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“An Unstoppable Force for Good”

“If you want to build a world class city, build a great university and wait 200 years.” University of Texas at Austin President Gregory Fenves kicked off the APLU Annual Meeting this week by quoting Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words from nearly 50 years ago. The impact of universities on our nation’s cities was highlighted repeatedly in this year’s annual meeting, as the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) executed a bold urban-focused agenda that encompassed everything from diversity issues to transformational change efforts.  In case you missed it – or if you did attend but want a quick summary – here are five highlights from our most important conversations at the APLU Annual Meeting:

  1. Freedom of Expression and Creating Safe Spaces

A recurring theme from this year’s meeting was the balance between preserving free speech and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to thrive in an inclusive campus environment. Contrary to the beliefs of many, free speech and safe spaces are not “either/or” propositions, but “both/and” solutions to some of our universities’ most pressing problems.


CSU Fullerton President Mildred Garcia moderates the panel on Balancing Freedom of Expression and Diversity on Campus

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune urged us not to be “afraid of ideas on campus,” and argued that there is no better place than academia to discuss our differences. One of the dynamic speakers at the meeting was Mariah Watson, a recent graduate and former president of the Associated Students of University of California, Davis. She spoke passionately about the need for “brave spaces, not safe spaces” and urged university leaders not to shy away from discomfort but to prepare students to engage in discussion.

  1. Making Real Progress toward Diversity

According to NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, we need to phase out poor metaphors like “pipeline” when discussing diversity. The pathway to academic careers in STEM and the biomedical sciences is more like a funnel: for example, underrepresented group talent has grown seven-fold over the past 20 years, but academia clearly hasn’t tapped that talent as diversity in the professoriate and research workforce continues to lag.


NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak highlights the lack of diversity in the biomedical research workforce

Most of our urban institutions recognize that diversity is important, but too often the message around diversity is that it’s the “right thing to do.” In fact, diversity is essential to excellence, and pushing multiple levers, such as the business case, will drive greater progress than we can achieve through goodwill alone.

  1. Learning from Failure

Earlier this year, Urban University shared a call for applications for Turning Points: From Setback to Success, a video competition modeled after the Fail Festival concept established by the international development community.  But the competition didn’t exactly go as planned. According to Vice President for Urban Initiatives, Shari Garmise, we could have done better to provide a safe enough space for universities to talk about failure, and we could have communicated our vision more clearly. That being said, the USU did receive some insightful video submissions which provided us with a window into the challenges that universities are facing, for example ensuring that students have adequate advising, and providing better supports for foster students. We’re hopeful that the next time we ask universities to share their failures, we’ll take into account lessons learned from our own.

  1. Disrupting the Norm Helps Universities Move Forward

Florida International University, Portland State University, and Georgia State University shared some of their efforts to disrupt “business as usual” at the university and achieve transformative change. FIU shared the results of their Mastery Math Gateways Project, which re-designed college algebra to improve pass rates and student success. ReThink PSU designed structured pathways for community college students to pursue a PSU degree. Georgia State used a combination of predictive analytics, learning communities, and “choice architecture” to keep students on track, reduce the time to degree, and help students avoid earning excessive credits. Georgia State managed to reduce the average number of credit hours at completion from a high of 141 in 2012-2013 to a new low of 133 in 2015-2016.

  1. Urban institutions dominated the awards ceremonies this year

The University of California, Riverside received the Project Degree Completion Award, Portland State University won the Peter Magrath Community Engagement Award, and Arizona State University was recognized with the Innovation and Economic Prosperity Award. Congratulations to these urban-serving institutions for their hard work and successful efforts!

As APLU President Peter McPherson noted in his remarks, “public universities are an unstoppable force for good.” The APLU Annual Meeting is a chance for university leaders to come together around our shared vision and goals, learn from each other, and take further steps toward change on campus and in our urban communities. If you were able to attend this year, thank you – and we hope you will join us next year in Washington, DC as well.


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