Sunday, December 07, 2014


Not Voting With Their Feet, Exactly...

Many years ago, when I was at DeVry but looking for another place to work, I saw an ad for the community college in the county where The Wife grew up, and where her parents still lived.  I noted the address of the college, and asked her where it was relative to her parents.  “County?” she asked, surprised.  She remembered going there in elementary school to visit the planetarium.

I got the job, and a few months into it, asked my boss about the planetarium.  CCM didn’t have a huge astronomy program, but the planetarium was smack in the middle of the major academic building, taking up prime real estate.  When I asked why it was there, he explained that the planetarium drew huge numbers of elementary school students from throughout the county every year, and that every time one of those kids set foot on campus, the college built up chits with local families.  The more people who set foot physically on campus over time, the stronger the college’s political support.  They don’t vote with their feet, exactly, but their feet influence their vote.  He saw a direct connection between hosting community events -- whether planetarium shows, musicals, art gallery openings, or anything else -- and the long-term health of the college.  It needed allies.

The lesson stuck with me.  Place is an asset.

Public higher education has a divided mind about place these days.  On the one side, with interest rates low and competition among colleges heated, we’ve seen a significant growth in construction projects over the last decade or so.  At the exact same time, though, we’ve also seen a large and growing migration of instruction online.  Online instruction meets all sorts of needs, and has much to be said for it, but rooms full of servers aren’t visually appealing.  In terms of drawing the public to campus, server rooms can’t compete with planetariums.

In some communities, campuses are the rare spaces in which meaningful numbers of people from different parts of town, economic classes, and the like come together on a regular basis.  That function is probably most pronounced among community colleges, since they’re open to everybody and usually have clearly defined geographical identities.  In areas in which classes and races are relatively segregated -- more common than I’d like to admit -- community colleges in particular often draw people from across those boundaries.  That role as public meeting space is easy to ignore in day-to-day operations, where we’re concerned with room usage, class sizes, and all of the usual daily business.  But over time, it matters.

My personal favorite public outreach was senior citizens’ day.  Every spring at CCM we’d have an open house with one-day classes for seniors, along with lunch.  I even did a couple of presentations on American politics, and had a blast; unlike younger students,the seniors had living memory of administrations from decades past, and since they weren’t being graded, they had no problem letting me know when they thought I was off-base.  Attendance at seniors’ day was always several hundred.  As any competent political scientist can tell you, seniors vote at higher rates than younger people do.  To the extent that they harbor good will towards the local community college, that could only help.  I recognized some of the same faces from year to year, and heard them refer to senior day as their event.  That kind of community support is hard to itemize, but you notice if it’s missing.

Large state universities have known this for years, which is why they sponsor high-visibility athletic programs.  At community colleges, the efforts at visibility have tended to be more local, which makes sense.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen particularly successful ways to bring more of the community onto campus and make a positive impression?

We host some community events on our campus and some school outreach activities. A few are ongoing, but don't rise to a very high level of community visibility, but we also don't rely on a local millage vote. Most of the things we do both help students and make us visible to students, although most of that comes from going directly to the schools or communities rather than having them come to us. Transportation can be a limiting factor.

There were always other events in competition with the few things we tried once with low success, and never repeated. The one bit of advice I would give is to try more than once and try to improve attendance before giving up. Some things have to be there every year if they are going to catch on.
Boy, do I appreciate this query. I think you're spot-on that physical experience of the campus can be a powerful source of connection and support. I'll enumerate a few things we use but reiterate that I'm very much looking forward to others' replies (with the necessary acknowledgement that I'm at a College of Visual and Performing Arts in a large TX university):

(1) We put on lots of performances, as that's our gig. We have very good partnerships with regional managed-care and retirement communities, who always send bus loads of audiences members to performances.

(2) Our "audition days" (two weekends in February when most of the TX, NM, OK kids come to play for teachers, usually with parents and relatives in tow, are full-splash events: Friday evening free performances, all day meet-the-faculty-and-tour-the-school Saturday, big crowd-pleaser concert program Saturday night. Boss insists that ALL faculty members--not only those hearing students' auditions--attend, stand up on stage, describe what they do, give contact info. Also includes "no parents or teachers" info sessions hosted by current students. Lots of personal contact, coffee breaks, outgoing behavior. Repeatedly parents (esp TX parents, who put great stock in the personal touch) tell us "this is so much friendlier than X or Y or school--no one there really seemed to care."

(3) My own personal research/advocacy center brings in guest artists, but also does tons of outreach events in the community (music/dance/theatre): public schools, senior centers, managed-care facilities, hospitals and rehab centers, etc. Energetic and engaged young kids in a room with these other populations yields lots of community support.

(4) We have a number of programs that serve as direct (if informal) feeder programs into our VPA programs: high school mariachi, tango, theater, and dance programs mentored or taught by our grad students. This brings participating kids (and their extended families) onto campus when their kids play in the recital halls.

(5) We have excellent support from local NPR affiliate and community/student radio stations. They are typically very willing to have our faculty or students come on-air to promote and/or perform.

(6) One small positive aspect of the 24-hour news cycle is that the hour-long local news shows (especially those beginning at 8am or 5pm, targeting seniors) are typically very receptive to having our folks come on to play or talk. It necessitates schlepping to the station at often-ungodly hours, but live TV yields demonstrable results.

(7) We cultivate the student newspaper, which is essentially a terrible rag designed to supply resume fodder to kids, many of them dreadfully unsupervised. But because many of these student papers publish 5 days a week, they are always looking for copy and, often, photographs.

(8) We partner with area museums and cultural centers: we provide programming to them, they bring their students and/or clientele to our campus events.

(9) We try to become visible in annual calendar events. Just last night I led one of our folk-dance groups at an outdoor "street-festival" in the university/medical residential neighborhood near campus. Only played for an hour (next to the food trucks), but there was a ton of free press and lots of community goodwill. Becoming a regular part of such events builds community buy-in.

(10) Folks in our Mass Comm and Journalism programs (as well as my colleagues in VPA) are very active in regional arts events, center, festivals, and so forth. A friend (interim chair of Mass Comm) curates a film festival and has forged a really healthy relationship with the local Alamo Drafthouse that's already very successful.

As I said, I realize a lot of these are specific to a College of Visual and Performing Arts, but I think they do translate to other disciplines as well, with some imagination and stick-to-it-ivity.

Thanks for posing this--really stimulating.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?