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Town & Gown

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No longer islands of privilege in a sea of need, urban universities are using their talent and treasure to transform local communities.

Baltimore was the sixth-largest city in the United States in 1950, home to nearly 1 million people. But over the next 50 years, nearly a third of that population seeped away. The city fell out of the nation’s top 10 and wrestled painfully with the challenges of urban decline.

Of course, Baltimore’s losses were mirrored in urban areas throughout the country. Eight of the nation’s 10 largest cities in 1950—places such as Cleveland, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.—also witnessed population declines. The causes and consequences of this urban erosion differ from place to place, but the story is similar: The shuttering of factories and wrenching waves of job losses. The migration of young talent to places with more opportunity. The contraction of the local tax base. The flight of middle-class families to the suburbs. The consequent drop in real estate values. The erosion of urban infrastructure. And the de facto segregation of minority populations in waning urban cores.

In a city such as Baltimore, it is not hard to see the decay. Today, Baltimore is one of the most crime-ridden cities in America, and its poverty rate is more than double the statewide average. The scourge of drugs has taken its toll, and vacant properties pockmark the neighborhoods. But in Baltimore, it is also not hard to see progress. Despite its enormous challenges, the city has made tremendous advances in transitioning to a knowledge- and service-based economy. Civic leaders drove the rehabilitation of downtown spaces, compelled massive public and private sector investment, and transformed a port area that had been left for dead into a thriving center for tourism and commerce.

Around the world, analysts are talking about “smart cities” and touting this era as the century of cities. Today in Baltimore, 15 of the city’s top 20 employers provide health, education or financial services. But it is also true that the city spends more of its general fund on its police than on its schools. Until that trend changes, its fortunes may never completely turn around. And Baltimore is not an aberration.

Anchoring the Community

Policymakers at the local, state and federal level have struggled to find ways to respond to these trends. The _neighborhood-razing strategies of urban renewal gave way to programs such as Model Cities and Community Development Block Grants. Though many of the federal policies helped, they never achieved the lofty rhetoric of the U.S. Housing Act of 1949, which called for “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”

For years, universities and institutions of similar size and influence, including hospitals, were not a part of these policy considerations. As scholars including Michael Porter have explained, these anchors of the community served as employers, purchasers of goods and services, real estate developers, economic engines and powerful instruments of social change, but they remained largely isolated from the day-to-day concerns of the urban core. Even those institutions founded to serve local needs and aspirations—including land-grant colleges started by the Morrill Act—often came to exist as enclaves, islands of privilege in seas of pressing need. A handful of flash-point issues, from tax-exempt status to real estate concerns, seemed to dominate and define the character of universities’ interactions with their communities, obscuring the ways in which their interests were, in fact, closely aligned.

By the 1960s, the federal government began formally encouraging university engagement. In a 1965 message to Congress, President Lyndon Johnson specifically cited the need “to draw upon the unique and invaluable resources of our great universities to deal with national problems of poverty and community development.” The government subsequently offered funding to this end, but the impact was minimal. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Ira Harkavy and others have pointed out, engagement efforts often were not integrated into research and teaching, and little institutional effort was made to coordinate effectively with government and local organizations.

The evolution that finally spurred an increase in the community engagement of universities was both intellectual and practical in nature. Faculty and researchers across academic fields began to extend their work more purposefully, broadening the idea of engaged scholarship and contributing to the advancement of the community. At the same time, institutions realized they could no longer afford to turn away from the problems around them. The future of these organizations, deeply rooted in their physical campuses, was tightly tied to that of their communities. Challenges such as violent crime and pervasive blight had the potential to blossom into existential threats. After all, from Hartford, Conn., to Chicago, great colleges and universities existed beside some of the country’s most challenged urban neighborhoods. As cities struggled with decline and governments experimented with policy responses, the possibility that these institutions could help solve complex local problems began to attract significant attention.

The University of Pennsylvania is often held up as the shining example of university engagement. Driven to action by a crime spree and the tragic murder of a researcher in the mid-1990s, the university began a substantial investment of financial and human resources into the neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, where it launched efforts that led to safer streets, a sounder housing market, revitalized economic activity and dramatically improved public education. The university’s Buy West Philadelphia Program has channeled millions of dollars to local suppliers, and the Penn Alexander School, a university partnership with the Philadelphia School District, is now one of the best public schools in the city. From Yale University’s New Haven Homebuyer Program, which provides financial incentives to faculty and staff buying homes in targeted neighborhoods near campus, to the University of Cincinnati’s efforts to convene other local anchors to bolster the Uptown neighborhoods, other universities are following suit, each in its own strategic way.

Strategic Engagement

At Johns Hopkins, community engagement is literally part of our founding documents. In a letter our original benefactor sent to his chosen hospital trustees, he offered instructions that included caring for “the indigent sick of this city and its environs, without regard to sex, age or color.” More than 130 years later, our medical institutions provided Baltimore residents with nearly $65 million in uncompensated care in 2010 alone.

Of course, the decades in between offer a mixed story. In East Baltimore, community resentment grew as our institutions stretched to cover more than three times our original 13-acre footprint; our staff now parks in multistory garages on land that used to hold homes or corner stores. Neighborhood concerns were likely aggravated by the fact that this growth continued in the middle of the last century just as the community struggled to halt its fading fortunes. But Johns Hopkins was also a force of positive change—the city’s largest employer, a major purchaser of local goods and services, a source of entrepreneurial technology-focused startups and a wellspring of cultural opportunities, from community orchestra to open houses for stargazers at our campus observatory.

For the most part, these initiatives arose organically over time, driven by the needs of the institution or the interests of faculty, staff or students. But in recent years, the university has steered its community engagement more strategically, codifying outreach within our governance structure and focusing on efforts that benefit both the institution and the neighborhoods around it.

A decade ago, for example, Johns Hopkins joined forces with three layers of government and some influential local foundations to redevelop 88 acres just north of our hospital. This area was ravaged by the forces of urban decay—rampant poverty, block after block of abandoned and boarded-up properties, pervasive drug abuse and insidious levels of unemployment. The $1.8 billion project included acquiring 2,000 properties, relocating 750 families and engaging in a large-scale demolition to create a new mixed-use, mixed-income community. It has treated displaced households with uncommon fairness (homeowners received a relocation package worth nearly four times the value of the average home), while exerting dogged efforts to attract new retail and commercial interests.

The university also has invested heavily in a new public school in the community. Our School of Education assumed operational responsibilities for the facility, handling everything from designing curricula to deciding the color of the hallway bulletin boards—with every decision rooted in evidence-based research. Our School of Nursing is offering wraparound services for children and their families, and even our athletic department will contribute by bringing sports clinics to the school fields. This is not a purely philanthropic effort; our School of Education will hold it up as a showcase project. This small, _community-focused school will also be the lynchpin of the massive redevelopment effort, a powerful way of convincing families that it is possible—indeed, desirable—to move back.

Johns Hopkins engages in other parts of Baltimore as well. Near our central Baltimore campus, we have helped convene community groups from 11 neighborhoods to coordinate our efforts and energies behind common causes. And on an institutional level, the university adopted policies that promote local hiring, purchasing and contracting, with specific goals to support minority- and women-owned businesses. But the East Baltimore example—specifically, the community school—highlights the way the university can employ its talent and treasure in a strategic and concerted effort to transform a community.

There are, of course, limits to what an anchor institution can achieve. In research and policy circles, anchors are often presented as mini regional governments that can respond to the needs of a disadvantaged area. In fact, these institutions cannot replace good civic government, or rational state and federal policies. Nor can they serve as alternative social welfare instruments. The university is tightly constrained by fiscal realities, including decreases in both federal research funding and the reimbursement rate for health care services. Sustained community engagement is both difficult and costly, requiring institutional sacrifices in other areas.

Federal entities such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have long recognized the importance of universities in the response to urban challenges. But limited funding and a lack of coordination among local, state and federal actors have left gaps in the ground-level response. As universities and other local anchors take a more proactive and strategic role in addressing community issues, policymakers have a new opportunity to align their efforts and amplify the work taking place on campuses across the country.


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