• October 2, 2014

Scholarship That Contributes to the Public Good Enriches Universities, Too, Speakers Say

Higher-education institutions have a civic responsibility to shed their ivory-tower images and to create bridges to their local communities, whether they are private universities reaching out to crime-ridden neighborhoods in upstate New York, or public campuses propping up impoverished colonias in South Texas.

That message was delivered on Thursday by a succession of speakers at a two-day educational summit held at the University of Texas at Brownsville that was Webcast for the public.

The conference, hosted by the University of Texas System's chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, brought together local, state, and national leaders from the fields of education, philanthropy, economic development, and government to brainstorm strategies for improving educational and economic opportunities along the Texas-Mexico border.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, described how her campus has spent years revitalizing the surrounding city, refurbishing parks, converting abandoned warehouses into thriving academic centers, and encouraging professors to use the city as their laboratories. It's an approach that has prompted a vigorous debate at Syracuse over the benefits and potential costs of such public scholarship.

While many professors at Syracuse embrace the university's outward focus and increasing diversity, others question whether it has come at the expense of other forms of academic scholarship and caused the university to slip in national rankings whose criteria consider such factors as a university's selectivity.

But Ms. Cantor said that universities are enriched when they work with their surrounding cities to reduce the "grievous and shameful waste of our nation's human capital."

She urged educators to "create a seamless, two-way street between our communities and campuses"—something that Syracuse has done literally by tearing up a one-way street leading to the university and making it two-way.

Expanding opportunities for minority and underprivileged youngsters is a top priority for higher-education institutions in Texas, which, like Syracuse, are reaching out to students as early as kindergarten to get them thinking about college. And other parts of the country will soon be grappling with the issues that the heavily-Hispanic Rio Grande Valley faces, said Dr. Cigarroa.

"This area of the state reflects what our nation is going to look like in 10 or 15 years," he said.

In August, Dr. Cigarroa, a transplant surgeon who grew up in South Texas, announced that the university system had committed $30-million toward a variety of programs aimed at improving education and health care in South Texas, where many people struggle to survive in ramshackle neighborhoods called colonias. Much of the money will go toward improving science and math instruction from kindergarten through graduate school, creating a simulated teaching hospital, and laying the groundwork for a hoped-for medical school.

Several faculty members from the University of Texas's two South Texas campuses, as well as other local colleges described how they are using their expertise to tackle local problems ranging from poor water quality to diabetes and obesity.

Francisco Guajardo, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas-Pan American, said that while universities in the region are starting to recognize public scholarship as worthy of a professor's time, tenure and promotion policies still don't encourage such efforts enough. "We have all of these faculty and their tremendous brain power, and all they do is teach and do research and live in gated communities," he said.

One of the ways Mr. Guajardo has tried to buck that trend is by working, alongside his students, for more than a year to get a $112-million bond passed that allowed for the construction of several badly needed schools in the Edinburg Independent School District, where the university is located.

Dr. Cigarroa ended the conference by urging the participants to work together and calling the Rio Grande Valley "a place whose highest aspirations are worthy of our deepest support."

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