Trudging in from the cold and dark after long days at work, students settle in on stackable chairs around folding tables in a room austere but for a whiteboard and a lonely plastic Christmas tree.
Some wearily set down their books and wolf down fast food for their dinners. One has brought her son, still in his school uniform, who is soon absorbed in homework.
The setting is a borrowed corner of a public housing complex for formerly homeless veterans on Indianapolis’ Near West Side, and the class — called “Planning for a Profitable Business” — has been arranged by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, or IUPUI.
These aren’t undergraduate economics majors. They’re current and aspiring entrepreneurs, many of them from this hard-luck neighborhood, which IUPUI is working to improve.
It’s a tiny slice of a growing trend in which universities are reaching across the sometimes literal walls that have divided them from their communities and trying to provide the help their neighbors need.
This movement is about more than sending students to fulfill community-service requirements by cleaning up litter or working in soup kitchens at the holidays. It’s about leveraging vast amounts of buying power, political clout and research capacity to do permanent good.
Many people involved describe it as a return to a time when higher education saw itself as contributing to the public interest rather than solely training students for careers.
They also say it’s in the universities’ self-interest, coming as it does at a time when decaying surroundings and urban crime discourage applicants, cash-strapped local governments are pushing these nonprofit institutions to pay more for the services they get, and the public has a low opinion of college costs, management and value.
“Institutions cannot succeed if the community is failing and the community cannot succeed if the institution is failing,” said Ted Howard, co-founder and president of the Democracy Collaborative, which supports this work.
Meanwhile, under a divided political system, serious problems have gone otherwise unsolved. It was scientists from Virginia Tech — not the state or federal governments — who discovered high levels of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, for instance.
To help fill such voids, colleges and universities and their faculties can leverage vast budgets and payrolls. Their endowment holdings alone add up to nearly half a trillion dollars and they have an annual economic impact of $1 trillion and employ nearly 4 million people, the Progressive Policy Institute reports.
A growing number are diverting a little of that wealth to their communities.
Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, for example, along with nearby hospitals, has helped get money for a new public-transit station and to redesign a congested traffic circle in its neighborhood, and attracted about $200 million of investment. Arizona State moved its schools of nursing and journalism and other programs into a once-blighted section of Phoenix in a project that includes student housing and private development. The University of Cincinnati is injecting about 10 percent of its $1 billion endowment into investments to revitalize that city’s Uptown District. Northeastern University is offering $6.5 million in loans to local businesses at below-market rates.
Many institutions provide legal and medical clinics and intervene to improve their local public schools. Duquesne, in Pittsburgh, runs a community pharmacy. Rutgers University hosts a branch of the county public library. IUPUI also operates a dental clinic for veterans and is helping address a flare-up in the number of cases of HIV in southern Indiana.
It’s no coincidence that these gestures come as local governments — squeezed for money and stretched to provide services — are putting universities and colleges under scrutiny. They’re especially focused on the wealthiest schools, which sit on multibillion-dollar endowments, pay high salaries to huge numbers of employees and take up large swaths of land that would otherwise be generating tax revenue.
“If you’re a mayor, you look around and say, ‘What the hell is that?’” said Howard.
Princeton University, the nation’s fourth-richest, was sued by residents of its New Jersey hometown demanding it fork over nearly four times the $11 million a year it pays in taxes on some commercial buildings it owns. Princeton in October settled the case by agreeing to pitch in an additional $2 million next year and $1.6 million more for each of the five years after that.
Brown was arm-twisted into increasing by nearly $3 million a year its voluntary payments to its surrounding city of Providence, Rhode Island. Massachusetts lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to tax endowments over $1 billion, which would have affected Harvard ($36.4 billion), MIT ($13.5 billion), and at least seven other universities and colleges.
Northeastern was called out for paying nothing at all in 2014 toward the $2.4 million the city of Boston requested to help cover the costs of police, fire, snow-removal and other services the university received.
All of this has colleges and universities scrambling for new ways to contribute.
“There’s a recognition that you can only play defense and hide out for so long and at some point you have to come forward and make your case directly with the public,” said Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact, a coalition of universities that provide community service.
To commemorate its 30th anniversary, Campus Compact has asked its members to develop “civic action plans” by March reaffirming their commitment to what it calls the public purposes of higher education. Nearly 450 have signed on.
One way of meeting that goal, and “not, in effect, being taxed,” said Howard, “is, for instance, you should be analyzing your supply chain, figure out which of those contracts can be redirected to local vendors who are going to hire people who really need jobs, and track that and report it.”
He said: “Having self-interest by the institutions to do this work is not a bad thing. It’s part of the business proposition for these institutions, about why it makes sense.”
Still, sometimes even the best intentions go awry.
Syracuse University more recently moved to help its Rust Belt hometown by converting an abandoned warehouse in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood into classroom and studio space, renovating parks and creating an arts district. Faculty were encouraged to do research in the city. But critics complained that the ambitious plan shortchanged more traditional forms of scholarship and caused the university to fall in national rankings.
There are growing forces driving colleges and universities to become more deeply involved in their communities, however.
One is to improve their flagging PR. Nearly six in 10 Americans say colleges today care mainly about the bottom line, and 44 percent think they’re wasteful and inefficient, a September poll by Public Agenda found. Many of their neighbors already mistrust them after histories of unbridled expansion and heavy-handed treatment such as the kind that occurred in West Philadelphia. To build IUPUI in the late 1960s, for example, officials bulldozed a predominantly black neighborhood, something locals still remember.
“It’s important for them to say to the community, ‘We’re not just about expanding and building and building,’” said Hope Hampton, one of the students in the Indianapolis entrepreneurship course. “They need to invest in this community.”
Another incentive is that universities can’t pick up and move, and deteriorating neighborhoods with high crime and abandoned housing can affect their recruiting of students and employees. They are, as a new term of art calls them, “anchor institutions.”
Yet they have often faced inward, and walled themselves off — in the case of some, including Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, with actual walls.
Widener’s former president, James Harris III, remembered being asked on his first day to review plans for a fence and a gate around a freshman quad. These were to reassure incoming students concerned about living in what was considered a bad neighborhood. It spoke to the separation of gown from town — which other administrators told him wasn’t worth wasting limited money on — and also a critical reason to fix it.
Harris reached out, and today Widener runs a charter school for local children, offers free health and physical therapy clinics and is helping restore a museum.
“I think maybe we had lost some of that broader focus of not only addressing the students, but also universities’ commitment to the country,” said Gretchen Mielke, assistant dean for civic engagement there, whose job it has been to follow through with this.
Widener’s is an approach that appears to be spreading.
“Fifteen years ago or so, there were very few universities that were really deeply engaged with their communities, or even with the idea that they should be,” Howard said. “There grew up the idea that basically students went to college for their own good. But now the idea is coming back that the role of the institution should be problem-solving in society. I’m not saying all of them are doing this, but there’s clear movement in this direction.”
Back in the entrepreneurship class, Jerry Siegel is awaiting his turn to practice presenting his business plan. Siegel grew up in this neighborhood, where he now runs a catering company he hopes to expand with help from the university course.
IUPUI is also building a community entrepreneurship center here, where there will be permanent training space and offices to meet with advisers.
“The university is part of this community. The people who come to that university and are paying tuition come from this community. The people who are paying taxes come from this community,” said Siegel. “To me this is a great way for them to give back.”