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Harnessing Community-University Partnerships to Move Through and Beyond the Crisis

Harnessing Community-University Partnerships to Move Through and Beyond the Crisis

Sarah Steimer

illustration of two men painting over virus design

Universities are a major part of their local ecosystems, and both parties require one another to survive and thrive after the pandemic ends

Part of the Marketing News Higher Ed Marketing Special Issue

The university-community relationship is an ecosystem constantly in motion. At its most basic level, the school churns out professionals who go on to work in the community, and the community sends in students to learn at the school. Dig deeper and you’ll notice the internships at area businesses, the visiting professionals at the university, and the shared data between city and research labs. It’s a relationship that both parties rely on—especially in times of crisis.

For example, Mahauganee Shaw Bonds, an independent researcher and consultant at Buoyant Consulting, studied how colleges managed disruption caused by hurricanes—specifically those campuses that experienced either Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita. What she found was that survival is a group effort between school and region.


“When it comes to the university-community partnership, what really stood out was how difficult it is for an institution to come back into normal operations if their surrounding community is not in normal operation,” Bonds says. “A lot of the time, we think of universities as being sort of self-sufficient—and in a lot of ways they are. They can be miniature cities themselves: Students live there, they eat there, they work there. … But the reality is that so much of campus operations really does depend on having resources and partners in the local community.”

Natural disasters aren’t the only example that underscores the importance of community-university relationships during times of crisis. We’re already seeing examples of how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, marketers can deftly leverage their local relationships to maintain the university-community ecosystem.

“That the ways [in which] we build and support our shared lives and our shared communities together is crucial to how successfully we emerge from this crisis,” says Julia Smillie, marketing and communications manager at the University of Michigan’s Edward Ginsberg Center—the school’s community and civic engagement center. “While we may not know what it’s going to look like moving forward, we do feel confident that it’s going to depend on sustaining and supporting these relationships.”

During the Pandemic

Many community-university programs—particularly those involving students working with local organizations—required in-person interactions that needed to be reevaluated with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The first step for many departments and professionals who organize and maintain these partnerships was to quickly communicate with all parties involved and start coordinating next steps.

Smillie says that at the onset of the pandemic, her team identified students who were trying to complete community engagement projects and met with them virtually to determine the status of that work.

“[We worked] with community partners to see if these were projects that could be completed, if they had to be refocused under these new circumstances or where we had to put a pin in some work,” Smillie says. “But overwhelmingly, our commitment has been to help our students continue their leadership and community engagement education and be able to work on projects—just under different circumstances.” 

She gives the example of a student who may have been engaged in offering medical checkups at a residential nursing home. If that’s no longer a safe option during high-risk times, the center could help the home and student determine if there were other ways to leverage their partnership, perhaps through data collection or reaching out for donations.

While some of the community partnerships that the University of Michigan maintains are scholastic-focused, others are geared more toward leadership and service work—and therefore ripe for pandemic-related duties. Thanks to the partnerships that the school has maintained in the community, its staff members and students were able to quickly mobilize and help with food donations and drop-offs, for example. They also amplified community calls for support via social media.

“It’s that sort of deep-seated connectivity that you cannot conjure up in the wake of an emergency if it wasn’t there to begin with,” Smillie says. Marketers need to maintain those relationships between school and community and tell the stories and amplify the voices on both sides to keep all parties activated and helping one another. 

“In a time of crisis, community and civic engagement becomes even more important than it was before,” Smillie says. 

During the Rebuild

The recovery phase of a post-pandemic world will be largely economic in focus, as the country and much of the world has seen some of the steepest unemployment figures in modern history. In addition to employees being able to return to work at the campus itself, schools have an opportunity to train the local workforce as the economy recovers.

In some cases, universities may build out programs in those industries most affected by the pandemic. Bonds gave the example of a school in the New Orleans region that built out its entrepreneurship program as a reaction to many small businesses being unable to reopen after devastation caused by the hurricane. The goal was to train a new generation of business leaders who could help rebuild the area’s local economy.

Reinvigorating the local workforce requires a journey beyond traditional high school-to-college pathways: Those who lost their jobs and want to recession-proof their careers—or those who had to leave their degree programs to enter the workforce instead—will need to be reconnected with higher education.

Dawn Medley, associate VP of enrollment management at Wayne State University, says the Detroit Regional Chamber employs an adult reengagement specialist who connects interested individuals with appropriate area higher ed institutions. Wayne State also launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot, part of the DetroitEd411 program, that uses AI to anonymously answer locals’ questions related to higher education and point them in the right direction—whether that’s where to obtain a degree in their area of interest or how to sign up to take the GED.

“[We’ll likely] see continued use and expansion of the chatbot because there’s just going to be more adults looking for information on how they can upskill and reskill to be competitive, and have positions that aren’t necessarily so dependent on them being able to walk into an office every day,” Medley says.

Similar to the expansion of an entrepreneurship program in New Orleans, Medley foresees that higher ed institutions and local chambers of commerce will work together on future studies to predict skills gaps as regions shift into economic recovery mode.

“There are going to be a lot of joint efforts with our own chamber, with community college partners, with community-based organizations and then also with workforce development,” she says. “You’re going to see universities not just looking at baccalaureate degree completion, but also—how is that going to impact work? Because we now know—because we were all forced to jump on the bandwagon—that remote work is going to remain something that we do in the future. … You’re going to see some big shifts and some big changes as we look to support the chamber and the businesses in our area as they adapt to that.”

Beyond educating and preparing the workforce, Bonds sees an opportunity for schools and communities to arrive at creative solutions as the country begins to open back up. For example, there may be more dynamic service-learning opportunities in the community, or universities abiding by distancing guidelines may result in partnerships with local hotels to house students. 

“[You may] see some partnerships with businesses or companies in the area that are able to provide services that may otherwise have to be severely scaled back on campus,” Bonds says. “You might find businesses … figured out that maybe they don’t actually need that large space that they’re renting or paying mortgage every month—maybe they’ll start renting conference space on the university campus when they need to come together in person.”

Illustration by Bill Murphy.

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.