Community-University Partnerships: Achieving continuity in the face of change

Linda Silka, Robert Forrant, Brenda Bond, Patricia Coffey, Robin Toof, Dan Toomey, David Turcotte, Cheryl West


Abstract

A challenge that community-university partnerships everywhere will face is how to maintain continuity in the face of change. The problems besetting communities continually shift and the goals of the university partners often fluctuate. This article describes a decade-long strategy one university has successfully used to address this problem. Over the past ten years, a community-university partnership at the University of Massachusetts Lowell has used summer content funding to respond creativity to shifting priorities. Each summer a research-action project is developed that targets a different content issue that has emerged with unexpected urgency. Teams of graduate students and high school students are charged with investigating this issue under the auspices of the partnership. These highly varied topics have included immigrant businesses, youth asset mapping, women owned businesses, the housing crisis, social program cutbacks, sustainability, and economic development and the arts. Despite their obvious differences, these topics share underlying features that further partnership commitment and continuity. Each has an urgency: the information is needed quickly, often because some immediate policy change is under consideration. Each topic has the advantage of drawing on multiple domains: the topics are inherently interdisciplinary and because they do not “belong” to any single field, they lend themselves to disciplines pooling their efforts to achieve greater understanding. Each also has high visibility: their salience has meant that people were often willing to devote scarce resources to the issues and also that media attention could easily be gained to highlight the advantages of students, partners, and the university working together. And the topics themselves are generative: they have the potential to contribute in many different ways to teaching, research, and outreach. This paper ends with a broader consideration of how partnerships can implement this model for establishing continuity in the face of rapidly shifting priorities and needs.

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