American universities, says Sargent Shriver, must shake their ivory-tower ways and start acting more like fire departments.
''Fire departments go where the fire is. Universities need to bring the intellectual resources of their faculty, plus the altruistic motivations of their students, to bear on the fire consuming our cities,'' asserts Mr. Shriver, the Kennedy brother-in-law remembered as first director of the nation's war on poverty in the '60s.
He is doing more than talk up a new university role. He is part of an effort to coalesce the 10 public and private universities of the Baltimore region in what's claimed to be the first American multi-university consortium designed to attack urban problems.
The lead university in the group is the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where a new Shriver Center, named in honor of Mr. Shriver and his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver, will focus on training and deploying students to learn first-hand, as volunteer workers in an array of service programs, the problems of troubled city and suburban neighborhoods.
Mobilizing idealistic young people has been a hallmark of organized efforts of the Kennedy family for years. Mr. Shriver himself had a hand in creation of the Peace Corps, the Job Corps and VISTA.
The Shrivers' son, Mark, founded and runs the Baltimore-based Choice program in which young college graduates work around-the-clock with neglected and oftentimes delinquent boys and girls, aiming to save them from the streets and get them headed toward productive lives.
The Shriver Center will provide an academic home base for Choice and two offshoot efforts focused on job training and middle-school dropout prevention. The center will also be home to the new Shriver Peaceworker program, under which returning Peace Corps volunteers serve as university teaching assistants and try to relate their experience in Third World nations to conditions of the American city.
But the Shriver Center outreach is supposed to embrace more than youth service and experiential learning, says UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski. There'll be a close connection to faculty research and course design. Staff from every discipline, from social work to engineering to education, will be encouraged to work with students willing to become engaged in the laboratory of the city.
The presidents of the 10 Baltimore-area colleges agreed quickly to form a Presidents Council and join the urban outreach. In most cities, cooperative consortiums among universities have tended to come a cropper because of faculty jealousies or turf protection. Mr. Shriver believes those same problems would likely block a university agreement like Baltimore's in such cities as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.
Many Baltimore colleges already have strong urban studies and outreach programs, some run collaboratively. Lenneal Henderson, director of the William Donald Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore, suggests each Baltimore-area college or university is beginning to recognize its direct stake in surviving in an increasingly perilous urban environment. For one thing, the colleges' customer base of future students is being affected by the family dissolution, crime, poverty and illiteracy running wild in the inner city and now infecting more and more suburbs.
Others evidently perceive the same dangers. Such figures as former defense secretary and World Bank president Robert McNamara, television commentator Bill Moyers and psychologist Robert Coles have joined the Shriver Center advisory committee.
Chair of the advisory group is Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning, who says Baltimore's combination of scholarship and service should provide a ''laboratory for urban renewal'' and perhaps even ''a model for renewal of the nation.''
None of that's a guarantee of success, of course. It will take a lot of new inducements, one guesses, to get ambitious faculty -- top medical-school physicians, for example -- to focus on such basic problems as public health for poor people. Another barrier could be black inner-city communities reacting negatively if they aren't consulted on new initiatives and get the idea that phalanxes of white students are being sent in to ''save'' them.
Leaders of the Shriver Center sound too smart to let that happen. And national benefits could be immense if even one metropolitan region began to succeed at realizing Mr. Shriver's dream of ''putting together an area's best brains with its best hearts'' to start extinguishing the flames ravaging the foundations of urban America's social order.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.