of this new economy is not being enjoyed by everyone,” he warned.


The COVID-19 Stress Test

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a “stress test” for many universities that have adopted community engagement strategies. Not only did the pandemic strain many systems and programs, but by laying bare the nation’s vast racial and class inequities, it amplified public pressure for universities to be responsive to communities and act in the public interest. As one anonymous writer, who worked at a private nonprofit university, put it in a letter published by Inside Higher Ed early in the pandemic, “What will be remembered is whether our institution rose to the occasion or pulled back into itself, raising the drawbridge, pulling up the ladder and confirming once again that the town/gown divide never went away despite all the programs and classes and grand intentions.”

Two year later, as universities have returned to in-person instruction—even though the pandemic is not fully over—panelists at the Campus Compact conference sought to assess: Did institutions rise to the occasion or raise the drawbridge? Where does the movement stand now?

There are, as Laur put it, “glimmers of hope.” Luar noted that, “Everyone has examples of where their institution showed up.” One lesson learned that Laur emphasized was the value of “neighborhood level hyperlocal approaches,” which often involve establishing a center off campus in a local neighborhood. Laur cited Drexel in Philadelphia, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Nebraska, Omaha; and Seattle University as examples. Here at NPQ, we profiled a couple such examples ourselves, writing about the University of Chicago’s distribution of mini-grants to keep over 200 local businesses (often BIPOC-owned) afloat when federal support fell short, and the University of Pennsylvania-based Netter Center’s creation of virtual youth leadership development programs for K-12 students in Philadelphia.

Institutions with established hyperlocal initiatives in place, Laur said, “were uniquely prepared when COVID hit.” Why was this important? Laur said it meant “they were trusted messengers, particularly in communities of color… They were able to stay open when everyone else closed.” These centers addressed multiple issues, including food insecurity, broadband access, and housing. “A lot of institutions showed up on housing,” Laur noted. This included doing advocacy to support eviction moratoriums with “boots on the ground.” But, Laur conceded, “There are a lot of things that are paused.” And, she added, questions remain about how (or if) many community partnerships that did not survive the pandemic will be restarted.

Guarasci told the story of his own campus, Wagner College. Guarasci served as the university’s president from 2002 to 2019, an unusually long time to be in that position. He was nationally recognized for his work developing an initiative in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island. Guarasci explained that the neighborhood, located about two miles from campus, was home to many undocumented residents from Oaxaca, while 20 percent of residents were African American, and the rest white working-class. “They weren’t sending many students, if any, to Wagner College.”

Based on areas identified by community residents, the partnership, first established in 2009, focused on five areas: immigration and advocacy; health and wellness; educational opportunity; economic development; and arts and culture. But come the pandemic, a combination of factors—including Guarasci’s retirement, changes in leadership of community partner organizations, the retirement of principals at key partner K-12 schools, and the pandemic itself—resulted in the cessation of “a lot of the fieldwork in tutoring, mentoring, and civic engagement. All of that went haywire.” Now, people in Staten Island are trying to rebuild the partnerships, Gaurasci said, perhaps in a different form in which the university will likely play a less central role. There is a need, he added, to “rebuild the relationships that were stolen from us by the pandemic.”

Rutgers University-Camden did not face the same leadership shifts that Wagner did. Yet, even with sustained leadership support, its community partnership programs were challenged. Watson noted there was almost nothing that could be done in-person “for close to two years.” She added, “the staff had their own personal challenges.” And keeping students connected in homes that had sub-standard broadband was also “really, really hard.”

Watson, a longtime Camden resident who once attended the city’s public schools, called attention to the fact that, “especially for Black and Brown kids, they have lost years of education.” Then, there are the “lingering impacts of losing family members and classmates” to COVID. Some programs, such as nursing schools and law school clinics, did continue to offer support during the period of remote instruction. And the campus has acquired some funds to restart programs now. But Watson said there remains a feeling of “unease” and a need for “some deep work in-person on academic remediation and social and emotional support. That’s the place where we’re at.”

Beyond the individual stories, the economics of many universities have also been affected. While elite universities have benefitted from record endowment increases, many less well-resourced public universities and community colleges—the ones that often have the strongest connections to their communities—have seen declining enrollments and therefore declining revenue. A Washington Post article last fall reported that in Virginia and Maryland, community college enrollment is nine and 14 percent lower, respectively, than in 2019. In the District of Columbia, community college enrollment is reportedly down an astonishing 29 percent.


A New Democratic Civic University?

Last summer, writing in NPQ, Ira Harkavy and Rita Hodges from the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania issued a call for a “democratic civic university” that “would involve significant and ongoing engagement of an institution’s comprehensive resources (academic, human, cultural, and economic) in partnership with community members to produce knowledge and educate ethical students with the ability to help create and maintain just, antiracist, democratic societies.”

The call addressed themes that resonated on the Campus Compact conference panel. One of the lessons learned from the pandemic, perhaps, was that it’s time now to think beyond programs and initiatives and to focus more on effecting durable shifts in institutional culture and practice. It was not lost on Laur, for example, that part of the work involves being prepared at community meetings to “really be the recipient of calls for change, where our institutions have caused harm. I appreciate the late-night calls and early morning conversations that we have all had, both internal and external challenges,” she said. “This work is hard. It is messy. It is difficult. A lot of ups and downs,” she added.

For his part, Guarasci noted that, “We have tried to put through anchor pipelines,” but he believed the work itself needed to be conceived of differently. “We are building not just K-16 pipelines. We are building democratic units for communities that have been left out. We are trying to build, not only a generation of transformational leaders, but ourselves. Building an interracial democratic culture and reality,” he said.

Watson also emphasized the importance of a cultural shift in university practice. “It has to be intentional work,” she noted. One step that her campus had taken to better sustain community engagement work institutionally, Watson pointed out, was reflected in her title. Last year, the university made the decision to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion with civic engagement in her office. To make notions of democratic practice building meaningful, Watson observed, requires both embedding the work internally while remaining externally facing. It requires taking care to regularly “look outside your door.”


Closing Thoughts

As is often the case, the panel ended with more questions than answers. A weakness of community engagement advocates has always been that their good work can be undone by other university departments—such as real estate or public safety—as Baldwin has documented.

As for current efforts to build a democratic university, certainly the pandemic has been bruising in many respects. Yet it has also fortified advocates in their resolve. Laur emphasized that going back to the practices of two years ago would not be sufficient. Rather, she contended, the work must deepen: “We have a window to really start anew in this moment, which is really important.”