Put The Brains Where the Problems Are

December 14, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Raleigh. -- For a generation, America's universities served the military-industrial complex of the Cold War. Today, corporations continue to tap academic-based research for their own profit.

Now comes the question: Could our colleges and universities, into which we've poured so much of our public and private wealth, do more to help the urban regions of a nation deeply afflicted by rising crime and racial and class polarization?

Ira Harkavy, chief of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Community Partnerships, argues that ''universities cannot afford to remain shores of affluence, self-importance and horticultural beauty at the edge of island seas of squalor, violence and despair.''

Unless universities use their special capacities to ''respond to the desperate voices'' of urban America, adds William Greiner, president of SUNY Buffalo, ''they will fail society and go the way of the great monastic institutions of the Middle Ages.''

In September, my colleague Curtis Johnson and I focused on the issue in a report about the Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

The Research Triangle Park, formed in the late '50s by state government and the area's top universities, prospered by government and industrial research budgets. Thousands of high-paying jobs were created for engineers and scientists working for IBM, Glaxo, Northern Telecom and the National Institute of Environmental Health. The local universities -- Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State and North Carolina Central -- have benefited hugely from the partnerships.

What might happen, we asked, if the Triangle's universities deployed their enormous prestige and intellectual power to address the social emergency at their doorsteps? Regional crime rates are growing. Without change, thousands of young people will never qualify for a mean- ingful job, never share in the benefits of the Research Triangle Park.

Most American universities' community-oriented research, even FTC when it's thoughtful and inventive, tends to be episodic, superficial and scorned by fellow faculty as ''applied research,'' or ''lacking in rigor.''

Sometimes the research is high-quality but too limited. Duke, for example, has a sterling project that focuses on ''at-risk'' first-graders. Students and parents together learn how to deal with anger, to solve conflicts without violence, to succeed without aggressive behavior. First-year reports are encouraging.

But the program reaches only 40 youngsters. A formal evaluation will have to wait about six years. What of the Triangle region's other 52,360 first-to-sixth graders? Are thousands of them, for lack of timely intervention, doomed to be among soaring juvenile-crime statistics in 2000? Can the universities really pretend it's mostly someone else's problem?

The Triangle's institutions of higher learning, we suggested, should try to be national leaders again, as they were in founding the Research Triangle Park in the '50s. Except that this time they should turn their intellectual and research power to a full mobilization to help poor neighborhoods crack such problems as teen-age pregnancy, neglect of children, fatherless households and lack of meaningful work.

We suggested that faculty, graduate students and undergraduates could all be involved in research and extensive experiential learning, working with neighborhood leaders to explore solutions to these perplexing and dangerous problems. The goal should be nothing less than combining the talents of several cooperating universities to discover strategic solutions to the social chaos which threatens to rip society apart.

To the argument that universities are already overextended and strapped for funds, we noted that other big institutions -- manufacturers, banks, phone companies, airlines, state and local governments -- are shrinking, restructuring, meeting the realities of rigorous international competition.

Now it's the universities' turn to perform better with fewer resources. Since 1990, state legislatures have diverted $8 billion that would normally have flowed to higher education and applied it to prisons (locking up society's failures) and Medicaid (reflecting growing poverty and lack of preventive care). Private universities are fiscally squeezed too.

Those universities which spring to the challenge, which are willing to risk some of their resources and talent to grapple with the country's deep social-economic-racial gaps, may be the ones we honor -- and which we choose to keep on supporting, publicly and privately.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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