Beyond The Ivory Tower

Brennan Professor Lerner offers primer on how universities can expand their role

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

America's higher education institutions have so much going for them, says Brennan Professor of Education Richard Lerner, that it's a shame for them to stay exclusively within the academic realm.

"Colleges and universities have special contributions to make to our society by generating, applying and transmitting knowledge," explained Lerner, director of the Center for Child, Family and Community Partnerships. "But typically, these contributions tend to be defined by, or limited to, specific disciplines. Our expertise could be used - and should be used - in a far broader context, with the greater community around us."

Lerner and a host of colleagues from the academic, private and public sectors offer a blueprint for such alliances in the recently published University-Community Collaborations for the Twenty-First Century: Outreach Scholarship for Youth and Families . Edited by Lerner and Michigan State University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lou Anna K. Simon, the book includes 23 essays intended as a theoretical and practical primer on how colleges and universities must expand their role in serving society.

The essays, whose authors include Lerner and Simon and a number of Boston College administrators and faculty, are grouped into sections on creating community-collaborative universities and outreach universities, some of them spotlighting specific initiatives at various institutions. Another section contains perspectives on topics such as investment in university-community collaborations.

Brennan Professor of Education Richard Lerner.
"You can see how many institutions, including Boston College, are moving in the direction of outreach scholarship," Lerner said. "They're changing their very relationship with the community around them."

As an example, Lerner points to the Law School's Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project, in which law students represent, or act as policy advocates for, young people in or at risk for entering the juvenile justice system. Students in the project work at the Brighton High School Law Center and the Gardner Extended Services Elementary School, or represent girls who have been found delinquent and are committed to the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

Besides bringing the Law School into the community, Lerner said, the program ties together disciplines such as law, psychology, social work and health in the area of juvenile justice, while articulating the need for lawyers to advocate beyond the courtroom and across conventional legal lines.

"What's important, however, is for the university or college to realize that outreach can be relevant for most any area of scholarship," said Lerner. "You can have fusion physicists involved in math and science literacy programs, or linguists working with computer scientists to help kids find e-mail pals in other countries. There are so many possibilities."

The key task in establishing this new model, Lerner says, is to more fully integrate community collaboration and service into the institution's core mission, so it is then reflected in the faculty reward system.

"No one is saying that outreach should be the only role for a higher education institution, but rather a strong component in how it defines itself," he explained. "This approach requires leadership vision which says, 'We'll reward scholarship that serves communities.' It means you need a faculty willing to be humble, who recognize that they are not the only expert at the table; that it is the representatives of the community who bring their own, equally valuable expertise to the discussion."

An interdisciplinary group of administrators and faculty from Boston College also contributed to University-Community Collaborations , authoring the chapter "Changing the Culture of the University to Engage in Outreach Scholarship." The group included Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Smyer, School of Education Dean Mary Brabeck, College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Carol Hurd Green, SOE Assistant Dean for Students and Outreach John Cawthorne, Prof. Mary Walsh (SOE), Assoc. Prof. Rosemary Krawczyk (SON), and Graduate School of Social Work Field Education Director Robbie Tourse.

Return to Sept. 17 menu

Return to Chronicle home page