Diversity and Democracy

Connective Corridors and Generative Partnerships: A New Paradigm

Under the dynamic leadership of Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University has earned praise for its exemplary commitment to reimagining how twenty-first-century academic institutions can forward the public good and advance democracy's deepest principles of equality and opportunity. One of the university's projects, the Connective Corridor, links University Hill with downtown Syracuse through a public works initiative focused on art, technology, and sustainable design. The working group of community-based organizations, neighborhood leaders, and businesses that oversee the project is collaborating with the university to revitalize the city and spur economic development.

The Connective Corridor upends academic institutions' standard approach to their communities, which has too long been more divisive than connective. Academic institutions have often acted as though they were islands apart, independent of and unaffected by events in their local, national, or global communities. When institutions did engage locally, they were too often motivated by a desire to expand their campus boundaries or fortify their economic enclaves, even if it meant dispersing businesses and residents to distant locations. More recently, institutions may have engaged in community outreach that, while altruistically motivated, required almost no changes in internal academic practices.

Syracuse University posits an alternative model that marks a dramatic but slowly evolving shift in campus-community partnerships and makes more transparent the interdependency of modern life. Instead of erecting fences, railroad tracks, and highways that dissect rather than connect communities, this new model opens corridors of communication, intercourse, and economic development, seeking to advance economic and public purposes in concert with others. It also expands the purposes and methods of scholarship, inspiring what Syracuse University calls Scholarship in Action. A paradigm shift that drives everything else, the new model defines academic institutions not as reaching out to the community, but as being part of the community.

A National Call to Action

Syracuse University's engagement in more democratic, reciprocal campus–community partnerships reflects the focus of one of the recommendations of A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future (2012). The report calls for readers to "expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances, locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge" (vi). The recommendation intimates that advancing knowledge must be interconnected with advancing social and economic capital. It suggests that addressing common problems means defining new frontiers of knowledge. Finally, it insists that civic agency is an integral part of applying and inventing new knowledge.

As A Crucible Moment asserts, these new participatory, inclusive alliances enact democracy's highest aspirations at its most challenging nexus. In these alliances, the "multiplicity of voices and perspectives becomes the norm" and "defining common purposes, needs, and processes is understood as a shared and contested goal" as partners "address[] large, systemic, public problems" in fresh, coordinated, strategic ways (64–65).

First Responders

In The Road Half Traveled: University Engagement at a Crossroads (2012), Rita Axelroth Hodges and Steve Dubb examine pathbreaking practices embodied by colleges and universities that call themselves anchor institutions. The Anchor Institution Task Force (managed by Marga Incorporated and led by the University of Pennsylvania's Netter Center for Community Partnerships) brings together almost two hundred individuals who share an interest in the anchor institution mission. Hodges and Dubb define this mission as "the conscious and strategic application of long-term, place-based economic power of the institution, in combination with its human and intellectual resources, to better the welfare of the community in which it resides" (166).

These kinds of initiatives have the potential not only to transform communities, but also to transform the academy and what it defines as scholarship. As described by Hodges and Dubb, anchor institutions function as facilitators, leaders, or conveners who build generative partnerships to address urgent needs in concert with other influential community anchors—medical institutions, businesses, nonprofits, local and state entities, community-based organizations, and philanthropists. These partnerships typically focus on issues like economic development, deteriorating schools, inadequate housing, public health, safety, employment, environmental sustainability, and capacity building, and they drive the kind of changes that A Crucible Moment recommends.

National Coordination and Collaboration

To implement recommendations from A Crucible Moment—including establishing a strategic national campaign to promote civic learning and democratic engagement—AAC&U has formed a network of leaders from the national higher education organizations that helped shape the report. The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Action Network is composed of twelve partners in addition to AAC&U: the Anchor Institution Task Force, the Association of American State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Bonner Foundation, Bringing Theory to Practice, Campus Compact, CIRCLE, The Democracy Commitment, Imagining America, Interfaith Youth Core, the Kettering Foundation, NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and the New England Research Center for Higher Education. These partners are conducting quarterly conference calls to map a coordinated strategy of outreach to the more than three thousand institutions they collectively serve. They are also forming smaller clusters of joint partnerships to advance and promote engagement with the report's recommendations.

Several of these entities have taken notable leadership in advancing generative partnerships. AASCU, for example, has helped its members define their mission as "stewards of place" and has partnered with The Democracy Commitment to engage students in civic learning and action, as described in this issue of Diversity & Democracy. Imagining America has played an essential role in integrating arts and humanities into community-based partnerships, including through key involvement in Syracuse University's Connective Corridor. The Bonner Foundation's High-Impact Initiative seeks to identify high-impact practices that both promote student learning and lead to transformative campus–community partnerships. With its 1,200 college and university partners and thirty-five state-based coordinating offices, Campus Compact actively advocates for service learning as a connective corridor that can foster deeper and more reciprocal partnerships.

Distinctive Marks of Generative Partnerships

The shift toward creating truly transformative partnerships has begun in earnest and holds great promise. Institutions and communities are developing a new paradigm for generative partnerships, distinguished from earlier efforts by several elements.

Reimagined Community Boundaries: Partnerships and their projects are not done to but designed with a multifaceted group of stakeholders whose norms, resources, perspectives, and histories greet, meet, and collide in the crucible of community that binds one person's welfare to another's.

Processes: Partners are striving to employ democratic processes that foster voice, recognition, respect, equity, listening, participation, intercultural skills, deliberation, negotiation, patience, and trust—none of which is easy to achieve or sustain, but all of which are necessary for truly generative partnerships.

Institutions as Citizens: Institutions are modeling what A Crucible Moment calls a "civic ethos" even in their corporate practices, hiring local community members, procuring goods from local businesses and companies that promote fair labor, assisting employees in obtaining affordable housing, and investing financial resources in joint ventures to address urgent problems locally or globally.

Citizen Students and Public Scholarship: Institutions are measuring student learning by civic time, not seat time, as classroom boundaries expand to encompass public space where knowledge is integrated with hands-on problem solving. In this context, the norms for scholarship include research grounded in and often codeveloped with partners in new entrepreneurial civic enterprises.

When it comes to rethinking institutional engagement with society's civic and democratic imperatives, higher education is only at the edges of imagining and implementing what might be possible. But the first images on the horizon point to higher education's critical role in sparking civic prosperity. As Syracuse University has shown, constructing connective corridors is the first step. The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Action Network will help orchestrate, nurture, highlight, analyze, and report the field's cumulative progress in taking the many other steps that must follow.


Hodges, Rita Axelroth, and Steve Dubb. 2012. The Road Half Traveled: University Engagement at a Crossroads. Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.n, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Caryn McTighe Musil is senior scholar and director of civic learning and democracy initiatives, Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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