I recently had the opportunity to visit the University of Chicago as part of a CIC academic leadership development program.Of all the universities represented in the CIC, the University of Chicago is perhaps the most dissimilar to Penn State and for this reason I was particularly pleased to visit. Relatively small, urban, private, elite, with no significant role for athletics, the University of Chicago provides many points of distinction from my own experiences. I found the most telling contrasts in their models of community engagement and outreach.
UC is located in a poor, largely African-American community on the South Side of Chicago. Michael Dawson grew up in that community and went on the serve on the faculty in Political Science. He told a personal history of town-gown relations from both perspectives. As a child the University, nominally integrated but practically segregated, was seen as both predatory and alien by the local community. In a panel discussion that followed Sonya Malunda, Stacy Lindau and Charles Payne talked about more recent efforts to work with and in the local community. They have developed efforts to increase the use local contractors, they run charter schools (the “Laboratory Schools’) and are surveying the local health infrastructure. All were excited by their work and saw their efforts as a moral necessity. However, all struggled to overcome the power and wealth imbalance and the decades of mistrust to build more collaborative relationships. The current efforts require the University to move from studying the local community, in effect using them as a living laboratory, to working with them to achieve common goals. One panelist described a collaboration involving the local community activist, the late Bishop Brazier, where he would refer to the University as the “junior partner” in the relationship. Whether or not this statement reflects reality, making the claim is in itself important.
It is interesting to contrast the UC efforts with the flagship outreach effort at Penn State, cooperative extension. At UC the faculty could only consistently work on outreach projects they could fund through competitive research grants and publish in highly ranked journals. At a Land Grant like Penn State, faculty members are hired with an appointment expressly in extension and view outreach teaching in a similar way as our other faculty regard resident education. In effect the outreach component is teaching at PSU but research at UC. In addition, the philosophy of extension is more geared towards improving what exists rather than creating something new. Whether the power imbalance between our institution and our clients is better or worse than UC’s is an open question, but I prefer Penn State’s educational and developmental models for extending the University.