Colleges are urged to put money into communities

Ex-mayor, now president of Trinity College, says it's a moral obligation

February 19, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Private colleges, often rich in both money and knowledge, have long faced a thorny question: Are they morally obliged to contribute to their local communities, especially if the residents are in urgent need of help?

The answer is a resounding yes, according to one mayor-turned-college-president who is spearheading an effort to explore new ways that schools can help revitalize their neighborhoods.

"The challenge is to resist the impulse to build walls," said Evan S. Dobelle, president of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

"Such distancing techniques, used by city planners and college presidents for decades as a response to poverty and racial difference, will not make problems go away. They will invite harsh judgment from history."

Dobelle, speaking to journalists and Trinity alumni at a luncheon here yesterday, highlighted the work of his own school in rejuvenating Hartford and implored other colleges to follow suit.

Trinity's example, he argued, demonstrates that committing endowment dollars directly to helping a community -- rather than just urging students to do outreach work or training public officials -- has emerged as the key to a better quality of life.

In an aggressive campaign that began in 1996, Trinity has devoted $6 million of its endowment to Hartford. That money, Dobelle said, has since been leveraged into more than $200 million -- in donations by public and private foundations -- to build schools, support recreation centers and offer job training to residents of the depressed community that surrounds Trinity.

Dobelle said that with few exceptions -- he singled out New York University and the University of Southern California -- private colleges tend not to put themselves at financial risk on behalf of their host neighborhoods.

That means that the communities will continue to suffer, he contended, and it signals to the public that schools are not truly committed to a social agenda.

"We need more than the simple improvement of dilapidated housing or streetscape beautification," he said.

Dobelle, who was mayor of Pittsfield, Mass., and U.S. chief of protocol under President Jimmy Carter before joining Trinity in 1995, has won recognition for his efforts to help Hartford.

But he acknowledges that his campaign was born partly of self-interest: Trinity can now market itself as a school that is dedicated to helping the poor and that is situated in an urban setting far more appealing than in the past. Applications have soared by 38 percent since he arrived.

But while officials at other schools publicly laud Dobelle for his efforts, some challenge the implication that their own institutions are doing nothing comparable for their cities.

In an interview after his remarks, Dobelle said he was jolted during a visit to the Johns Hopkins University four years ago, when some senior college officials dissuaded him from walking to Penn Station to catch his train, saying the neighborhood is unsafe.

"Why don't you fix it?" he recalled saying, frustrated by their apathy. Dobelle would not say who those officials were.

Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins, said yesterday that he was unaware of that exchange, but said he knows of a slew of cases in which Hopkins has helped Baltimore, including an effort to improve the health of East Baltimore residents.

O'Shea said Hopkins cannot freely spend endowment money on community projects, as Dobelle has, because the funds are restricted to specific purposes by their donors.

"I don't think anybody can help but be impressed by what Trinity is doing," O'Shea said. "I do think, however, that it's possible to approach problems in different ways."

But Trinity's recent successes may be signaling -- or, as Dobelle suggests, igniting -- a realization by colleges that it's time to re-examine community outreach.

Paul Grogan, chief spokesman at Harvard University, said Harvard has begun to examine new ways to contribute to Cambridge, Mass. In part, that is because the relationships between urban colleges and their communities are becoming more important today, given how easily industries can pick up and relocate.

A college is "a tremendous asset that is stationary," Grogan said. "The rest of the economy has displayed a rootlessness."

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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