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How can the US experience advance the civic university?

Robin Hambleton reflects on lessons for the aspiring civic university from the US experience of place-based engagement.
This article is more than 5 years old

Robin Hambleton is emeritus professor of city leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol and Director of Urban Answers.

The report of the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission published last month should be welcomed as a wise and far-sighted analysis of future possibilities for British universities. The commission notes that we are continuing to neglect a very important question: How are the people in a place benefiting from the university success story? Given this question has been addressed in US higher education for many decades, it is clear that we can learn from American experience.

The civic university report should be respected as an international contribution to the debate about how higher education institutions across the world need to respond, at one and the same time, to global and local pressures for relevance, support, influence and standing.

Urban leadership in Chicago

In my last job I was Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a major public university located in the heart of Chicago.

UIC, which has over 30,000 students, has been actively involved in civic, or place-based, leadership since it was set up over fifty years ago. Like other public universities in the US, UIC sees itself as not so much an “anchor institution,” capable of bringing socio-economic and cultural benefits to the local community, but as a “rooted institution” delivering a lasting and influential contribution to place-based leadership.

Being civic at UIC is not just an interesting addition to academic endeavour, if you have the time. Rather, it lies at the heart of what the university is for. This aspiration is embedded in the promotion criteria for all scholars. Public service, covering a variety of efforts relating to local civic engagement, sits alongside performance in teaching and research. A question: Is civic engagement given the same weight as teaching and research in the promotion criteria of your university?

University collaboration in Atlanta

The city of Atlanta is the home of world-leading civic initiative by universities. Imagine a city where all the universities in a place decide that they want the intellectual firepower of their students and faculty to focus on tackling the problems facing their city.

Launched in 2013, the Atlanta Studies Network has organised an annual symposium each spring that is free and open to the public. Emory University deserves credit for organising the first one, but this bold innovation soon became a multi-institutional effort. Other universities heavily involved in the network include Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, Clark Atlanta University and the Atlanta University Centre’s Robert W. Woodruff Library.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is now a formal partner. The 2018 symposium attracted 250 participants with presenters from 17 governmental, non-profit, policy or arts organisations. Interestingly presenters represent all levels of seniority, ranging from high school students to university presidents.

In 2015 the Network launched Atlanta Studies, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal, one that now receives over 30,000 unique visitors each year.

A great strength of the Atlanta Studies approach is that it is firmly place-based. Before being accepted as a speaker at the 2017 symposium I was required to show how my presentation would contribute directly to academic and policy development in Atlanta, not anywhere else.

Bristol learns from Atlanta

Here in Bristol, two local universities – the University of the West of England, Bristol and the University of Bristol – have drawn insights from the imagination shown by scholars and civic leaders in Atlanta.

Later this month the Bristol Forum will provide an example of how local universities, working together, can collaborate with other civic actors to co-create new understandings and new possibilities. We will have presentations from over 70 scholars and activists and anticipate around 180 participants. The forum enjoys the backing of Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, who launched a new One City Plan for Bristol in January setting out a strategy for the city covering the period through to 2050. The two local universities have made a significant contribution to the ideas set out in the plan, and the Bristol Forum is designed to generate new, and unforeseen insights, that can improve this strategy for our city.

Pointers for UK universities

Three pointers for scholars, university leaders and off-campus activists interested to advance the cause of the British civic university in their area emerge from US experience.

First, it is important to reach across the realms of civic leadership within your locality in order to generate new insights and co-create new possibilities for student engagement, action research and policy development. This might be uncomfortable. Off-campus actors might have very different ideas about what needs to be addressed, but that’s the whole point.

Second, the Atlanta experience suggests that a good way of co-creating a setting that can stimulate new explorations is to co-organize an annual event. Call it a symposium, a forum, or whatever you want, but don’t view it as a university conference.

The key challenge here is for universities to exercise collaborative leadership, not university leadership. It just might be that creating a new setting, ones that bring together public, private, non-profit and community leaders in a new space, might enable the co-creation of new understandings. I call these settings Innovation Zones in my recent book Leading the Inclusive City.

Third, it is time for universities to forget about being anchor institutions. This is out of date thinking. Ship captains can weigh anchor and sail away more or less any time they choose. Universities, unlike big business corporations, are not going to up sticks and relocate elsewhere.

The university is then, and this is extraordinarily important to value, an institution rooted in place. By definition the university stands against the exercise of place-less power, meaning the exercise of power by people who do not care about places.

It follows that universities have every reason to act as truly powerful place-based leaders and, incidentally, this is why they can prove so attractive to philanthropic donors. Those providing gifts to universities know that the university they are supporting is staying put.

8 responses to “How can the US experience advance the civic university?

  1. Great to see Bristol universities drawing together to learn from and help affect their city-region in the way the Atlanta Studies Symposium has catalyzed scholarship on the Atlanta region.

  2. The Civic University Commission recommendations for Civic Agreements and establishing a supporting network was inspired by the US Campus Compacts It is great news that in some cities more than one university Vice Chancellor has indicated their willingness to work up Civic Agreements. Being able to plug into a Forum like that established in Bristol will be a great help in taking forward the Agreements. The Civic University Commission is planning a national forum where universities committed to the ideas in our report can share experience and thinking about the way ahead.
    John Goddard, Vice Chair, Civic University Commission

  3. Robin Hambleton’s three “pointers” are very important, particularly the commitment to creating a co-learning process. How does this get done? For the members of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities in the U.S. (, the challenge has been and will continue to be the creation of an infrastructure that supports the engagement initiatives of faculty members, staff, and students, and facilitates community-university partnerships. Universities also need to reward community engagement and public scholarship. Many urban serving universities in the U.S. have begun to successfully modify or are in the process of re-framing their tenure and promotion policies to reflect the value they place on this important work. We have a lot to learn from each other at this point.

  4. Very interesting to hear about your Atlanta experiences and how they might translate into the UK context. Great to see so many perspectives represented at the Bristol Forum – very much looking forward to seeing what comes out of it!

  5. eflecting on Dr Hambleton’s article inspired me to think further about Placed Based Civic Leadership. Here at Ujima Radio, a Community Radio station in Bristol, we have a strong civic and social purpose, broadcasting to 30,000 listeners weekly. Together with Bristol Green Capital Partnership and the Cabot Institute of the University of Bristol (special thanks to Professor Rich Pancost) we have, through our Green and Black Ambassador projects, utilised radio and media to engage Black and Minority Ethnic communities in the sustainability agenda.

    We look forward to participating in the Bristol Forum on 29 March. On this occasion we will be joining with other civic leaders, including Bristol Old Vic, Britain’s oldest theatre, and our local newspaper, the Bristol Post, the City Council and numerous civic activists to discuss how to advance the cause of race equality in the city.

  6. Some 30 years ago Ernest Boyer called upon American scholars to take up what he called the scholarship of application (engagement) and for American universities to promote such scholarship. Many of us were already engaged scholars and as time passed our numbers grew and many universities adopted civic engagement as a component of academic scholarship.

    I spent 7 months in the UK in 2001 at the invitation of Professor Hambleton. During much of this time I worked with residents of an underserved community in Bristol. Working with and not for the residents I was able to assist their organization by using my academic knowledge and skills in ways that met their needs. I found, that like groups I worked with in the U.S. I was appreciated not for doing “research” on them, but by doing “research” with them in ways that benefited their community.

    The Bristol Forum initiated by Professor Hambleton and his colleagues is an important approach to developing collaboration between “town and gown”. But there are many ways to be engaged and university staff should be encouraged to explore paths they might take. Civic engagement should be not only encouraged, but promoted by university management and should be considered as equally important as the research which has for a long time been the primary mark of a scholar. It does no good for a nation to have top notch universities and researchers, if the places where they are located are suffering from a variety of ills that could be addressed through collaboration and engagement.

  7. Great to see Bristol’s two universities coming together with our City Council to generate place based solutions to our complex problems through the Bristol Forum. Real collective leadership, and civic leadership is rare treasure. Lets hope this is sowing the seeds that will make a difference to a City where only some of our citizens are thriving and where our economy is functioning at less than full potential. Lets hope that we continue to collaborate and learn with our international friends too. Great stuff Robin.

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