Boston Globe logo

Boston and its colleges need to nurture unique partnership

February 16, 2009

By Joseph E. Aoun

IN HIS RECENT State of the City address, Mayor Thomas Menino stressed the importance of neighborhood institutions to the city of Boston, particularly during the economic downturn. In addition to churches, schools, and civic organizations, Boston can count on its many colleges and universities as engaged neighborhood institutions.

This is significant because many large businesses have been forced to leave Boston for other states or countries in recent years in an effort to strengthen their bottom lines. Others have closed and many have substantially curtailed their operations - and therefore their urban engagements.

In contrast, colleges and universities have been in Boston for centuries, and they will be here even while many are expanding nationally and globally. Their roots are inextricably tied to Boston, which makes them some of the city's strongest and most reliable partners.

More important than their relative permanence is the fact that institutions of higher education do not see urban engagement as merely a peripheral endeavor. Being engaged in the community is not something they do, it is who they are. The core missions of teaching, research, and service are inseparable from active civic engagement.

Think about the assets that colleges and universities inherently bring to our city:

Talented and energetic students come from all over the world. They are essentially a limitless resource that replenishes itself each year. They volunteer countless hours of community service in neighborhoods, ranging from mentoring Boston's young people to assisting senior citizens to cleaning up our environment. While there was a time when this kind of "extracurricular" work was seen as supplementing a college education, today a central part of the teaching mission is to educate an engaged citizenry.

Faculty members also add tremendous vitality to the city and its neighborhoods. Taken together, the collection of college and university scholars in Greater Boston represents one of the largest concentrations of mind power in the world.

Some of their work contributes directly to the city's well-being, including research on important urban issues such as transportation, justice, and education. Through their work, universities have become engines of boundless technological innovation. They create intellectual property that spawns a range of businesses, think tanks, and other large-scale employers in the region.

The combined human capital that universities bring to Boston - students, faculty and staff - is also central to the city's worldwide identity. The "Boston brand" of being an intellectual and cultural jewel is based in large part on the city's unrivaled collection of higher-education assets. This reputation has helped bring a steady stream of tourists, private investment, and cultural centers.

The city's relationship with its academic institutions is by no means a one-way street. Colleges and universities benefit from being based in Boston. The city's energy, its history, its safe and diverse neighborhoods, and its sports franchises help draw top faculty and students to area campuses. The opportunity for urban engagement makes universities in Boston more robust and students better prepared for life. It inspires researchers to strive for real-world solutions to the challenges they see and experience every day. It allows for myriad partnerships, with public and private organizations as well as with peer institutions.

Despite these distinct advantages, institutions of higher education in Boston - and around the nation - are, of course, experiencing the same financial pressures that affect local government and private business. Endowments have faltered and the demand for financial aid has dramatically increased. At many institutions, hiring is frozen, construction projects are on hold, and across-the-board budget cuts are curtailing a range of programs and initiatives.

It is a time of difficult choices and trade-offs, but not a time to retreat. In times like these, colleges and universities are driven by their core values. Because the contributions that they make to the city are central to their missions, the current downturn is a time to reaffirm, not diminish, their commitment to the city.

The coming months - perhaps years - will be difficult for Boston's residents as well as for its universities. Working together as neighbors, we will weather this storm and emerge stronger. Our values compel this spirit of cooperation; our future success depends on it.

Joseph E. Aoun is the president of Northeastern University.