Newark, NJ

Town and Gown, Tied Together

Porous Borders

One of Nancy Cantor’s soap boxes about higher education has long been this: College leaders tend to do inside-out planning. But they’d be better off if they opened the window sometimes.

Let in some more outside-in thinking, she says. You could do more good.

Never, Cantor says, has that been more true than now.

One thing the pandemic is making clear is just how porous the borders are between town and gown. That’s true from both a public health standpoint and from an economic one. Their fates — as they reel from the pandemic now and as they look to rebuild down the road — are intertwined.

Here’s what Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, means when she talks about inside-out versus outside-in thinking:

Colleges make a lot of decisions in isolation. They first decide what’s best for them and only then, sometimes, do they go out and talk with the other people in their cities and regions who are affected by what they do — the major companies, small businesses, nonprofit groups, performing-arts organizations, museums, K-12 schools, community-based organizations.

Instead, Cantor says, higher ed leaders should think about listening first more, working in tandem with the people around them who have shared interests, like the health of their communities.

An Anchor Institution

That concept is baked into her university’s mission statement, which talks about Rutgers University-Newark as an “anchor institution” that is “not just in Newark but of Newark.”

“We think of anchor institutions as place-based organizations that persist in their communities over generations,” the mission statement reads, “even in the face of substantial capital flight, serving as social glue, economic engines, or both.”

Rutgers is part of a Newark Anchor Collaborative — a collection of local public and private actors like Prudential, Audible, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center — that share a commitment to together “drive inclusive community economic growth, create more economic opportunity, build a healthier community, and generate a richer quality of life for all Newark residents.”

Now, take all of those lofty concepts and apply them to a pandemic. Everything on that list is threatened — and everybody, too. Shared problems intensify. Disparities become stark. Basic health is interdependent. Everyone’s business is unstable. The core question becomes urgent: What can we do to bolster one other?

“This actually makes those commitments more central,” Cantor says, “as opposed to just charity.”

One thing the pandemic has shined an especially bright light on, she says, is racial inequities. Even she has been struck by what this crisis has revealed about how deep this inequity runs, and how many dimensions there are to tackle.

Take the digital divide. Nearly one out of four undergraduates at her university, she learned, either lacks high-speed access to the internet or has no home computer at all. “It sounds stupid to say this now,” she says, “but it never would have occurred to me to make sure we get laptops and internet access to our large numbers of low-income students.”

To Be ‘Of Newark’

Here’s what else it means to see the crisis through an “of Newark” lens:

University efforts get turned in new directions. A business professor who’s an expert in supply chain management, for example, is mapping out how all businesses can follow through on commitments to buy more locally.

Some programs become even more important to protect. That includes a financial-aid program for Newark residents. The more Newark residents go to college, the more the city’s education levels rise and the more all of the city’s anchor institutions benefit in the long term.

Decisions about the fall and about public health are a two-way street. New Jersey is in the middle of a hot spot for the virus, and the university’s still deciding what to do about the fall. Bringing students back to campus would put people in close quarters and could create new public-health problems. At the same time, the university has to worry about what health risks the students would bring back to them. About 80 percent of the university’s undergraduates are commuter students.

Public health is an immediate concern, but an even greater one is supporting and improving the social context in which learning takes place.

“We are not going to have a thriving business model if our local and regional economies don’t thrive,” Cantor says. “We have to thrive in the long run. What good is it to solve a public health emergency only to see a social mobility crisis of even greater magnitude than before?”

— Sara Hebel

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Pick Up the Phone

Without students on campus, it’s more difficult for professors to know how their students are feeling or for staff to know if an email blast about key resources and news is actually reaching anyone.

To try to fix this gap, Amarillo College has turned to an older form of communication: they’re making phone calls to their more than 10,000 students.

And it’s not just professors who are getting on the phone. Custodians to top administrators are volunteering to get a list of students to check in with every couple of weeks. They ask about their transition to online classes and make sure they’re aware of available student resources, like computer assistance, on-campus wifi, counseling services, and a food pantry.

Here’s what Amarillo is learning from all these calls:

Students want to connect right now. Out of his 25 students, Joe Bill Sherrod, a vice president for institutional advancement, said only three didn’t pick up or respond to his voicemail. Many tell him they miss their in-class experiences. Lots have questions about plans for future semesters.

They also need someone to talk to. One confided in Iduvida Morris, a part-time staff assistant and senior, about some personal issues she was facing and didn’t know where to turn. Morris helped her find free resources.

They won’t always reach out on their own. By calling students, the college can fix technology issues faster or answer questions about emergency aid funds, tutoring, and other services before students run into an issue.

“We always think that our students are going to reach out to us the minute they have a need,” says Denese Skinner, Amarillo’s vice president of student affairs. “In some cases that’s not so true, and this is a safety net for us to hopefully get the resources to the students before they get bogged down.”

— Andrea Klick

In the States

Colorado’s State Capitol

New budget documents in Colorado lay out a range of scenarios for state spending, the worst of which could endanger the solvency of some public universities. The legislature’s budget staff said it is especially concerned about what could happen to Colorado’s smaller, regionally oriented campuses — such as Adams State and Western Colorado universities. Read more about the outlook for Colorado’s education budget from our newsroom partner, Chalkbeat Colorado.

Also in Colorado this week: The state announced that some college programs that depend on hands-on instruction can restart in-person classes. That makes Colorado among the first states to allow a limited reopening of campuses. Read more from Jason Gonzales, our local higher ed reporter with Chalkbeat.

We’re continuing to track updates on public higher ed and budgets in every state. Follow along in our tracker here.

Fraying Connections

Distanced Learning: After his high school closed, a counselor confronted the digital divide — and the meaning of connection.

Eric Hoover at The Chronicle profiles a counselor at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. It’s a nonselective college-prep academy where 85 percent of the students get free or reduced lunch, where ninth-graders often enter with the academic skills of sixth graders — and where every single graduate since 2005 has gotten accepted to college.

As Eric writes, “a laptop with a 10-hour-battery can do a lot, but it can’t change this: School shutdowns have disconnected vulnerable students from a hub, a routine, and a face-to-face support system that helps them overcome barriers to college. Disruption isn’t just exposing inequities; it’s multiplying them, too.”

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