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Vice provost leads a Capitol Hill discussion of public universities’ role in the U.S.

A contingent representing public universities from across North America visited Capitol Hill to speak with policymakers about ways that universities can collaborate with the federal government to build a modern workforce, spark innovation and improve economic opportunity and mobility. (File photo)
A contingent representing public universities from across North America visited Capitol Hill to speak with policymakers about ways that universities can collaborate with the federal government to build a modern workforce, spark innovation and improve economic opportunity and mobility. (File photo)

A contingent representing public universities from across North America visited Capitol Hill last week to speak with policymakers about ways that universities can collaborate with the federal government to build a modern workforce, spark innovation and improve economic opportunity and mobility.

Catherine Howard, Ph.D.
Catherine Howard, Ph.D.

Catherine Howard, Ph.D., vice provost for community engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University, was among the leaders representing the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C., to detail the organization’s new policy position paper, “Advancing University-Engaged Economic and Societal Prosperity.” The report emphasized the importance of five key economic and community development objectives that the working group identified as crucial to responding to the needs of the U.S.

They were:

  • Building a thriving rural America.
  • Meeting the demand for 21st-century talent and skills.
  • Securing American leadership in advanced manufacturing.
  • Stimulating and accelerating university-based innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Fostering equitable, inclusive economic opportunity and mobility.

 

The report featured nearly 50 recommendations the APLU believes universities and the federal government should undertake to strengthen economic and community development. Howard said the paper stimulated compelling discussions among higher education and government leaders and should help provide guidance to explorations about how public universities can continue to contribute to the country’s future. The complete paper can be found at www.aplu.org/library/advancing-university-engaged-economic-and-societal-prosperity/file.

Howard spoke to VCU News about the paper and its potential impact. 

With such a wide range of universities represented in this paper, how does it encompass their varying priorities and challenges?

Often, these schools are contending with the same challenges, just in different ways. For instance, there’s a big push in rural areas for broadband access, but that’s also an issue in urban areas — we have pockets here in Richmond that don’t have reliable internet access. That’s particularly an issue for students from kindergarten into high school who need internet access for their educations. We talk a lot about helping students get access to online educational opportunities that could prepare them for college entrance, but without broadband access, that’s a problem, and that affects residents everywhere. We also noted that universities are key anchors in our communities, which means we are major employers and partners with other local entities to contribute to the economic and social well-being of our communities.

Why were these five objectives chosen?

They tie in closely to the essence of the missions of urban-serving universities and land-grant universities. Looking at it from a historical perspective, the Morrill Acts [which established land-grant universities in the 19th century] were intended to address the challenge of how to prepare students for the workforce using evidence-based practices in order to improve their opportunities.

Land-grants specifically were formed to use research to help develop best practices and to train and prepare students so that they can be informed and forward-thinking employees. Land-grants provide outreach through cooperative extension offices to translate what has been learned at universities into practices that can improve the quality of life in small, rural communities.

Meanwhile, community engagement at urban-serving universities often means looking at issues of equity and forming partnerships less with the agrarian sector and more with your schools, nonprofits and local governments to develop strategies to address critical needs in that community. Right here, the Wayne Commission that created VCU in 1968 was very forthright in saying it will be this university’s mission to address the critical needs of urban communities.

The paper includes recommendations for both higher education institutions and federal policymakers in the pursuit of these goals. How central is the role of the federal government in these goals?

The recommendations vary on that part. We have some recommendations that are very specific and they’re tied to congressional activity that already exists and the report advocates for either expanding on that work or making sure that it continues. Then there are recommendations that are more about providing ideas for areas where new initiatives can be explored. Ultimately, these recommendations are really an invitation to have further discussion about how universities might work in partnership with the federal government to address some of these opportunities in our communities.

This paper was produced on behalf of more than 240 universities from across the United States, Canada and Mexico. How important is the size and scope of this collaboration among universities?

I think it means a lot to policymakers to see that instead of competing against each other — as they often do on athletic fields or for grants — these universities are coming to them with a unified voice to say this is how we think we can work together to lift the standard of living in the United States. Universities are places where research and innovations lead to economic development and opportunities in sectors such as advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurial start-ups. It’s a way of showing that all of these universities care about ensuring that the employees of tomorrow are the best-trained workforce possible. We want our students to be creating industries that no one has even thought of yet. We all care about that. There also is real concern about economic mobility in this country. We’re becoming a society that’s more and more stratified and the gap is getting wider. That’s not healthy for our economy or our community. So what are we doing to narrow that economic gap within our communities? This is a look at how we can truly lift up our communities using education as a means to do that.