The Disconnect Between Colleges and their CommunitiesWhat role, if any, should colleges play in their communities’ well-being?By Paul RuffinsPRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, Md.In the 1970s, when most of the campus of Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) in Maryland was constructed, the buildings were placed in a circle looking inward onto a common courtyard. The classrooms, offices and other facilities featured interconnected walkways meant to reinforce the students’ and faculty’s links to each other. The design suggested images of a traditional American Indian village where the dwellings are often arrayed around a central campfire, or perhaps an image of a family holding hands.But today, now that PGCC is surrounded by a dense suburbia of townhouses and department stores, the same design gives a very different impression, as if it was deliberately circling the wagons against some outsiders.“Unfortunately, the symbolism had at least some truth to it,” says Dr. Charlene Dukes, vice president for student services at PGCC. “From the late 1970s until the recent change of administration there was a feeling that the college was distant, or even trying to protect itself from the community.”“When I arrived three years ago, the only thing I really disliked about this college was the architecture,” says Dr. Ronald Williams, president of PGCC. “I am looking forward to building the first building that faces outward. Right now they have their back turned to the neighborhood. There’s no main gate to welcome you to campus.”The question of how or how much a college or university could or should make its presence felt in a local community is an ongoing issue in higher education across the nation. But it has particular relevance in Prince George’s County, a largely African American jurisdiction bordering Washington, D.C. All three of its public universities, PGCC, Maryland’s oldest historically Black university, Bowie State and the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park (UMCP) have been accused of somehow being missing in action. “There’s no doubt that as an institution, Bowie State has been perceived as being relatively disengaged from the overall civic affairs of the county,” says Bowie State’s president, Dr. Calvin Lowe. “And I have to admit that I haven’t completely identified all of the reasons for it.” And as Peter A. Shapiro, chairman of the Prince George’s County Council, says, “The University of Maryland has a very long way to go before it becomes a full partner with the county in terms of addressing local issues.” However, as University of Maryland political science professor, Dr. Ron Walters observes, “It’s true that the University of Maryland isn’t very involved in local affairs, but most universities aren’t. When I was at Howard, the most important connection between the university and the District was the fact that many Black folks really trusted the medical school. The same is probably true for Johns Hopkins University and the city of Baltimore.”Walters goes on to explain that the University of Maryland has a statewide mandate, and its quest to become a first-rate research university and attract nationally known faculty members will probably take it even further from the concerns of the county.“The more legitimate criticism of the University of Maryland is that of a land-grant university using more of its new-found prestige to promote the university rather than Maryland,” Walters says.But unlike major research universities, community colleges and HBCUs, which primarily serve a local population, have always been expected to be more involved in issues facing their surrounding communities. And PGCC and Bowie State are no exception.“One reason people are looking to the colleges is because of a lack of any clear voice speaking for Black leadership or Black intellectuals in the county,” notes Earl Ingram, a longtime county resident and vice president at George Mason University in neighboring Fairfax, Va. “Some of the upscale communities of Prince George’s county have relatively large numbers of Black professionals and academics. However, the fact that there are so many people out there can actually make it more difficult for any one clear leader or even consensus to emerge,” Ingram says.Still, the issue remains that Prince George’s County has relatively few major institutional resources besides its higher education institutions. Maryland’s most important governmental and financial institutions are located outside the county in Baltimore and Annapolis. And more importantly, Prince George’s County has experienced public policy crises in specific areas where PGCC and Bowie State in particular claim to have special expertise. For instance, Prince George’s County public schools are considered among the worst in the state. The system was so badly managed that an ongoing feud between the superintendent of schools and the elected school board resulted in the threat of a state takeover. The Maryland legislature actually disbanded the elected board in favor of a board appointed by the county executive. Yet, for many years, Bowie State has had a reputation of being one of the premier Black teacher-training institutions in the nation.In addition, Prince George’s County police department has been rocked by a series of highly publicized police brutality incidents that forced the removal of the chief of police, eroded community trust and lowered police morale. Yet, PGCC operates Maryland’s only state-certified police academy that graduates fully trained officers with college degrees.In short, the situation in Prince George’s County provides a fascinating case study in the structural and political issues that colleges face if they want to translate academic knowledge into real-world solutions. Collaboration is the KeyWhen taken together, PGCC and Bowie State draw more than 70 percent of their students from the county. And more than half of all the events held on the PGCC campus are scheduled by community organizations rather than the college. Individual professors or departments from all the local colleges support many community efforts through providing interns or graduate students. One example is the county’s three-town Bladensburg, Brentwood, Mount Rainier Gateway Arts District that is trying to stimulate the creation of a two- or three-mile long redevelopment district built around arts-related small businesses. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from some professors in the performing arts department of PGCC, and graduate students from the urban planning department of the University of Maryland College Park helped conduct sociological housing surveys, and helped us enter a lot of detailed information into our geographic information base,” says program director Nick Francis. Another example is Bowie State nursing program’s Community Health Center in the Glenarden apartment development. The University of Maryland’s College of Education is also involved in a number of collaborative projects with the Prince George’s County school system, ranging from its Professional Development School Network, which provides mentoring for practicing teachers, to various other programs based on interaction with K-12 students. Yet, given the community’s presence on the campuses and the fact that so many of the county’s students are involved in the colleges, why do so many residents still feel that the colleges are disengaged from the community?“I think that what the public is really expressing is a sense of frustration at the fact that we are not taking a more active leadership role as public intellectuals who are using our academic training to systematically inform the debates over serious local issues,” says Bowie State’s President Lowe.This sentiment was echoed by Dean Sirjue, a recently appointed member of the new Prince George’s County school board, and assistant dean at Howard University’s business school. “You would expect the local universities to be leaders in local educational policy. But beyond teacher training there seems to be no real or tangible relationships between the local colleges and the P.G. school system.”Doyle Niemann who is both a state prosecutor, and a former vice chairman of the county’s school board, says, “As a whole, the universities just aren’t making themselves seen or heard on local issues, particularly not in the arena of criminal justice. I just haven’t seen them involved in the criminal courts, the juvenile justice system, the jail or the police department.”Yet, a major argument for the colleges to become more involved in community issues is simple self-interest. Considering HBCUs and community colleges draw a more local grass-roots student population, they are directly impacted by the county’s crime, poor schools and the other social problems around them. “When I first started teaching law enforcement here 30 years ago, it was safe to assume that the instructors had more experience with violence than the students,” says Michael Nisson, a retired Prince George’s County police officer who runs PGCC’s forensic science department. “But it’s not true now. We often have students who have witnessed far more shootings than most rookie cops.” Creating a Role“This is not only an issue of resources, it’s also a question of our role,” says PGCC’s President Williams. “PGCC’s mandate is to prepare students to transfer to four-year schools, help the local work force develop the skills they need to help the county attract new businesses, and provide residents with opportunities for continuing education and intellectual growth. I don’t have a formal mandate to conduct research or make public policy.” “However,” Williams adds, “we carry out an explicit public policy, which in many cases is to help heal and remediate our students’ educational and opportunity gaps, which are sometimes the result of failed public policies.”Beyond the community college’s official “role,” there are several important, though not highly visible, mechanisms of influence that allow the community college’s academic expertise to affect the county’s systems, including the public schools and the police department.n Faculty participation on official county boards and commissions. County executive Wayne Curry appointed Williams to be the co-chair of the county’s Community Task Force on Police Accountability and PGCC’s Charlene Dukes to serve on the new school board. n Providing certification for those fit to become licensed in certain professions. PGCC administers the PRAXIS I exam for teacher certification. “Therefore we can play a direct role in weeding out bad teachers by refusing to allow people who fail to go on to a four-year program,” says Dr. Beverly Anderson, chairwoman of PGCC’s board of directorsn Conducting research. Because its enrollment is drawn so heavily from the local community, routine surveys of PGCC’s own student body can give policy-makers significant data on the public services provided to the types of county residents and families most likely to need them. “Public transportation is a critical issue throughout the entire Washington metropolitan area,” Dukes says. “When we asked our students how they were getting to school, it revealed a lot of information about citizens’ frustration with traffic congestion, bus routes and timetables.”n Providing a venue for discussion and debate. By making its facilities open to a wide variety of organizations, PGCC has been the home to conferences confronting the issues of fatherhood, terrorism training for law enforcement personnel from across the Washington area’s federal and local departments, and group discussions of books dealing with racism and other issues of emotional concern to area residents.President Lowe sees Bowie State’s potential involvement in the county not only in terms of serving the community but also in terms of what it could mean as a way to increase the faculty, budget and reputation of the university. Because Maryland’s current governor, Parris Glendening, is the former Prince George’s county executive, Bowie State has recently seen an increase in its budget. And, because the University of Maryland has become a much more selective university, Bowie State has seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of its own applicants. “I think that intellectual involvement in a community is really driven by the faculty’s research interest,” Lowe says, adding that because Bowie State doesn’t have world-class scientific laboratories or an extensive collection of rare books, one of its greatest resources is the fact that it sits in a perfect location for faculty members to become experts on some of the most important issues facing American society as boundaries between the urban, suburban and rural become blurred. In his estimation, these questions include managing suburban sprawl, integrating Asian and Hispanic immigrants into communities that were culturally and politically defined solely in terms of Black and White, and studying the co-location of both poverty and wealth in African American neighborhoods. “Bowie is sitting in the middle of a fantastic research base,” Lowe says. “It’s not enough for our nursing program to deliver services and train students, ideally it should be part of a data feedback loop that helps the county adjust its social services.”Conflicting InterestsUltimately, however, it is not only the intentions of the colleges but also the confluence of local politics and budgeting that hinder colleges’ involvement with the community. Even though Bowie State produces fully certified teachers with bachelor’s degrees, very few ever teach in the county’s schools. Why? According to Jean Humphrey, director of Bowie State’s department of special projects, the neighboring jurisdictions of Montgomery County and the District of Columbia pay starting teachers almost $8,000 more a year.Analyzing the many parameters determining a college’s potential impact on the community requires understanding that colleges are institutions that have their own self-interests. Some legitimate academic values, such as an emphasis on research and respect for expertise, are in conflict with legitimate community concerns and priorities. As county council chairman Shapiro notes, “As one of the biggest employers and real estate developers in the county I think that UMCP should do a much better job of coordinating its agenda with Prince George’s overall development plans. However, I don’t want Maryland, Bowie or any other school to primarily see the county as some kind of laboratory for their students and faculty who may not live here.” And while many academics and intellectuals probably feel that it was a positive move for more county professionals with advanced degrees and experience in higher education to be appointed to the school board, the feeling was not universal. Some local activists complained that the change also meant that the board no longer had any representation from many of the poorer communities in the country. Perhaps the best example of a local institution resisting the influence of academia is the Prince George’s County police department. “The county rejected our panel’s recommendation that all police officers obtain college degrees,” Williams says. An even more frustrating situation exists at the PGCC municipal police academy. “We could save the county over a million dollars a year in recruiting costs because we can deliver two dozen fully trained officers really to hit the street,” says academy director, Larry Shanks. “Yet, the P.G. County police department, which runs its own academy, simply refuses to recruit our people, even though our education standards are higher and we have a 100 percent placement rate for our graduates who are welcomed into many other police departments all over the Washington area.”Sergeant Coates, who is a public information officer for the department, confirmed the fact that the department does not target PGCC’s police academy for recruiting, even though it does recruit from the community college itself, as well as conduct nationwide searches in attempt to attract qualified candidates, particularly African Americans and Hispanics. Regardless if the community is Prince George’s County, or the institution is Bowie State, PGCC or UMCP, addressing the question of how public colleges should relate to their neighbors is a complicated task. But, overall, the first and most important lesson to be learned is that the issue will not be resolved only by academics but also by the public that surrounds them. “The colleges alone cannot really be blamed for the extent to which they are successfully engaged in addressing the needs of the community,” explains Prince George’s County resident and Howard University Vice Provost Alvin Thornton, who also has served as former chairman of the Prince George’s County school board. “The basic problem is with the nature of the Black community’s demands on these institutions and local governments. The civil rights movement focused on getting colleges to admit Black students and hire Black faculty. Now the question is learning how to utilize them to respond to community needs,” Thornton says.
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