What Responsibilities Do Institutions Have In Their Communities?

Universities need to take an active interest in maintaining and enhancing community stability.

I read with interest a recent story in The New York Times about Johns Hopkins University’s foray into redevelopment in East Baltimore.

The school has teamed with private and public interests to level a large part of the neighborhood and to make it bloom again as a biotech park. The project promises gains for the university’s research program, but many of the largely low-income neighborhood’s residents are not pleased. Resistance to the redevelopment, at least as far as how residents will be compensated for having to move, has been documented here and more recently here in the pages of Shelterforce.

Clearly, this was and is a very troubled area of the city. Abandonment and crime are widespread. The university has acted as many of its fellow institutions around the country have to revitalize their surroundings, out of concern that further deterioration posed a threat to their ability to attract students and faculty. But the school obviously also sees a potential for great economic growth for itself, on the acres of land it will have access to once residents are moved from the area.

So what is the university’s responsibility to the community? Is the school just another private mega-developer, using the power of eminent domain and ties to political leaders to pursue its own goals? As a nonprofit, educational institution, one with tremendous resources, does Johns Hopkins owe something to its neighbors?

I found this comment in the Times story by a representative of the private developer working with the university to be thought-provoking:

A neighborhood changes incrementally. It’s filled with people who’ve owned their house, meticulously maintained it, and you wake up one morning and the neighborhood has disintegrated around it. It’s not anyone’s fault. Hopefully, this is the last time we’ll have to demolish a neighborhood in order to save it.

Wasn’t Johns Hopkins kind of like a homeowner in the neighborhood over the years? Certainly they took good care of their own house, but what effort did they make to keep up the nearby blocks? Did they consider themselves to be members of the community, with a responsibility to try to keep it up?

I think universities do have such an obligation, and they shouldn’t take on that task only when drug dealing is occurring across the street from the schools’ research labs. Even in strong market neighborhoods, universities need to take an active interest in maintaining and enhancing community stability. It’s important for them to see that just because there is a low vacancy rate and decent levels of homeownership in the adjacent neighborhood doesn’t mean the local elementary, middle and high schools are necessarily top-notch. Nor are the strong housing conditions always so good when one looks at the details. Are the homes owner-occupied? Can faculty and university blue-collar workers as well as local residents afford to buy homes there?

The biggest challenge in establishing healthier relationships between universities and their neighbor communities is that the institutions see themselves as their own worlds. They don’t consider themselves to be part of those communities, sharing the same space as residents and small business owners. Many schools claim to have open, urban campuses, but they don’t always take that claim very far. It’s important that Johns Hopkins, as it extends its reach into East Baltimore, not simply eliminate the community in its path. Instead, the university should try to integrate with its neighbors.

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