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Report Proposes Ways to Measure Colleges’ Impact on Communities

Universities need better ways to measure their impact on surrounding communities, according to a new report.

“The Anchor Dashboard: Aligning Institutional Practice to Meet Low-Income Community Needs,” released on Tuesday by the Democracy Collaborative, a research center at the University of Maryland at College Park, seeks to provide the basis for such a methodology in the form of a broad set of goals for communities and indicators of progress toward those goals.

The report’s “dashboard” consists of 12 desired societal outcomes that “anchor” institutions like universities can work toward­, including affordable housing, educated young people, and a healthy environment. The report also offers specific ways to measure the progress being made toward each goal. For example, the amount of money an anchor institution spends on helping local residents file their income taxes can serve as an indicator for the goal of financially secure households.

The report begins by recognizing that globalization, combined with increased corporate mobility and consolidation, has encouraged universities and hospitals to fill the void once occupied by businesses as the “place-based” institutions best equipped to improve the low-income communities that surround them.

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, said she had seen that shift firsthand through the fate of some of the state’s corporations, like Albany-based KeyBank, which moved its headquarters to Cleveland in 1994 following a merger. SUNY, by contrast, is “here for the duration,” Ms. Zimpher said in an interview. “And it really creates a sense of obligation to address the major societal issues and problems we see in our communities.”

Universities and hospitals are especially well suited to the task because of their economic influence and human capital, according to the report, which was based on a survey of 14 university administrators, including Ms. Zimpher; 14 university staff members who work on community partnerships; and dozens of representatives of hospitals, local governments, and other organizations.

Devoting precious financial resources to influencing factors outside the university’s control might seem counterintuitive at first blush, Ms. Zimpher said.

But she said societal problems had forced universities to embrace a shared responsibility: “How can you have a university situated in a community riddled with poor housing conditions, crime, poverty, and not look around and say not only ‘Is this our problem?’ but ‘We actually want those adjacent neighborhoods to be livable for everybody, including our faculty, staff, and students?’”

The report acknowledges that the dashboard is only a “first step” that will need to be tested and refined, and its results analyzed.

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