What role should a college or university play in the life of the community within which it resides?
We're all aware that our institutions represent a substantial presence in the community. We have a major economic impact, for one thing: The university is a major employer of local residents; indeed, in smaller towns, it's often the major employer. Our faculty and staff shop nearby and pay income, property, and sales taxes.
In the noneconomic arena, college employees send their children to local schools, worship at local churches, are active in service organizations, and contribute in many ways to shaping the mores, customs, and practices of the broader community. In many towns, the community's identity is yoked to that of the college—even for those residents who have no direct involvement in or relationship with the university.
Yet we often fail to share what could be one of the most important contributions to the life of the community: the remarkable collective intellectual capital of our faculties. We have, up close and personal, a group of people able to help us understand the events that affect and sometimes threaten us. The aggregate intellectual capital represented by a faculty at an American college, even a small one, is vast: Economists, biologists, philosophers, engineers, and historians are teaching and researching the most pressing issues of the day.
Yet in my experience, we too seldom take advantage of this resource in an intentional and systematic way. Colleges' ivy-covered walls are often obstacles to building the kind of intellectual connections that are instrumental not only to positive relations but also to creating a strong community that can deal with new and daunting challenges. We too often hoard our intellectual resources as if they ought to be used only in service of our students' educations. That perspective is shortsighted and ultimately corrosive of community.
Consider some of our country's most pressing issues. How will our economy revive from its recession? Why are gasoline prices on the rise again, and will they continue to go up? Will the Tea Party movement become a durable and powerful force shaping American politics for years to come? We have on our faculties expertise that is pertinent to the lives of those in our communities—not in an abstract or esoteric way, but relevant to the daily conduct of our affairs. At my institution, the University of Evansville, we've been thinking creatively about ways to share the intellectual resources of our faculty, and we have developed a new program that has been well received in the community.
How the program works: The program, called "Think Outside the Lunch Box," brings our university's faculty to an off-campus venue—the Old National Bank in downtown Evansville—to give brief talks about current issues and events. Each presentation is about 20 to 25 minutes long, and is followed by an often spirited question-and-answer session. The university provides the speakers and arranges the venue; those attending are free to bring a lunch.
We began the program with a talk before the November midterm elections given by Robert Dion, one of our associate professors of political science, followed by a postelection assessment by Professor Dion and me (I'm a political scientist myself, taking time off to be a university president). Since then, "Think Outside the Lunch Box" has focused on revolutions in the Arab world, the psychology of suicide, WikiLeaks and free speech, coping with holiday stress, and—most recently—a very well-attended presentation entitled "Ga$ Pain$," at which Michael Zimmer, a professor of economics, evaluated the factors accounting for spikes in gasoline prices. (His talk is available for viewing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbVwAAk8qRo.)
The talks are designed to be accessible and encourage dialogue with our faculty presenters. They are not dry lectures about niche topics, but rather lively discussions of events and issues that shape our lives in direct and indirect ways. Encouragingly, we've had little difficulty recruiting faculty to speak: Those of us who've done such off-campus presentations typically find them to be stimulating and enjoyable. What a pleasure to be talking to folks highly motivated to attend, who have a life perspective shaped by real experience, and who value the intellectual authority of a faculty member because they see its relevance for their lives.
Benefits: The program produces real benefits for both the university and for Evansville. What college or university wouldn't want to forge a more positive relationship with the broader community? Such a relationship can prove very valuable when issues arise that have the potential to pit the institution against the interests of at least some in the community. In addition, helping local residents recognize that the college cares about their interests can be an important corrective to—or inoculation against—the town/gown strains that are all too common in university communities.
Perhaps most important, creative use of the intellectual capital of our institutions can help all of us to better understand that we live in one world and one community, and that a local college is not some ivory tower divorced from the realities of the town or city surrounding it. The University of Evansville has only begun to explore this connection. It is especially important that these opportunities occur off-campus, for it symbolizes a willingness to go into the city—and to towns and cities somewhat further afield—rather than expecting the community to come to us.
University administrators talk a lot about the need to build bridges to our communities, but too often it's just lip service, and we haven't thought creatively about how to build them. We need look no further than our faculties to identify a community resource of immense potential and value to those with whom we live. The payoff for fostering such connections will be substantial and long-lasting, for residents of Evansville and its environs are seeing faculty not as distant and inaccessible intellectuals, but as people anxious to share their expertise with their neighbors.