Major urban universities are getting serious about collaborating with other institutions and stakeholders to build the local workforce and improve the economic and social vitality of their communities. Of course, universities have always been major employers in their communities and individual faculty and many departments have a long history of projects that help local schools, hospitals, and businesses, but total university commitment to community transformation has been rare. I was privileged to be asked to help facilitate one of the planning sessions at the annual summer meeting of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU). Their mission is to…

… partner with cities and metropolitan regions to prompt transformative investment in these urban areas to: ✦ Develop human capital and create a workforce ready to compete in the new economy of the 21st century, ✦ Revitalize neighborhoods and increase economic development, and ✦ Reduce health disparities and improve community health. USU will achieve this through research, strategic initiatives, and collaborative action.

No doubt the 39 member institutions of the Coalition have the best of intentions. However, they are facing a very difficult challenge given their missions and traditions. Universities, especially the large, research universities, do not embrace collaboration easily. The traditional mission of the academy (i.e., research, publication, grant-getting, teaching, and service to the academy and one’s profession) and its primary activities are not aligned with what it takes to transform communities (i.e., cooperation, teamwork, equity, mutual support, inclusion, systems view of problems, and patience). Faculty are rewarded for individualistic, self-directed, independent, narrow courses of research and teaching. For universities to participate in their communities as equal players who approach problems from a systems perspective, they must make a dramatic shift in mission, values, and practice. This can be done as long as these institutions accept that internal change is needed before they can contribute successfully to change externally.