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At Home in the City: Forging a New Partnership with Baltimore
February 28, 2011  |  by Mike Field
Foresight 2020
They came from across the university—deans and directors, faculty and alumni, parents and friends—to help chart a vision of Johns Hopkins University in the coming decade. More than 350 university leaders convened in downtown Baltimore last October to discuss the opportunities, challenges, and priorities before the nation and the world, and how Johns Hopkins should try to respond.  As part of this Volunteer Summit—which is planned to become a biennial event at the university—participants looked closely at four key issues that are expected to profoundly affect the future course of the university.
In this and subsequent issues of Johns Hopkins Magazine,  Alumni News and Notes will explore each of these areas in greater detail, starting with a topic in many ways nearest to our heart.
Foresight 2020

Illustration: Wesley Bedrosian

Illustration: Wesley Bedrosian

They came from across the university—deans and directors, faculty and alumni, parents and friends—to help chart a vision of Johns Hopkins University in the coming decade. More than 350 university leaders convened in downtown Baltimore last October to discuss the opportunities, challenges, and priorities before the nation and the world, and how Johns Hopkins should try to respond.  As part of this Volunteer Summit—which is planned to become a biennial event at the university—participants looked closely at four key issues that are expected to profoundly affect the future course of the university.

In this and subsequent issues of Johns Hopkins Magazine,  Alumni News and Notes will explore each of these areas in greater detail, starting with a topic in many ways nearest to our heart.

In 2002 a report by a Harvard Business School professor to a new and little-known nonprofit organization revealed some startling information. It found that by the end of the 1990s more than half the nation’s colleges and universities were located in central cities and their immediate surroundings; that these institutions were spending more than $136 billion on salaries, goods, and services; and that they employed more than 3 million workers and held more than $100 billion in land and buildings. As it turns out, urban expenditures by higher education institutions were nine times the amount the federal government spends on business and job development in America’s cities.

In city after city, colleges and universities were often one of the largest employers and a significant driver of the local economy. The report’s author, international competitiveness expert Michael Porter, pointed out that colleges’ and universities’ large payrolls and equally large landholdings made them far more significant than merely the nearby place to get a degree. They are in effect anchor institutions, opined Porter, who went on to suggest that they should recognize this new reality and begin acting accordingly. Specifically, he called on college and university leaders to create an explicit urban economic development strategy focused on their surrounding communities.

Fast-forward eight years to the Johns Hopkins University Volunteer Summit held last October. There the university’s role in the social and economic life of Baltimore City was the focus of “At Home in the City: Forging a New Partnership with Baltimore,” one of the four discussion areas that occupied an afternoon of lively discussion and debate. By now the idea—if not the term—of Johns Hopkins as an anchor institution is very much on people’s minds. “There is growing awareness around the country that the institutional health of universities and colleges is linked to the well-being of their neighborhoods and the cities and regions in which they are located,” notes participant Andy Frank, who was hired by university President Ron Daniels to act as a special adviser on precisely these issues. Currently, the list of Johns Hopkins–sponsored community outreach efforts fills a thick binder on Frank’s desk. But coordinating and focusing these efforts presents a challenge. Says Frank, “We have always been deeply engaged in the community. What is different is we are beginning to be more strategic; we are looking to engage communities in our own—and their own—enlightened self-interest.”

Frank notes that there is a new appreciation of colleges and universities as economic drivers, particularly in Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins has for many years now been the city’s largest private employer. This presents the opportunity to serve the needs of both the university and the community by fostering urban economic development, just as recommended in the report published by CEOs for Cities, the nonprofit that first began promoting the concept of the university as an anchor institution.

But steering and coordinating such efforts takes careful attention and focus. Recognizing this, the board of trustees recently established a Committee on External Affairs and Community Engagement—the first new committee to be created by the trustees in 20 years. “The fact that we’ve created this new committee reflects a new level of commitment and organizational focus on this issue,” says trustee Chris Hoehn-Saric, Engr ’84, who serves as the first chair of the new committee. “At the core is an examination of Johns Hopkins’ relationship to the community and vice versa. Baltimore is the bedrock of Johns Hopkins. It’s where our home is. We’ve made a long-term commitment and we recognize our long-term health is inexorably linked.”

Although still in the very early stages of getting started, the committee already has a clear sense of both possibilities for and limitations on what it can do, Hoehn-Saric reports. The key, he believes, is for the university to find a way to identify opportunities that nicely coincide with its available capacity. “We have been looking at where we can be most effective. This is not about Johns Hopkins going out and solving other people’s problems; it’s about how we can use our core competencies to assist the community, to help business and political leaders lead effective change. I don’t see it as Hopkins going out there and taking charge. This is rather, how do we find the existing leadership and offer ourselves to support and help?”

With notable achievements being recounted at other institutions—such as the successful West Philadelphia redevelopment effort at the University of Pennsylvania, or the ambitious Connective Corridor linking Syracuse University with the city’s downtown—this is a heady time to be reconsidering how Johns Hopkins University can best aid and support the communities in which it resides. And it starts, says Hoehn-Saric, with the process of taking a fresh look at old challenges. “New ideas are critical. At the Volunteer Summit and on the committee I sensed a great willingness to put forth time and energy and resources. I saw people full of a real willingness to be involved and find solutions and put things forward—very much a renewal of excitement and energy. At the Volunteer Summit there were lots and lots of ideas put forth. Of course that is only the first stage. But it’s very energizing.”

In the coming months discussions with university volunteers will help chart future priorities across every academic division. The course of the conversation to date—and the opportunity for all friends and alumni of the university to contribute to the ongoing discussion—can be found at volunteersummit.jhu.edu.


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  1. JHU Magazine article on Volunteer Summit | Working for Justice in Contemporary Urban Space

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