These days, it appears that there is a push in many circles to break down the ‘Ivory Tower’ and bring the resources of academia to the aid of the surrounding communities. Numerous colleges have begun programs in service learning, where students work at charities as a form of education; at SU, anthropology graduate students (like myself) can take a class in ‘collaborative action research’ for their methods requirement.
These relatively minor academic pursuits have recently become more substantial. In cities like Binghamton and Syracuse, politicians and pundits are looking to the Academy for the solution to the problems of our declining city-centers. It is undeniable that a large University can have tremendous economic and cultural effect upon the surrounding community, but before we throw ourselves completely upon the Ivory Tower (or the art world), it is probably a good idea to examine the possible effects. So, for the purposes of comparison and discussion, I would like to bring up the contrasting examples of Syracuse University-Syracuse and Wells College-Aurora.
Syracuse University is, according to the Post-Standard newspaper, the largest single employer (7,371 employees) in the city and undoubtedly numerous other business and individuals survive on the existence of the students in the community (see the SU Economic Impact Report for more info). Over the past 20 years Syracuse has continually declined in population and wealth; on any drive through the city one can’t help but notice rows of abandoned houses and empty stores.
With the arrival of Nancy Cantor, the University’s new Chancellor, SU has adopted a policy of community engagement called: “Scholarship in Action.” The new Chancellor has attempted to bring SU and Syracuse closer together in order to build the community.
One of the biggest projects is the Connective Corridor. Corridor is a proposed link between the University and Downtown; according to the website:
When completed, the Connective Corridor will consist of a vibrant pedestrian and bicycle pathway with distinctive landscaping, lighting, benches, historical information, and public art spaces. An accompanying public shuttle bus route will be offered free of charge to riders commuting between cultural venues, shops, hotels and Syracuse University.
The design will hopefully bring traffic to poor neighborhoods between the Armory Square and University Hill. Also included is a plan to clean up Onondaga Creek and turn it into an ‘urban forest.’ This will build upon the earlier project, The Warehouse, which turned an abandoned downtown warehouse into an art gallery and school of architecture.
This plan, of course, still in the future, though I’m excited about the possibilities. One of the Chancellor’s plans for students to ‘Explore the Soul of Syracuse’ was to give all of this year’s Freshmen $50 gift cards for them to use Downtown. The problem with the cards was that they were set up through Mastercard… meaning they were useable anywhere a card could be used. According to a recent story in the Daily Orange (the independent student newspaper), few of the cards have found there way Downtown, but wer instead used at chain stores in the mall or for online purchases.
While the jury is out on Syracuse and Chancellor Cantor’s plan to restore prosperity to the city, the community is not as ambivalent in Aurora, NY. Wells dominates Aurora economically even more so than SU to Syracuse. The village has a population of 720 and the college has roughly 200 employees and 500 students (according to Wikipedia).
In 2001 Wells College joined with alumnus Pleasant Rowland (creator of the American Girls company) to restore its buildings in downtown Aurora. In an attempt to “improve the historic character and attractiveness” of Aurora, buildings were destroyed and exteriors were altered. By 2002 the Aurora Coalition, a community preservation organization was formed to stop Rowland and Wells—who they accused of remaking the town without any public input and of destroying or remaking historic structures in the name of ‘historic recovery.’ The town has become polarized over the issue and legal measures have been undertaken (and have largely failed). Many fear that Aurora is being gentrified and that locals will be forced out of their community by Rowland’s ‘improvements’.
The Aurora example shows us the possible difficulties that our communities face when they turn to the Academy for revitalization. This is different than relying upon a corporation—because a university is either a non-profit or a government agency—and is not solely motivated by the profit margin. However, our local communities must remember that while collaboration with a University (or a philanthropist like Rowland) can bring tremendous resources to bear that would be otherwise unavailable, their collaboration can also mean the community losing power over its own development. In the worse case, the community can be transformed beyond recognition and the locals can find themselves gentrified out of a home.
 Collaborative action research is a form of research where the researchers works in partnership with a community organization in order to help them to answer their questions.