One keynote address at the recent Erasing Boundaries symposium was by Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., from the University of Buffalo Center for Urban Studies; it was entitled “The Engaged versus the Entrepreneurial University: How Neighborhoods Matter.” (See earlier posts for descriptions of the symposium.) Taylor posited these types of universities as two distinct, indeed opposing, models. Arguing that “distressed neighborhoods” are the single most important domestic problem of our era, Taylor compellingly and passionately argued for the engaged university—a people-centered, egalitarian, institution–to be on the ground and ever-present in the effort to ameliorate this distress and radically transform these spaces. He acknowledged that the distress is tangled and iterative, and also a question of exploitation and oppression. Currently these neighborhoods are “urban factories that produce wasted lives.” Taylor quoted historian Ira Harkavy’s 2007 book (co-authored with Lee Benson and John Puckett), Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform, suggesting that the university is in the third stage of revolution toward an engaged, democratic and egalitarian system. (The first stage began in 1876 with Johns Hopkins and the first research university; the second, in 1945, with Vannevar Bush pushing BIG science to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the resultant federal-university partnerships, the Cold War entrepreneurial university.) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder started the third revolution, according to this analysis, with urban uprisings and student unrest pushing for historically-white universities to open their doors to the previously excluded. Sometimes these efforts differed from past “ivory towers” in that they emphasized addressing urgent problems through community collaboration. Taylor mentioned Campus Compact and the Carnegie Civic Engagement classification as evidence of this trend. The Anchor Institutions Task Force, coordinated by Marga Consulting, was launched in 1992, to support academic units in tackling community issues.
Threatening these efforts, though, is the pull toward the entrepreneurial university model, given a manifesto-like framework in Burton Clark’s 1998 book, Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organizational Pathways of Transformation, based on a business creed. Faced with dire financial conditions, universities are shifting toward a growth model and commercialized activities such as consultancies and R&D. This encourages the emphasis on STEM education, and de-emphasizes humanities and social sciences. At the same time, the university is retreating from higher education’s commitment to social justice. Business and economic impacts seem to guide decision-making. (I took copious notes, but apologies to Dr. Taylor if this summary is a bit off-the-mark.)
Taylor then presented three conceptual issues related to distressed neighborhoods.
1. In terms of place, these sites are not neutral. There is a synergy between people, physical and social environments. People are connected to their neighborhoods and each other, so these connections must be acknowledged and taken into account.
2. The aggregate of socio-economic problems and hopelessness must be addressed in a relational context. Schools, families, violence, obesity have wicked, reinforcing aspects.
3. Neighborhoods must be viewed through a lens of social and spatial injustice, and in terms of larger freedoms, to promote human flourishing.
Distress is a result of policies and practices that reinforce and exacerbate the distress. Now these neighborhoods are profit-making sites, where the misery of the residents is integral to profit. (Taylor noted an article by Eric Schlosser in The Atlantic Monthly in December 1998 about the prison-industrial complex.) We must transform these neighborhoods in collaboration with the residents. This is a good point to plug George Lipsitz’s latest book, How Racism Takes Place (Temple University Press, 2011), and Ed Soja’s book, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minnesota, 2010).
Taylor ended with a brief slide show on his work with the Fruit Belt neighborhood near downtown Buffalo, using the neighborhood as the classroom, and linking school experiences with the lives of the students. The aim of the Futures Academy K-8 public school was to create a mini-educational pipeline married to comprehensive redevelopment, using urban planning simulations, urban agriculture, art, and other approaches. The key is synergy: do what you do, but do it in a highly coordinated, strategic way.