Bringing It

Bringing It #113: Relationships to Partnerships: Anchor Institutions and Montclair State University

November 02, 2023

Dear friends,

Welcome to the next installment of Bringing It, our platform for elevating exemplary innovations in higher education. These innovations lead to the kind of holistic, engaged, and equitable learning that the Paradigm Project supports for all students. Today we’re highlighting the work of our friend Bryan Murdock at Montclair State University. His efforts alongside the university administration transformed the relationship between the institution of Montclair and the community of Paterson, New Jersey into a true community partnership. The inspirational work of transforming Montclair into an anchor institution affirms Murdock’s assertion that “place-based work is the next step in community engaged learning.”

Anchor institutions are not new to higher education. In the 2000’s, the concept of an anchor institution was a new paradigm. This shift recast the role of the institution to be not just in service of the local community and economy, but instead as an “anchor” of community and economic development. Participating institutions nationwide developed myriad place-based initiatives to leverage their resources to address systemic challenges and needs in their locales. This transformed the identities of the institutions—instead of reflecting an internal culture, they reflected the communities they were situated in. The development of the Anchor Institutions Task Force (AITF) cemented the importance of strategically using both higher ed institutions and medical centers (“eds and meds”) as sources for community improvement. Today, more than 1,000 individuals make up the AITF. As anchor institutions become more and more prevalent in discussions of national policy, educators are constantly assessing what makes for a true and reciprocal community partnership. Montclair offers an exceptional example.

Montclair’s ethos of building partnerships as opposed to simply building relationships points towards a new era for anchor institutions and community engaged learning. Montclair’s community development projects are economic, cultural, and unique to Paterson. The Charles J. Muth Museum of Hinchliffe Stadium was developed to celebrate the rich and complex history of Negro Leagues baseball in Patterson and to rejuvenate a center of historical significance (the stadium). Montclair is partnering with the St. Paul’s Community Development Corporation on its Break the Cycle initiative to provide gainful career pathways for folks who have been formerly incarcerated. And finally, President Jonathan GS Koppell’s brainchild, the One Square Mile project is a “hyper-place based” initiative in which the university works, as Murdock clarifies, “as a partner, not a leader, to promote economic and community development and wellbeing in a geographically defined area in Paterson, New Jersey.” Rather than letting these initiatives stand alone, the One Square Mile project seeks to connect these university projects, “making it more than the sum of its parts.” Montclair is focused on a partnership with the community as a whole, not just a singular organization or project that hones in on one area of precarity.

A key aspect of the One Square Mile project is creating a community hub. This hub is East Side High School, which Montclair is working in partnership with Paterson public schools to transform into a university-assisted community school where students and their families can go for a variety of resources—from meals to mental health services. The poverty rate in Paterson is twice the state average, with 25% of Paterson residents living below the poverty line. Students facing food and housing insecurity require more than academic support from their schools. In offering a span of resources to not just East Side students but also their families, Montclair is leveraging their resources to treat their community as humans first.

Montclair is also ensuring that the projects of the One Square Mile initiative are inclusive of faculty, staff, and Montclair students. Students in the math department are planning to go to East Side High School to offer tutoring services. Faculty in the Justice Studies and Social Work program are partnering with the Open Society Foundation to institute harm reduction programs. Faculty have also been hired to teach ESL courses for adults, including parents and guardians, at East Side. The benefits of this cross-pollination are mutual: faculty, staff, and students at Montclair see their learning as applicable and immediately useful to the community. And East Side students gain an awareness of college activities, in addition to being offered opportunities for dual enrollment, seeing themselves as students in higher education environments.

The strength of programs like the One Square Mile initiative is that they are holistic in nature. But how can institutions with histories of siloed, isolated community initiatives build to this level of change? Murdock offers the advice of President Koppell, “moving at the speed of trust.” Institutions can set precedents of communication, recognizing the privilege of the institution, as they partner with the community. That way, when miscommunication inevitably occurs, there’s a history of consistent communication and commitments to point to. Anchor institutions also face pitfalls when, as Murdock says, “we use single dimensional approaches to try to solve multi-dimensional problems.” Zooming in too close can cause institutions to lose the bigger picture. “Our point is not to be the fount of all knowledge and experience,” says Murdock. “We understand that these initiatives are community-led.”

Of course, Montclair is not the only institution operating as a holistic anchor institution. The Netter Center at the University of Pennsylvania has supported seven university-assisted community schools, and has a 30-year history of partnering with schools and local organizations in West Philadelphia. We also covered the work of Nancy Cantor at Rutgers-Newark in creating an “inside-out” university with reciprocal community partnerships in an episode of our podcast. We look forward to learning more about similarly inspirational anchor institutions and community partnerships in the future.

Thanks so much to Bryan Murdock for his advice and perspective in telling this story.

News and Events

  • The ACE Fellows Program is accepting applications and nominations until November 3rd. This program is one of the most comprehensive leadership training programs in higher education and offers opportunities for growth and community building among the fellows cohort. Fellows will participate in seminars, visit other campuses, engage in case studies and special projects, and more.
  • Our friends at Project Pericles just launched a new Civic Engagement Resource page. Here you will find a Resource Database showing how real faculty integrate civic engagement in their courses, modules educating students on how and why voting matters, and so much more.
  • A special edition of New Directions for Higher Education is accepting article proposal abstracts for their special issue on “Humanizing Higher Education” until December 1st. In the wake of COVID-19, a web of systemic oppressions embedded in higher education was revealed. In returning to “normal” this issue asks educators to chart a “new normal” and propose models that have the potential to unravel these oppressions and humanize higher education. The call for proposals is for abstracts or articles on the following topics: Indigenous Perspectives, Organizational Theory & Workplace Culture, Environmental Culture & Climate, Leadership & Governance, The Student Experience, Policy & Practice, Teaching & Learning, and Servingness. Follow the link above for more information.

With thank for you all and all you do,

David, Gianna, Gillian, Kate, Paul, and Todd

Bringing Theory to Practice
Elon University