Rappaport Institute horizontal images

Harvard and Boston

Originally published in Harvard Magazine

October 27, 2011

Examining the relationships between universities and municipalities in the Boston metropolitan area, Ford professor of the social sciences Robert J. Sampson sees "a set of missed opportunities," he said on October 21 at a Radcliffe Institute conference investigating examples, challenges, and prospects for relationships between universities and their surrounding communities. "There is research going on," he said, "but Boston could use a lot more."

Presenters at the conference, which was jointly sponsored by the City of Boston and Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, shared many examples of current collaborations involving Harvard faculty and programs, including work in education and public safety, among other areas. The conference emphasized ways academia could help cities make innovative use of data they already gather.

Although that list of current collaborations is long, those partnerships are mostly driven by individuals or spread across many different small programs. The Radcliffe symposium highlighted other universities where efforts have been more coordinated, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago.

Henry Webber, executive vice chancellor of administration at Washington University in St. Louis and formerly vice president for community and government affairs at the University of Chicago, noted that his former employer embarked on its community engagement efforts in part out of self-interest in not seeing its own neighborhood become blighted.

A long history makes these projects easier: trust has been established and data sources developed. Sampson, for one, studied neighborhood effects in Chicago as part of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, where he was scientific director while a professor at the University of Chicago (he came to Harvard in 2003). Felton Earls, professor of human behavior and development at Harvard School of Public Health and professor of social medicine at Harvard Medical School, noted that data from the same project, where he was principal investigator, demonstrated a puzzling correlation between homicide and low birth rate—the same neighborhoods had high instances of both—touching off important investigations into the mechanisms that link violence and health. Thirty years ago, as a Harvard doctoral student in economics, Harvard Kennedy School dean David Ellwood wrote his dissertation about Chicago rather than Boston, he said, simply because data for that city existed.

Stephen Raudenbush, a sociologist who chairs the Committee on Education at the University of Chicago, spoke about why his university operates four charter schools even though it has no school of education or even full-fledged department of education. (The schools are operated by the university’s Urban Education Institute.) Running the schools goes beyond what the university would need to do to be a good neighbor, Raudenbush said; the schools exist in part "to produce knowledge—a quintessentially University of Chicago aim." To produce knowledge about effective educational practices, he said that, ideally, researchers should not simply study what is happening in existing schools, but should have schools where they have free rein to test out their own new ideas.

Raudenbush suggested that when considering what they might contribute to the field of education, universities should follow a model similar to that used in medicine, where students train, and professors practice, in a teaching hospital owned by or affiliated with the university. And, he said, "We should take this as seriously as we take the challenge to find a cure for cancer."

Each of the panels integrated representatives of academia and the public sector. Speaking from experience, the panelists identified obstacles to successful partnerships as well as factors that make success likely for a given partnership.

Webber said he understood why cities might be hesitant to cooperate with researchers: "Research is not consulting. By its nature, it exposes flaws."

John Fantuzzo, who directs the Penn Child Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania, compared such partnerships to marriages: those who have "guts" stay, while those who are bent on having things their own way walk out.

Deborah Allen, who directs the Child, Adolescent, and Family Health Bureau for the Boston Public Health Commission, warned that scholars should not take for granted that the community will understand that their intentions are good. "People who don’t know where MIT is know Tuskegee," she said: because this is the association many people make when they hear "research study," scholars must work to build trust and explain their purpose and methods.

Allen said scholars can start by building relationships with public-sector leaders such as herself, starting with communicating about relevant research findings. ("We don’t sit reading journals," she reminded the audience.) Universities, she said, can facilitate attendance at conferences, where registration fees can run in the hundreds of dollars for a single-day event. "If you want us there," she said, "give us scholarships." (There was no charge for attending the Radcliffe conference.)

Margaret Weir, a University of California, Berkeley sociologist who is a fellow this year at the Radcliffe Institute, studies the changing face of poverty in the United States. She urged her academic colleagues to look beyond the urban core. Much of the poverty in America today is in the suburbs, she said, and universities should consider the wider metropolitan areas in which they are located when envisioning community partnerships.

Mitchell Weiss, chief of staff for Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino, asserted that public-policy programs focus on data analysis, teaching students to study what is to the exclusion of envisioning what might be. "Where is our coursework on public entrepreneurship?" he wondered.

In concluding remarks, Sampson cautioned that too often, scholars who study poverty, crime, and educational inequality in America still do not get out into the communities those problems affect most. They "have never walked the streets of a dangerous neighborhood, never talked to a police officer, never ridden in a police officer’s car," he said. "It makes a difference."

Speaking at the closing reception, Harvard provost Alan Garber recalled a recent conversation with an alumnus who was delighted to learn that the renovated Fogg Art Museum will have not only an entrance facing west toward Harvard Yard, as was the case previously, but also a new entrance facing east, out into Cambridge. "We think that’s a symbol of what will happen in the future," Garber said.

In studying the surrounding community, Harvard scholars must remember to listen with an open mind and envision community members as true partners and not just research subjects. Ultimately, he said, "they can tell us much more about what we should be studying than talking to one another [can]."

Print print | Email email
Boston