Colleges in the City

At annual conference, officials from public urban research universities stress their role in providing education, and much more, to their diverse communities.
July 21, 2009

WASHINGTON -- America's cities and their residents face a wide array of problems -- and the universities located in those metropolitan areas have a central role to play in fixing them, especially by opening doors to minority students, said college officials gathered at a conference here on Monday.

At the annual joint meeting of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities' Commission on the Urban Agenda, officials from public research institutions discussed the progress they say they have made toward bolstering struggling urban areas, as well as the work they have left to accomplish.

Given the Obama administration's emphasis on issues such as health care and education, city-centric institutions should not only serve their students, but also the residents who live a stone's throw from their walls, said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), chair of the Congressional Urban Caucus in the House of Representatives. "The road to prosperity is coming right through urban and metropolitan areas," he said.

California State University at East Bay has set up several programs to engage youth, particularly underrepresented minorities, in and around Hayward, Calif., said Mohammad Qayoumi, the university's president. They include mentoring, algebra tutoring and field trips to laboratories to stir student interest in science. And in a California State University system-wide event called "Super Sundays," university presidents and the system's chancellor visit African American churches to encourage parents to ready their children for a college education. Every year for the last three years, the number of local black and Latino students applying and admitted to the East Bay campus and the Cal State system has risen by about 15 percent, said Greg Smith, associate vice president of planning and enrollment management at East Bay.

Shirley Raines, president of the University of Memphis, said she considers it crucial to prepare teachers to work with minority students in the surrounding city, whose population was about 12 percent black and nearly 13 percent Latino in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The teacher education program pairs students with senior teachers in nearby school districts, Raines said: "When those schools 'fail,' it's quite a slap on the system, but it's even more so on the university because the universities must care deeply about schools that surround" them.

Urban institutions must also do their part to improve health care, said Roy Wilson, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Denver, urging medical schools to increase the diversity and size of the health work force. "Unless we really look at the deficiencies in our backbone, we're not going to make much progress in the health care reform agenda," he said.

On Monday, Nancy Zimpher, chair of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, and Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said the organizations were discussing creating a new position -- a vice president for the Office of Urban Initiatives. The position, which would be within APLU and sponsored by USU, will likely be in place by the end of the year, McPherson said in an interview. The two-day conference concludes today.


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