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Powerful Partnerships: Service to the community at heart of university's mission, says vice president and education professor

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The day before Commencement this spring, a graduate was overheard at Starbucks on his cell phone, explaining to a New Yorker the physical layout of The University of Texas at Austin. The description went something like this: the university stops on the west side right around Guadalupe, ends on the south side at Red River or I-35, stops around 26th Street on the north side and runs to I-35 on the east side.

According to the graduate, this thing that is “the university” has definite boundaries.

Dr. Gregory Vincent with students at the University of Texas Elementary School
Dr. Gregory Vincent with students at the University of Texas Elementary School.

Dr. Gregory Vincent, a UT administrator and professor, would like for you to mentally erase old definitions of “university” and picture a bigger University of Texas at Austin—not necessarily one with more students, parking lots and desks but an institution that’s influence reaches farther and affects more lives. One that stretches to Amarillo in the north, El Paso in the west, Marshall to the east and Brownsville to the south. It’s a university that belongs to the people of Texas and integrates community engagement with teaching, research and service.

Vincent, the vice president for diversity and community engagement and a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, has studied university-community partnerships around the nation for over a decade. He repeatedly has encountered examples of communities and schools that are benefiting from a reciprocal relationship, and he is a passionate advocate of public universities giving back to the people and states that support them.

“I think the public invests in public research universities,” says Vincent,” because they create new knowledge, produce the next generation of scholars, educate the next generation of leaders and connect our intellectual resources to the needs of the community.

“If we value that fourth point as a fundamental part of our mission—and it’s not just attractive rhetoric or tangential—then we have to actively pursue strong, creative relationships with the community and state. What we’re looking at is adopting and urbanizing the spirit of the land grant mission.”

Dr.  Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez
Read more about Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project in War Stories: World War II generation Latinos share memories through national journalism project.

The land grant system was a mid-19th century American leap in the direction of democratizing education and moving away from the European model of universities. In 1862, when land grant colleges and universities were first established in the U.S., “institution of higher learning” referred to a Harvard or a Yale. It meant a “finishing school for gentlemen,” an elitist bastion where a small slice of privileged individuals went for a quality education in the arts and humanities—preparing for professions like law and medicine—and where the enrichment of the individual was the paramount goal.

With the Morrill Act and the establishment of land grant universities and colleges, suddenly higher education was open to a whole new group of people. The universities were given the task of providing education in agriculture and mechanics, training students in military science and serving the working class. In addition to offering a liberal arts education, these schools would also teach practical skills, like engineering, so that there would be “people educated to build the bridges, plan the railroads, design the cities and build the factories.”

Most important, the land grant spirit was adopted by non-land grant universities as well, and the legislation opened up the “ivory tower.” It introduced a new concept of what a good university does—it engages in service to the community, promotes educational opportunities for all and is involved in a mutually beneficial relationship with the citizens of a state. As University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise commented in 1911, the land grant program aimed to make “the benevolent influence of the university available to every home in the state.”

“If you fast forward 150 or so years to the present, things have not really changed,” says Vincent. “We the university still have a responsibility to make our communities better places to live and offer education to everyone, especially those who may face the greatest challenges in accessing it.”

In a detailed piece that was selected as lead article for the Southern Law Review last year, Vincent included a portrait of one university’s successful collaboration with the community in which it is located. The case study illustrates how an organized partnership can promote the social, physical and economic development of an urban area.

Dr. Tiffany Gill
Read more about Dr. Tiffany Gill and her work researching African American women beauticians, hair salon owners and beauty product manufacturers in Beauty and the Business: Professor explores political, social legacy of African American women beauticians, salon owners.

“My study was of the formalized, coordinated, deeply committed working relationship between Louisiana State University (LSU) and the Old South Baton Rouge (OSBR) neighborhood that borders the north side of the university,” says Vincent, who was a law professor and vice provost at LSU from 1999 to 2003. “The OSBR area used to be a working class, racially integrated neighborhood, but it suffered from the same problems that many U.S. inner-city neighborhoods face—urban growth and development was taking place north of the inner city, the white and middle class African American residents moved, blue collar employment declined, crime increased and predominantly low-income African American residents remained.

“The future of LSU is interconnected with the future of the local community—it’s the same scenario you find at University of Pennsylvania, The Ohio State University, Tulane, Xavier and Yale, for example. If the surrounding neighborhoods improve, then the ‘health’ of the university improves as well. With LSU, there had been some racial tension between the primarily white campus and predominantly African American neighborhood, and the sincerity of purpose and hard work of the university in reaching out to the community did much to defuse that.”

In 1999, an inter-disciplinary task force made up of LSU faculty, staff, students and OSBR community partners joined forces and formed the Community-University Partnership (CUP). The agenda proposed by CUP included a long-term oral history project that would document the history of the heart of Baton Rouge’s African American community and of McKinley High School, the secondary school that served the African American community during a period of state-sponsored segregation. It also included training and technical assistance in skills that OSBR residents identified as useful and empowering; help in developing youth mentoring and leadership programs; development of a master plan for community revitalization; creation of an urban park and community garden; an entrepreneurial training program; development of a marketing plan for a local community revitalization corporation; and establishment of a legal clinic.

Professor William Allison
Read more about Professor William Allison and the work of the Actual Innocence Clinic in A Passion for Justice: Students and faculty at new Law School clinic search to find prisoners who may be innocent.

The school and neighborhood both participated in selecting the projects, and the talent pool from LSU included faculty, staff and students from the College of Design, College of Agriculture, Agriculture Center, School of Social Work, College of Education, College of Arts and Sciences, LSU Law Center and the E.J. Ourso Business School. In 2001, with the urging of LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert, CUP applied for a Community Outreach Partnership Centers (COPC) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and was awarded a three-year, $400,000 grant. LSU pledged to provide in excess of $600,000 over three years as well. Vincent served as the principal investigator and the director of COPC.

“LSU had applied for COPC grants before and not received them because there just was not the widespread administrative support and serious commitment that are crucial,” says Vincent. “When we were awarded the grant in 2001, it was primarily due to the fact that there was clear institutional backing for this very exciting endeavor. That grant, in fact, was the first to be awarded by COPC to any institution in Louisiana.”

Like LSU the University of Pennsylvania, where Vincent earned his doctorate, also used a COPC grant to work with a neighboring community. The area faced numerous urban social problems and had become quite dangerous for residents and students. In response, the university created a Center for Community Partnerships and began to collaborate with the nearby West Philadelphia neighborhood to improve students’ academic performance in area public schools.

At Howard University, HUD funds were used to identify corporate partners who could institute an employer-assisted housing program, reduce crime with the help of national criminal justice experts, develop educational incentives for at-risk youth and study the feasibility of creating a cultural district.

At The University of Texas at Austin, Vincent points to the work of faculty members like Dr. Chiquita Collins and Dr. Mary Lou Adams as examples of the land grant spirit in action. Collins, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, studies the ways that media and advertising contribute to disparities in health between whites and African Americans by examining the placement and content of outdoor advertising. Adams, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, directs the African American Breast Cancer Outreach project. To make her breast cancer awareness effort work, she headed to African American communities and talked to residents. She learned where women would be most likely to see health information, about problems faced in getting to screening appointments and what sorts of activities would motivate the women to learn more about a disease that kills around 32 percent more African American women than whites.

Dr. Mary Lou Adams
Read more about Dr. Mary Lou Adams and the African American Breast Cancer Outreach project in Diagnosing Disparities: Professor champions equal access to breast cancer screening to save African American women’s lives.

“Dr. Jacqueline Angel is researching how changing traditions will affect care for elderly Latinos,” says Vincent, “and she was president of Family Eldercare, a nonprofit that helps provide affordable housing for socio-economically disadvantaged seniors. Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez is chronicling the stories of Latino soldiers in her U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project. Dr. John Yancey produced an incredible mural in East Austin that offers this tapestry of the mainly African American area’s history. To do that, he went to the community members and talked to them, listening to their desires and ideas.

“I have a stack on my desk of numerous similar examples of UT partnering with the community. Although we have done so much, we still can do more, though. When an institution of higher learning launches an organized effort to serve and improve the community and state, the rewards are enormous. It’s our responsibility and an un-ignorable part of our mission to make our intellectual resources available to the people.”

Before coming to the university, Vincent was a law professor and vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at the University of Oregon. Vincent also served as a corporate attorney and director for regional and legal affairs at the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

“When someone asks me why I left law and went into higher education, it’s actually easy to answer,” says Vincent. “As a civil rights attorney, I was enforcing the law and fixing problems after they had occurred. I was dealing with numerous cases of discrimination and seeing that no matter how large the settlement was that had been awarded, the client still was devastated. That money did nothing to erase the maybe permanent harm to dignity. I want to be involved on the front end of the process and prevent some of the harm—I relish that role.”

BY Kay Randall

PHOTOS of Dr. Vincent and Dr. Adams: Christina Murrey

PHOTOS of Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez and Dr. Gill: Marsha Miller

PHOTO of Professor Allison: Wyatt McSpadden

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  Updated 12 June 2006
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