Public Universities Make a Difference

06/05/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By Marty Meehan, Philip Moss and Linda Silka

In a commonwealth so rich in private institutions of higher education, why do we need outstanding public universities? What makes public universities so deserving of public support?

First, there is the essential role of offering excellent, affordable higher education to all qualified and aspiring students. In this new age of globalization, our state and our nation cannot afford to leave any talent behind.

There is another equally essential but less often recognized role for the public university: connecting education and scholarship to community and regional needs. At UMass Lowell, the academic year has come to a close, but our work continues. We have spent more than 100 years tending to the traditional education and research duties of the public university.

In this still-new century, we have broadened our focus to build more bridges and forge new partnerships to advance the public good. Two new directions hold lessons not only for Massachusetts, but also for public universities across the country and around the world.

One is an emphasis on community engagement. We have hundreds of partnerships with K-12 schools, industry, hospitals and health centers, cultural organizations, business and venture groups, and community nonprofits in our region and beyond. In the College of Engineering, meaningful service learning is integrated across the curriculum -- this is true of only one other university engineering program in the country. Students from 16 area school districts, including Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Lowell, Tewksbury and Tyngsboro, take courses on campus through the Technology, Engineering and Math-Science (TEAMS) Academy.

In Lowell, where affordable housing is scarce, our students, faculty and staff have joined local partners to promote affordability. We generated housing market studies, guidelines on how to make low- and moderate-income homes "green," a technical-assistance program on affordable housing and more. We have collaborated extensively with cultural organizations to promote the "creative economy" and blend the campus with the downtown historic district.

Through major grants from the National Science Foundation, we have brought nanotechnology into after-school programs in Lowell and exhibits at the American Textile History Museum. Our faculty is working with community health providers on a comprehensive survey of elders. Our Partnership for College Success at Lowell High School helps students graduate and prepares them for the challenges ahead.
Each year, 100,000 schoolchildren experience live music, dance and theater at our Center for the Arts and learn history "hands-on" at the Tsongas Industrial History Center, our partnership with Lowell National Historical Park. More than 4,500 students and teachers have been served by our Young Engineers Center in recent years.

We work with business groups to link technological innovation and economic development. We partner with the Mass Technology Leadership Council to advance women in technology, science and math careers, and team up with the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council to link our engineers with firms developing new medical devices and biopharmaceuticals.

We are part of a global network promoting the centrality of public-sector institutions in meeting goals of social responsibility. Our professors have helped facilitate university-community and university-business partnerships in India, Mexico, Israel, Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere. We have organized international conferences, shared our practices with audiences from Sweden to Australia, and published edited books about our partnership model.

Another push here is cross-disciplinary collaboration. Complex social, environmental and economic problems do not follow conventional academic boundaries. Innovative work is found at the intersection of biology and computer science, health and ethics, engineering and social science, and art and technology.
Keeping "low walls" between disciplines allows diverse teams to tackle tough challenges. Benefits include new technologies to assist the disabled, solar energy systems for rural villages, innovative strategies to safeguard workers' health and safety in construction and health care and "artbotics," which fuses robotics technology and artistic creativity.

At UMass Lowell, we see these community partnerships and problem-solving interdisciplinary links as a way to fulfill our public responsibility. When we succeed, we help communities and businesses to grow, develop and meet challenges. But we also learn from them. Undergraduate and graduate students receive invaluable experience with real situations, complex problems, and the call to make a better world.

Crossing boundaries between disciplines and between campus and community to engage with the real world produces results. It is the most valuable learning experience of all. The crossroads between public service and deep learning is where public universities must stake their claim -- and where UMass Lowell already has.

Marty Meehan is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Philip Moss is chair of the interdisciplinary department of Regional Economic and Social Development (RESD), now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Linda Silka is a RESD faculty member and director of the Center for Family, Work, and Community.