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A Quiet Crisis: Community Spirit in Universities

Thursday, February 6, 2003 at 12:28 PM

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Optimism is tough to come by these days, what with all the bad economic news. But a healthy concentration of it appeared last week at Case Western Reserve University. The tone was set by Edward Hundert, who on Thursday was sworn in as the school's new president. Hundert says his vision for the university includes a bustling, thriving Cleveland in which to live, and that he wants to partner up with the city to help accomplish that. The idea’s not new; university presidents in numerous cities are proudly showcasing their institutions’ community spirit. Hundert spirited some of them here to Cleveland for his inauguration, and gathered a few together for a television roundtable that airs tonight. ideastream’s Bill Rice has this preview.

If positive thinking breeds positive results, then Edward Hundert would’ve had you thinking “major renaissance.” Given the occasion you can forgive him that. His inauguration and colloquium titled “Great Universities and their Cities” were an outreach to the future - a new beginning for a new university president whose aim is to foster a new vitality – not just at the school, Hundert says, but throughout the surrounding community, through partnerships and collaborations.

Edward Hundert: My favorite example of this is this dental sealant program that we have here in Cleveland.

That’s a project undertaken jointly by Case’s dental school and the Cleveland School District.

Edward Hundert: The first year dental students in collaboration with the Cleveland Municipal School District, go into the Cleveland schools and apply the dental sealants to the children’s teeth at each of the two grade-appropriate ages when this intervention is supposed to help oral health.

The project is noteworthy not just because it benefits local school kids, Hundert says. It also generates activity, and even money, for Case Western Reserve: the school’s been given a half a million dollars to do a long-term study on the sealant’s effectiveness. Hundert says this kind of mutual endeavor can be far reaching.

Edward Hundert: It starts with an idea - let’s help the kids teeth - and the next thing you know, it’s integrating the research mission, the education mission, the service mission of the university together which is always the best thing when that comes together because it becomes a magnet for resources, foundations, bringing money to Cleveland. It takes on a life of its own.

That’s just one example. Add ten, or even a hundred such joint ventures to the mix, in many different areas – economic development, arts and culture, city planning – and you’ve got quite an effective engine for community progress. Or so goes the theory. In practice it’s not so easy, there are of pitfalls, and it takes time - as Hundert’s counterparts point out. Johns Hopkins University President William Brody is cautiously optimistic about the so-called East Baltimore Project - where JHU has actually acquired blighted land around the university.

William Brody: The key aspect really is putting in housing, a school, and building a vital, rebuilding a vital and vibrant community.

One component of the project, Brody says, is an urban health initiative - a natural fit, you would think, given JHU’s medical resources. But the community’s expectations and the university’s didn’t quite jibe.

William Brody: You take a group of health professionals and they’re interested in, you know, infectious disease, AIDS and sexually transmitted disease or they’re interested in premature cardiovascular disease or prostate cancer in African Americans. You sit down with the community, say, “okay, what are your health priorities?” they said drug treatment and job training, those were their priorities, which kind of blew our people away.

But, Brody says, JHU ultimately chose to focus on those priorities.

William Brody: If you think about it, health status correlates with your economic status. And having a job was critical, but for many of them, they couldn’t get a job because they had a drug problem. So, those were the two pieces and we are work on of that. The other piece that we’re all, I think, very sensitive, even with our communities is this concept that we’re going to be experimenting on our under-served populations. And that is a great cultural barrier to get through.

Likewise at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusettes - where that institution is involved in several joint projects with the public schools. University President John Bassett says the two entities had to put aside some past history to make it work.

John Bassett: There was a great deal of mistrust of Clark in the main south neighborhood that we existed in before the mid ‘80s and even for some time after that. Plus, in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Clark was known as an extremely far left campus and in a blue collar neighborhood that wasn’t very popular there.

But eventually trust did develop, Bassett says, and today the relationship is a fruitful one.

John Bassett: The city loves Clark University. 15 years ago, that wasn’t the case.

Other participants in the roundtable include Lorna Marsden, President of York University in Toronto, which she says is entrenched in that cities arts and culture scene. Also Sylvia Manning, Chancellor of the University of Illinois campus in Chicago, whose summary of that schools philosophy draws universal agreement from the group.

Sylvia Manning: We came to understand something that we called a Great City’s Commitment, as a commitment to put our capacity for research at the service of the problems of the great city, but, also, always to do it in partnership with the city.

And, Manning says, after many years and several rough stretches, those partnerships are working. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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