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A college try for Boston

Second in a series

BOSTON MAYOR Thomas Menino doesn't spend time poring over "Dissertation Abstracts," but he usually has some bright ideas about what Boston needs, and he is convinced that universities aren't giving enough thought to their host city. Last summer he corralled five college presidents and emerged with a $10 million commitment toward building campus partnerships with 10 struggling public schools. Properly done, it could be just the kind of "community-engaged scholarship" the city has been waiting for, especially if it draws on nursing and social work schools in addition to education departments.

Civic and college leaders who attended a 2003 seminar funded by the Boston Foundation had no trouble documenting efforts by higher education institutions to help their neighbors. Students from area colleges spend an estimated 350,000 hours each year as volunteers. The Massachusetts Campus Compact, founded in 1995, is one of 31 organizations nationwide working to promote community service as a critical component of higher education. The Boston Higher Education Partnership, representing 31 local institutions, brings campus expertise to public schools. But the fragmentation so common in universities also has crept into the service missions.

Ira Harkavy, who heads the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent the last 15 years eliminating barriers between Penn and the residents of West Philadelphia. Community service has been incorporated into more than 150 university courses. The results have ranged from neighborhood nutrition projects run by nursing students to a digital archive of gospel music created by a music professor. The goal, says Harkavy, is not only to assist nearby public schools and health centers, but to engage the entire university in the search for solutions to substandard schools or inadequate healthcare. And the effort, he says, must be reinforced in the curriculum instead of driven by grants, which can dry up quickly.

There's a lot of local expertise at Tufts University on how best to make the connection between research and community service. Good public policy institutes also operate at UMass/Boston, Harvard, and other campuses. But real engagement won't happen without relentless attention from college presidents, says Linda Kowalcky, Menino's liaison to higher education. Individual achievement, especially the kind noted in academic journals, remains the recognized path to promotion and tenure. Until colleges adopt service to the community as a core mission, too many academics will keep boring into their individual disciplines with little thought of the people outside the college gates.

Boston's colleges and universities should be wrestling with the issues that stump city officials. The city's sharpest minds should be focused on discovering the root of the deadly violence that explodes intermittently in the city's Cape Verdean neighborhoods, for example, and how it might be stopped. It's clear that another design competition won't help enliven City Hall Plaza, which the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces calls "one of the most disappointing places in America." But can it be redeemed and, if so, how? What about cost-neutral ideas to ensure that the Boston Teachers Union and incoming school superintendent Manuel Rivera get off to a good start?

On the ninth floor of City Hall, Boston Redevelopment Authority officials are mulling how to bring the universities to higher levels of civic engagement. But down in the building's depths, Assessing Commissioner Ronald Rakow is contemplating the additional $100 million in property taxes the city would collect if not for the tax-exempt status of 36 institutes of higher education. There's a lot of new construction on campuses, which usually brings a request from City Hall to increase voluntary payments-in-lieu-of-taxes that help offset the costs of city services. But Rakow isn't upbeat about generating much revenue. In some cases, the contributions hardly budge from year to year.

University officials argue that they give generously in the form of scholarships and volunteer services in addition to the $7.2 million in PILOT payments this year. True enough, but some universities see the PILOT payments as a way to strengthen the city, and some don't. Boston University, for example, contributed $4.1 million in 2006. Northeastern University and Boston College, however, weighed in with a disproportionately small $141,132 and $242,046, respectively, according to Rakow. By comparison, tiny Showa University, which provides language training for small groups of foreign students, pitched in this year with almost $100,000. If universities are going to expand their service role and skimp on PILOT payments, they should at least be looking for a consistent way to measure the value of those services.

Harkavy predicts that colleges will benefit as much as the neighbors by the expansion of community services. In some cities, such as Hartford and Philadelphia, where the institutions abut poor neighborhoods, a kind of enlightened self-interest is at work. But in Boston, the neediest residents often live far from the main campuses. A more aggressive form of engaged scholarship will need to be tried here, one that reaches all corners of the city. Perhaps then, when talk turns to institutional expansion, residents will be referring to intellectual capital instead of another university building project.

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