The concept of colleges and universities as place-bound societal institutions with missions to improve individual lives and the health of their communities, in other words – as anchor institutions – strikes me as increasingly relevant to the future of American public higher education. Yes, higher education does offer advancement to its students, and yes, institutions of higher education can have an outsize impact on the communities in which they are located. Anchor institutions are about something more, though, something that speaks to an intentionality of purpose and working toward a broader impact. I recently posted about anchor institutions and I’ve been following up with more reading and investigation. It is a very provocative concept with lots of promise.
As a refresher, institutions of higher education have long been considered vehicles for engagement with and improvement of their local communities. From early colonial colleges to the land-grant universities of the nineteenth century to the University of Chicago’s experiments with neighborhood revitalization, many institutions of higher education have embraced their roles as community anchors. It has only been in the last few decades, however, that institutions of higher education have begun to examine more systematically their structures and organization through the lens of this community mission. The shift has coincided with deep changes in our economy, too, as we have moved away from hands-on labor and “knowledge” industries have assumed ever greater importance.
The field of scholarship around anchor institutions is in flux. So, too, is practice. To help make sense of where things are and where they may be headed, I strongly recommend Anchor Institutions: An Interpretative Review Essay, by Henry Lewis Taylor, Jr. and Gavin Luter at the University of Buffalo. Taylor is the founder director of the University of Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies. Their 2013 essay was supported by the Anchor Institutions Task Force. It is clear, concise, and contains an extensive bibliography. The authors chart the origins of the anchor institution idea, examine various definitions, look at the roles anchor institutions might take in addressing needs, contextualizing institutional efforts within frameworks of social responsibility, democracy and sustainability, and close with a proposed research agenda. The work gives anyone interested in anchor institutions a rock-solid foundation.
The authors highlight issues that call out for additional consideration. What are better theoretical frameworks to understanding how and why some institutions adopt these missions? What are the distinctions between public and private anchor institutions? Must they be non-profit? How intentional and in what ways do institutions pursue anchor status? What sort of social responsibilities are at play here? Anchor institutions clearly have economic impact, but there are other effects as well. The authors emphasize that in periods of reduced governmental support, institutions of higher education will, out of necessity, have to find ways to link social responsibility and income generation – and to do so ethically, in alignment with their value and mission. That’s not an easy task, but it may well prove to be essential.
In February 2019, the Metropolitan Universities Journal, the research publication from the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU), published a special edition, Urban and Metropolitan Universities: The Transformative Power of Anchor Institutions. Guest edited by The Democracy Collaborative, the edition contains a range of articles, looking at theory, practice, reports and challenges of anchor institutions. Scholars examine how institutions adopt the mission, the impact that it has on how they function, and some of the various potentialities that emerge. These range from purchasing to athletics. It’s a fascinating compendium of the dynamism of anchor institutions as they consider their mission and the multitudes of paths towards institutional and community effectiveness.
The thinking and work reinforces my sense that higher education’s “value proposition” can move beyond individual economic gain to stake out larger terrain – if we do so carefully, with consideration and integrity. When we in higher education consider how we serve our communities, our impact on the collective, and ways that our colleges and universities can effect broader improvements, we often discover that we can achieve quite a bit. Our impact, in fact, can be outsize.
It also behooves us in education to seek out community leaders and to work collaboratively to establish goals with mutual accountability and different kinds of reporting. We have opportunities, I think, in being more systematic in tracking wider ranges of community impacts. Social scientists have data that demonstrate strong correlations between college education and a host of positive outcomes: health, longevity, children’s educational level, civic engagement, and so on.
Actively thinking through and advancing anchor institution missions and practices makes sense. It can, over time, help the college and the community, by improving the lives of those who attend the institution and those that live in nearby neighborhoods. It’s the right thing to do, in and of itself. And while working toward anchor institution status might not necessarily lead to a jump in a college’s rankings, doing the right thing is the best path – regardless.