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Colleges urged to be urban partners

February 1, 2003View for printing

Universities are "uniquely poised to strengthen urban America," according to the president of Yale University.

"On our campuses we are devoted to the full development of human potential, and we provide extraordinary resources to facilitate such development in our students and faculty," Richard Levin said. "Yet, outside our walls, many of our neighbors lack the opportunity to flourish."

Barb Galbincea Plain Dealer Reporter

Levin was the keynote speaker yesterday for a national conference, "Great Universities and Their Cities," at Case Western Reserve University. The event, exploring partnerships of universities with their host cities, marked the inauguration later in the day of Dr. Edward Hundert, a Yale graduate, as president of CWRU.

The keynote address was followed by nine break-out sessions on specific topics ranging from cultural development and race relations to K-12 education.

Levin, who has led Yale for 10 years, said large universities contribute to their host communities by creating jobs, attracting research funding and drawing highly educated people to an area. But "these passive contributions are not enough," he said. "By adopting active strategies for civic improvement, by becoming engaged institutional citizens, we can make a major difference in the quality of urban life."

Yale, set amid blighted neighborhoods in New Haven, Conn., had to overcome "generations of distrust" to forge meaningful partnerships with its neighbors, Levin said.

To underscore its commitment, Yale created the Office of New Haven and State Affairs and founded paid summer internships for students in city agencies or nonprofit groups.

The university also created the Yale Homebuyer Program, which initially offered the university's employees a subsidy of $2,000 a year for 10 years in return for buying a home anywhere in New Haven. The program now is focused only on the low-income neighborhoods around campus, but the incentive has climbed to $7,000 the first year and $2,000 for each of the next nine years.

Levin said more than 530 Yale employees - many of them minorities and first-time homebuyers - have purchased houses through the program, to which the university already has committed more than $12 million.

The Yale president acknowledged that not every institution can support such a large investment, but he said the program can be tailored to fit a sponsor's resources.

The university's collaboration with New Haven is focused on four general areas: promoting economic development, strengthening neighborhoods, improving the downtown and boosting the image of the city.

As part of the effort to promote economic development, Levin said, Yale stepped up efforts to commercialize faculty research. As a result, 25 new biotechnology companies - which employ 1,300 people - took root in the New Haven area, he said.

In the neighborhoods, Yale mobilized students and faculty to work with residents and community organizations. Architecture students designed an addition to the elementary school. Drama students developed children's theater programs. Law students helped form a community development corporation. And management majors pitched in on a project that brought the state's first new urban supermarket in more than 30 years.

On a commercial strip west of campus known as Broadway and in the central business district south of campus, Yale and the city collaborated on downtown revitalization by improving amenities and attracting retailers. Fifteen new restaurants have opened in downtown New Haven in the last year, Levin said.

He added that the willingness of New Haven Mayor John De- Stefano to disregard politically popular "Yale-bashing" in favor of the partnership was critical.

"Successful collaboration requires willing partners," Levin said. " [DeStefano] has courageously made a leap of faith toward partnership with us."

It's also crucial that a university president make the urban partnership a clear priority in his or her administration, Levin said, recruiting the necessary leadership and providing resources.

In recruiting deans or key staff, "I have made community outreach an explicit goal and a criterion against which performance is measured," he said.

Universities have a self-interest in making the neighborhoods around them more attractive to potential students and faculty, Levin said, but "our responsibility transcends pragmatism. We must help our cities to become what we aspire to be on our campuses - a place where human potential can be fully realized."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

bgalbincea@plaind.com, 216-999-4185

© 2003 The Plain Dealer.

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