Place-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education: a Strategy to Transform Universities and Communities by Erica K. Yamamura and Kent Koth

Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2018. $35 paperback

Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2018. $35 paperback

Reviewed by Susan Clampet-Lundquist

It is easy for universities to get caught up in similar methods of attracting students and thus tuition revenue. We shift toward a homogenization of higher education, thinking that the newly-modernized dorm or student center will be the “thing” that attracts students to our campus, because this has worked for other places. We create new colleges and schools, buy more land, and place more of our courses in an online format in order to compete in this higher education landscape. While taking these actions is an understandable reaction, it is worthwhile to step back and consider what it is that makes Jesuit higher education unique, and prioritize accordingly.

In his Santa Clara address, Fr. Kolvenbach noted that, “Knowledge is valuable for its own sake and at the same time is knowledge that must ask itself, ‘For whom? For what?’” Though there are several approaches universities can take to use knowledge in a way that is applicable, increasingly more universities are uniting their resources with those of their surrounding community to strive for the common good. Explaining this place-based approach is the subject of Erica Yamamura’s and Ken Koth’s Place-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education.

As an urban sociologist who has worked with other staff and faculty at Saint Joseph's University to enhance our community-engaged scholarship and teaching, I found this book to be particularly helpful for universities and colleges that are seeking to begin or enhance their engagement with a specific community – typically one in which the university is located. Yamamura and Koth study five higher education institutions that represent a mixture of public and private, and Jesuit and non-Jesuit. The initiatives from these institutions range from one focused on K – college for youth in the neighborhood, partnering with businesses and non-profits along an adjacent commercial corridor, and building human capital through education and workforce training for neighborhood residents. What these initiatives have in common is that they were developed by listening to community and university stakeholders to address their mix of assets and needs, and that they prioritize reciprocity – the community and university benefit together.

The authors lay out a road-map for planning for what this engagement might look like, building authentic and transparent relationships with community partners, analyzing the university’s commitment and capacity, funding the initiatives, and being aware of pitfalls that occur. They highlight best practices that surfaced in their analysis of the five institutions and they build the case for why universities should pursue this. Enriching learning opportunities and developing a unique niche which serves as a competitive marketing advantage are just two rationales that can be attractive to university administrators.

On a personal note, I hope this book will be instrumental for my university as we figure our way forward with deepening our relationships with our neighbors. The case studies and lessons learned are written in a clear and engaging way, and offer concrete advice for pursuing place-based community engagement. For Jesuit universities and colleges, this book is a road-map for how we can play to our strengths rather than simply following the latest higher education fad. Instead, we can be relevant neighbors collaborating for the common good.

Susan Clampet-Lundquist, Ph.D., is associate professor of sociology at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.