a story about universities and communities

I thought the following was the most interesting story told at the Penn State conference last weekend. (I’ll relate it in an anonymous paraphrase, since I don’t have the speaker’s permission to name her or her institution.) The story takes place at a major research university that’s near a deeply impoverished city. Don’t try to guess which one–there are lots. An administrator gathered a group of socially engaged, committed professors to meet with representatives of the community. The community members listed a set of pressing concerns, one of which was the huge trucks that rumble through their city. It came time for the professors to respond, and one by one, they all said that they knew nothing about trucks. The community members replied (in effect), “Well, it looks like we’ll have to deal with this on our own. But what good does it do us to have a world-class research university here?”

Like all good stories, this one prompts many thoughts, not all mutually consistent. My colleagues at the meeting made some interesting points, and then I came up with other ideas on my way home. In particular …

  • It wasn’t necessarily wrong for the professors to disclaim expertise about trucks. There’s nothing worse than false pretentions to knowledge, and these people really didn’t know about urban planning, traffic control, or related issues.
  • Possibly, the university should hire different people if it can’t field experts on the topics that concern the neighboring community. But possibly not. It all depends on mission. The university in question sees itself in service to the whole world, so it’s understandable that they don’t hire truck experts.
  • It might have been a good thing for the community to realize that they had to solve the problem on their own. There is nevertheless a question about the purpose of universities, especially ones that are supposed to serve their neighbors.
  • There could be a role for the university as a knowledge-broker. A staff member could be charged with putting community members in touch with experts–either at the campus or elsewhere. (Although no one at Penn State said so, this is a traditional role for librarians.)
  • Perhaps the professors who said they knew nothing about trucks were missing the point. Trucks are easy to understand; and urban planning (while complex) may not be the issue here. The real problem may not be trucks or roads but power: who wields it, how to confront it, how to get it. Professors, specifically political scientists, are supposed to understand power. But you can’t just transfer information or expertise about power to community members. Something much closer to real education would be required. By the way, the education could be mutual, since the best political scientists learn from observing or participating in political struggles.
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