Colleges and universities must work strategically in partnership with local leaders to ensure that the public understands the value they bring to their communities and their state, University of North Carolina Wilmington chancellor Gary Miller said Tuesday.
Miller spoke at the two-day annual meeting of North Carolina Campus Compact, a network of 38 colleges and universities. The theme of this year’s conference, held at UNCW, is “Anchoring Community Vitality: Linking Campus Community Engagement and Economic Development.”
Miller was the featured speaker at Tuesday’s Campus Showcase session. He spoke about the challenges facing higher education in today’s economy and culture and what, specifically, UNCW is doing to help stimulate job development in the Wilmington area and to ensure that UNCW students and faculty members enjoy ongoing involvement with the surrounding community.
“I am pretty disquieted by the landscape of higher education today,” he said during a speech at UNCW’s Burney Center. “We are facing serious structural changes in the economy, a disruption that will be with us the rest of our lives. Technology is transformational and exciting but also makes us think about the importance of place [campus-based learning, rather than remote or online learning]. The commodification of higher education is disturbing, as is public distrust of scholarly discourse and the rise of denial.”
Miller said that among the issues of concern to him and others in academia is the loss among the public of a perceived “commonwealth value” of universities.
“Recent polls show that many people in America no longer believe that there is a larger value of having a university in their community,” he said.
By fulfilling the “civic purposes” of higher education, Miller said, UNCW and other institutions can push against that declining perception of value.That means, he said, that service to the community must be done in a more comprehensive way, one that engages students over the longer term and helps them develop career-appropriate skills. It also means, Miller added, that universities must take ownership of some community problems.
“We have to talk about jobs, inequality, starting new companies, feeding the hungry, and we must move students into meaningful service,” Miller said. “We must have an activist model of community engagement.”
As an example, Miller cited UNCW’s role in Wilmington’s current community discussion about ways to combat gang membership and youth violence. He also spoke about UNCW’s new faculty-led Applied Learning program that gives students sustained involvement in community projects that will teach them real-life skills.
Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo joined Miller on the podium to talk about UNCW’s current economic development focus: the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE).
Miller said that the center, opened last September, currently is home to 14 startups that together have created 30 jobs and internships.
“The CIE is a move in the right direction: nurturing small businesses, which create jobs,” Saffo said.
Saffo also emphasized the wisdom of investing in existing local companies that want to expand.
Referring to the city’s partnership with UNCW, Saffo mentioned that he and other officials depend on expertise within the university when making policy or economic development decisions, such as whether to offer tax incentives to lure or retain businesses.