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Town gown avenues to solve brain drain

By From the Lowell Sun

By Robert Forrant and Anne Chalupka

In recent months funding for public higher education has been a hot-button issue in the Commonwealth. The governor and the legislature recognize that better funding for colleges and universities is essential to slow the exodus of young people, since the ‘brain drain’ problem has growing repercussions in the housing market and on the economic development capacity of the state’s cities and towns.  

At the same time, around the world and here in Lowell, a separate conversation about universities and community partnerships is taking place. We think these two discussions ought to be linked, and here’s why.

Under the radar, hundreds of the Commonwealth’s two-year and four-year college faculty and staff and thousands of its students are engaged in an exciting array of community-campus partnerships designed to help solve housing, health, environmental, and economic development problems. Among other goals, these partnerships address problems of health disparities, sustainable job creation, and equitable development. 

Universities are expanding their classrooms through partnerships in which students and faculty learn from and with those who can create new knowledge. Such collaborations shorten the time between the technology developments and their application.  The phrase “engaged institution” is increasingly applied to universities that work this way.

Thus, when the legislature debates the higher education budget they should factor in the benefits these activities provide to the citizenry and the increased likelihood that involved students will remain in the Commonwealth once they get their degree. In other words, higher education funding isn’t a one-way street.  Institutions of higher education give back to Massachusetts’ cities and towns in a variety of ways far beyond just an educated workforce.

The role of higher education in a democratic society is under review nationally and internationally. Coordinating these effort are groups like the Campus Compact, a coalition of over 1,000 college and university presidents who seek to build strong community-campus links and civic engagement.  The New England Resource Center for Higher Education, which focuses on how to make community-university collaborations work.

These and many other organizations believe that there are strong links between student service learning, civic engagement, and strong, healthy communities. Right here in Lowell, UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College are engaged in community-university coordination, determined to help the Merrimack River Valley avoids its historic patterns of economic booms and busts and interconnected social ills, while simultaneously educating students to be engaged members of the community.

UMass Lowell and Engagement

Through its work on regional economic and social development, UMass Lowell has become a national leader in such activity. As Armand Carriere, director of Worcester’s successful UniverCity Partnership notes, what distinguishes UML is that “Very early on they recognized the value of inter-disciplinary collaboration as a means to addressing complex social and economic issues.” 

In fact, in its search for a new Chancellor, the University’s ‘help wanted’ advertisement highlighted UML’s mission of supporting sustainable social and economic development. A community-university advisory board meets monthly with administrators to discuss ways for UML to be even more involved in the lifeblood of the city.

Why do this?  According to Professor Linda Silka, director of UML’s Center for Family, Work and Community, “It’s enlightened self-interest, really.  UMass Lowell has very deep roots in this area, and we’ve always been an integral regional engine ߝ from training and graduating excellent job-ready students, to partnering with cultural groups in the city, to actively supporting local school systems. When you want to attract the most special students ߝ like bright Lowell students who are the first in their family to attend college and the most highly sought after faculty, the relationship between a university and its community can be a very appealing selling point.”

There is not room here to mention the hundreds of large and small collaboration efforts between UML and community organizations up and down the Merrimack River Valley. Here’s a small sample.

The Center for Family, Work and Community has received national recognition for its innovative collaborations with the area’s Southeast Asian residents. Every summer the Center hires several Lowell High students to do problem-solving research. The University’s Francis College of Engineering requires all students to engage in community partnerships as part of their Service Learning Integrated in the College of Engineering (“SLICE”) program. Students in the School of Health and Environment are involved in engaged learning activities with many area health care providers.  Faculty in the Graduate School of Education partner with several schools in Lowell and Lawrence and the nationally recognized Tsongas Industrial History Center.

Research and teaching at UML are increasingly designed to give students rich educational experiences aimed at addressing local and global problems. This combination of conceptual and practical approaches benefits both the community and the university.

'The ‘World of Partnerships’ Comes to Lowell in April

Recognizing that community-university partnerships are increasing in number and scope across the world, UML is hosting a conference on the subject on April 26 and 27, to address the issue of how to build and sustain productive and beneficial partnerships. Presenters will be coming from ten nations, including Botswana, South Africa, Bangladesh, Honduras and Mexico. Over sixty U.S. colleges and universities will be represented, including North Shore Community College, Wesleyan University, Middlesex Community College, the Universities of Texas, Maine, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, California and Washington.

We asked three presenters why they decided to come to Lowell. Varkey George from South Africa’s University of Cape Town told us that his university values partnerships because “students are given opportunities to experience management, organizing, implementation and working in groups.”  He is excited to come to Lowell because he heard that UML offers “the latest thinking and practices in partnerships” and because he would “like to learn about how other universities are managing their community engagement portfolios.”

George De Lange, of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, pointed out that partnerships “benefit students in terms of their early understanding of the world of work. It improves learning retention, it enhances and confirms career choices and improves employability after graduation.” 

For Homero Harari, from the Institute for the Development of Production and Work Environment in Quito, Ecuador, “The opportunity to talk about our partnership for a better environment, our experiences in the process, and sharing that with the acquired knowledge of many of the important presenters is very exciting.”

What’s on Tap?

Sessions will include paper presentations, special addresses, and panel discussions. On Thursday evening visitors will have the opportunity to explore the historical and cultural landmarks of Lowell during a reception at the Boott Mill.

Keith Motley, Vice President for Business Marketing and Public Affairs in the UMass President's Office will moderate a session called ‘Community Engagement Across the UMass System’.  Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray will chair one of the luncheon sessions. Mr. Murray’s hometown Worcester has numerous community-university partnerships, such as Carriere’s exciting UniverCity, which  will be discussed during the conference,

Among presentations, a professor from India’s Indira Gandhi National Open University will discuss strategies to promote sustainable partnerships; a Gordon College professor will describe student academic and co-curricular volunteer work in Lynn, MA which has led to a successful partnership and university-community development; a University of Maine professor will showcase a program targeting downtown Bangor’s poorest neighborhoods, raising intriguing questions about issues like business ownership;  a doctoral candidate from Syracuse University will identify important frameworks required for community/environmental health partnerships; and a Loyola University professor discusses the various ways a community-engaged research agenda can provide a rewarding path to tenure.

It’s Your University

One of any university’s most important roles should be the persistent advancement of cross-community, cross-firm, and cross-institutional learning. By so doing, the university can play an informative and innovative role in the cultivation of a sustainable regional economy, students will learn how to apply their new knowledge to make a difference where they live, and the entire community will have a better chance of prospering.

To understand why public higher education is a good investment, take a closer look at the community connections your local public university has been making. To see what UML, Middlesex, and universities across the nation and world have been up to, please consider stopping by the CITA conference this April 26 and 27.  It’s right here in Lowell, and open to all.  For registration information:

Anne Chalupka is a graduate student and Robert Forrant is a professor in UMass Lowell’s Dept. of Regional Economic and Social Development.