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Leading Beyond the Campus Gates


Mark Toner

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​College and university leaders have become more intentional about the influence their institutions have beyond campus

While higher education leaders often talk about getting different stakeholders on the bus, in Carrollton, Georgia, it’s meant literally.

The small town about an hour west of Atlanta lacks municipal bus service, so when employers considering a move to the area are given tours, the University of West Georgia provides the transportation. It’s a small part of a broader approach to economic development called Carroll Tomorrow, launched in 2001 after then President Beheruz N. Sethna and several other community leaders began informally brainstorming ways to bring more jobs to the region.

“Those conversations took place at my home, at my dining room table,” said Sethna, who became president emeritus earlier this year after 19 years as president. “We were at the table, literally and figuratively.”

As major drivers of employment and culture, colleges and universities typically have an outsized influence on their communities. In many places, leaders have deliberately guided their institutions into larger roles within the fabric of those communities—a shift that began in the 1980s but has continued to accelerate. Large-scale initiatives such as those undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California have drawn considerable attention, but from local purchasing to economic development, public-private partnerships, and urban revitalization, town-gown relations at most institutions have come a long way from Rotary lunches.

But at a fundamental level, that’s often where such relations remain anchored—with presidents playing active roles within local chambers of commerce, Rotary and Lions clubs, hospital boards, churches, and other community organizations.

“As much as development and fundraising is about relationships, so is leading beyond the campus,” said Thom D. Chesney, president of Brookhaven College, a two-year institution that is part of the Dallas County Community College District. “There are a lot of people knocking on the door. It’s important not to shy away from the conversations or not go to the first meeting. . . . I do that intentionally because there’s a return on investment that’s mutual.”

That mutual return on investment drives many initiatives beyond campus, yielding assets ranging from goodwill to funding and physical property. “If we just relied on our [traditional sources of funding], we wouldn’t get some projects done,” said Chesney, who has worked with local governments to develop access roads and a hike-bike trail that connects the Brookhaven campus to a growing regional network.

Institutions also invest their own resources in their communities. Over the past 15 years, Grinnell College in Iowa has donated $3 million to various local activities, according to President Raynard S. Kington. “We have a vested interest in seeing our community prosper,” he said of the college’s philanthropic activities, which include a series of mini- and micro-grant programs, as well as more substantive donations to renovate the local high school. “We don’t believe we will prosper if the community doesn’t prosper.”

With the more muscular approach to leading beyond campus borders, some common strategies have emerged, including:

Serve as a convener. Economic development is an activity in which all colleges and universities can play a unique role, bringing together diverse stakeholders and often workforce development grants and other funding. “A lot of times, an institution of higher education will be perceived as a neutral party,” Brookhaven’s Chesney said. “Even if we’re not the spearhead, we’ll get it started.”

Be transparent. Even when off-campus partnerships focus on bettering the community, “you have to articulate why you’re there and what the purpose is,” Grinnell’s Kington said. “The essential piece is being able to make sure everyone understands why you’re doing it, since there are all these different levels—being a good citizen institutionally, but also having a vested interest in being the strongest community you can possibly be.” Articulating the goal of initiatives is also important internally as a way of ensuring that partnerships align with the institution’s mission and goals.

Be personal. For presidents, partnering is about more than being on a first-name basis with community leaders. “I have their cell phone numbers, and they have mine,” Chesney said of the three economic development leaders in Brookhaven’s service area. “If they have a prospect and want to find out if we have the capacity for training or need a confidence boost, I’ll take that call at a personal level.”

Delegate. While the president plays a critical role in town-gown relations, it can’t be the only role. Grinnell created an office and devoted staff to maintaining community relations and overseeing its grant programs and other community activities. “Because a president’s capacity is only so much, it’s critical to build that capacity within your executive team,” Chesney agreed. Business officers, for example, can sit on boards related to economic development.

Co-invest in the community. The growth of public-private partnerships involving colleges and universities speaks to the opportunities they provide for institutions, but they can also solidify relationships within communities. “It’s a great way to enter into longer-term relationships where we can continue to have a voice,” Kington said of Grinnell, which became a partner in purchasing the town’s struggling movie theater and has made start-up investments in developments for middle-income housing—housing in demand by Grinnell’s own staff. Investments that benefit the community “are one example of putting your money where your mouth is,” Sethna adds.

Share resources. Grinnell University donated land for a new town library—a $350,000 contribution. After lengthy deliberations, the town of Carrollton granted 200 acres to the University of West Georgia to help the institution grow. Conversely, during an extensive drought, the university identified underground sources of water on campus and offered them to the city for use as gray water. “It wasn’t just a university crisis, but a city crisis,” Sethna said.

Be aware of the pitfalls. Focusing beyond the campus walls can bring challenges of its own. Syracuse University (NY), which has won considerable acclaim for its civic engagement efforts, also made headlines several years ago when faculty aired complaints about resources diverted from scholarship and the impact on the institution’s academic reputation. Conflicts of interest are also often inescapable. “In a small town, everyone has one,” Kington said. Transparency and clearly articulated policies—such as the ones governing Grinnell’s grant programs—can help potential conflicts from becoming real problems.

Know when to say no. Leaders and institutions alike have limited capacity and can’t be involved in every initiative. Making sure “you are truly making decisions aligned with institutional goals,” is key, Kington said.

Think beyond the city limits. Just as leaders are thinking beyond their campus walls, they should think beyond their immediate communities. Grinnell established a small office in Des Moines, Iowa—partly to increase its presence in the state capital, and partly to improve in-state recruitment, but also to support business and nonprofit partnerships there. “It helps us in terms of communicating our activities broadly in the state,” Kington said. But such initiatives can extend further still. The university, for example, has partnered with an institution in India to help develop an undergraduate research program, even as it continues its community initiatives.

Closer to home in Carrollton, the institution’s bus system has continued to benefit the community. When the airline AirTran considered locating a call center in the town, the building it was eyeing had limited parking. The university offered to establish a daily bus run for the students who would work there.

“Just that simple thing made a huge difference in terms of getting the contract,” Sethna said.

Mark Toner is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area.