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Higher education leaders explore a university’s role in a healthy community

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The conference held by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities tackled the topic of how public research universities can use interdisciplinary strategies to work with others to benefit their regions. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

College administrators and faculty from across the country visited Virginia Commonwealth University this week to investigate ways that universities can team with partners in their communities to develop and enact creative solutions to complex social and economic challenges.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, a research, policy and advocacy organization for public universities in the United States, Canada and Mexico, held a joint meeting at VCU of both its Council on Engagement and Outreach and its Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness and Economic Prosperity. The conference’s theme, “Creative Placemaking for Healthy Communities,” tackled the topic of how public research universities can use interdisciplinary strategies to work with others to benefit their regions. 

The four-day meeting featured lectures, panels, performances and an assortment of workshops and small-group discussions and working sessions. Held in partnership with the Democracy Collaborative, a research institute focused on developing strategies for a more democratic economy, the meeting also included themed immersion tours in Richmond that provided a deep look at issues in the city and highlighted VCU’s local partnerships on topics ranging from research innovations to public art, trust and racial reconciliation. Later, 10 facilitators from VCU’s da Vinci Center — including VCU faculty and professionals from the private sector — led an intensive design experiential activity for attendees to assist with the challenges they observed during the tours.

Catherine Howard, Ph.D., VCU vice provost of community engagement, said the meeting’s emphasis on art and culture as core components of a community’s health sparked compelling discussions and exchanges of ideas. The conference began in the Institute for Contemporary Art with an address from Noah Scalin, the first artist-in-residence at the VCU School of Business.

“Noah exclaimed that creativity is the fuel for innovation and everyone can strengthen their creative muscles,” Howard said. “He concluded with a collaborative exercise that energized the audience and set the tone for a summer conference unlike others before it.”

Andrew LeVasseur (far right), professor in the VCU Brandcenter, leads an experiential design session with participants in the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' summer conference. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)
Andrew LeVasseur (far right), professor in the VCU Brandcenter, leads an experiential design session with participants in the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' summer conference. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

Steven Tepper, Ph.D., dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and Ted Howard, president of the Democracy Collaborative, delivered separate keynote addresses on Tuesday that together formed a rousing call for the vital role that public research universities can play in the health and success of a community.

Tepper’s talk emphasized the value of arts and culture to a region. He said universities and others must combat the notion that art is an “extra” rather than something essential. He said a mindset that holds art to be an extravagance that exists separate from the daily life of a place can only blunt its power and potential to prompt positive change. In addition, treating art as something rarefied and remote, rather than absorbing and accessible, will limit its audience and the spaces where it can be found, restraining it from reaching as far into society as it should.

Tepper said that only recently has art begun to be appreciated as integral to public policy and public life. For years, he said, public policy academics dismissed art’s social impact, but increasingly more are embracing the idea that “art and culture can be critical assets for advancing … any idea in any society,” Tepper said.

Tepper said art often suffers from being treated — and viewed — as a series of one-off projects that appear and gather attention for the short term but do not have enduring, sustained impacts. Key to skirting that particular pitfall is ensuring that the arts are not isolated in institutions, such as at universities, and instead are tied in explicit ways to partners in myriad other disciplines. For instance, arts programs in universities, he said, should be engaged with medical, social work and public policy programs, among others.

“It’s about fundamental integration,” Tepper said.

In his speech, Howard said the effectiveness of creative placemaking — defined as shaping the physical or social character of a place around arts and cultural activities — starts with being “engaged with what’s taking place in a community.” That means being open to learning about the chief concerns of the community, instead of simply applying the university’s interests to develop projects and programs whether they fit or not.

Howard said universities that strive to be truly successful partners should examine themselves and weigh whether they are considering the impact of their operation from every angle, rather than the most obvious ones. The universities that prove to be the most effective partners, he said, will be the ones that ask a key question of every aspect of their institution — from security and communications to hiring and teaching: “How can this be deployed for maximum benefit to our community?”

Andrew Ilnicki (standing), director of academic technology in the VCU School of the Arts, oversees the discussion of potential solutions to a pressing community challenge. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)
Andrew Ilnicki (standing), director of academic technology in the VCU School of the Arts, oversees the discussion of potential solutions to a pressing community challenge. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

In that vein, four university presidents gathered to share their perspectives during a panel at the meeting on “Universities, Place-development and Creative Placemaking.” Eric Barron, Ph.D., president of Penn State University, moderated the discussion, which included Makola Abdullah, Ph.D., president of Virginia State University; Duane Nellis, Ph.D., president of Ohio University; and Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU.

The presidents reflected on their universities’ efforts to respond to societal and economic needs through the stewardship of place. Each president noted how essential engaging with the larger region has become to their universities’ missions.

“The idea of integration with the community has become much more intensified,” Nellis said.

In response to Barron’s question about the best ways to institutionalize community engagement, Rao said universities should place an emphasis on hiring faculty whose work crosses disciplines to tackle community challenges. Those schools also should develop a system that rewards faculty for those efforts — something universities traditionally have not done, he said.

The presidents detailed the various initiatives their universities have undertaken to address ongoing, critical societal issues, such as food scarcity, the opioid crisis, health and wellness education, workforce training and economic development. In each case, the panelists said, they were responding to the specific places that serve as homes to their universities.

“It’s really an obligation on our part to see how we can contribute to taking on these challenges,” Rao said.