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Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, Volume 11, Number 3, p. 15, (2006) 


Enhancing Higher Learning through 
Engagement in Community and 
Human Development 

Ronald Mason, Jr. 


Abstract 

Universities are structurally constrained from engaging 
in community development. Traditional concepts of teaching, 
research, and service make it difficult to focus on the needs 
of the community as a motivating force in the higher learning 
process. Historically black public universities, however, may 
have fewer such constraints than large private institutions. In 
any event, there is great need in the world and all institutions 
must respond to that need according to their ability. Universities 
have great ability to effect positive change should they choose 
to use it. Perhaps a different model, where learning relies on 
the praxis of thought and action, could simultaneously produce 
better students and create better communities. 

Introduction 

T he idea of university-based community development is in 
many ways an oxymoron. The university is built on the 
concepts of teaching, research, and service. This has tradition¬ 
ally meant that its realm is that of generating and disseminating 
“knowledge,” much of which may not be of immediate practical 
utility. The notion of service is usually limited to university com¬ 
mittee work or voluntary or required student community assign¬ 
ments. It is not required that its product be connected to addressing 
the life challenges of everyday people. 

The work of community building is different. It deals with 
“knowledge” for the purpose of helping people survive or better 
the quality of their lives. It is not a classroom exercise or theo¬ 
retical study. It is a roll up your sleeves, learn by sharing process 
that involves a commitment over time. It requires acceptance of a 
truism that is difficult for powerful institutions to accept in rela¬ 
tionships with the much less powerful, that in a relationship each 
partner has as much to learn as it has to teach. Acceptance of such 
a fact is difficult for any large institution, and perhaps even more 
so in an institution whose culture is characterized by scholars who 
are experts in their fields. 



16 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 


This article suggests that the needs of the poor and desperate 
are a universal responsibility, and that even institutions should 
respond to that need according to their ability. Despite their tra¬ 
ditional role, institutions of higher learning have a great ability to 
engage in the community betterment process should they choose 
to do so. In addition, by experientially enhancing the learning 
enterprise they are better able to achieve their stated mission of 
teaching, research, and service. They will also create a better stu¬ 
dent and better community in the process. 

The questions of institutional constraints, the value and 
challenges of experientially enhanced learning and appropriate 
expected outcomes, will be discussed from two perspectives. The 
first perspective is that of a private 
research university where I worked 
as a senior administrator for eigh¬ 
teen years. The second is that of a 
public university that has recently 
attained research status and is also 
an HBCU (historically black college 
or university) where I have served as 
president for six years. 

This article takes as its working 
thesis that large, wealthy institutions, 
such as universities, are structurally 
constrained from fulfilling their 
potential as community improvement agents. It also asks whether 
identifiable differences between two different types of universities 
may affect the level of institutional constraints. 

The first university is a relatively wealthy private university 
in a much less wealthy city. The financial resources of its board, 
students, and immediate neighborhood contrast greatly with the 
people and neighborhoods, in some cases public housing devel¬ 
opments, that begin a mile in either direction from the campus. 
During most of my tenure there I observed very little involvement 
with the community betterment process, whether on an individual 
or institutional basis. 

In my fourteenth year of employment and at my urging, the 
university agreed to a highly unusual arrangement with the local 
and federal governments. The local public housing authority and 
its facilities were known as the worst in America. An arrangement 
was made to avoid the embarrassment of a federal takeover of the 
local responsibility to provide safe, decent, and sanitary housing 
to almost forty thousand poor people. 


“Despite their tradi¬ 
tional role, institutions 
of higher learning 
have a great ability 
to engage in the 
community betterment 
process should they 
choose to do so.” 





Enhancing Higher Learning through Engagement in Community and Human Development 17 


The university was given management authority over the city’s 
public housing in exchange for a federal grant to the university in 
excess of $12 million over five years. The funds were to be used to 
create university and community development programs in public 
housing. The venture was portrayed publicly as a service to the 
community. However, at least part of the university’s motivation 
for accepting such an unusual responsibility was the considerable 
indirect cost recovery it realized. Ostensibly 50 percent of my 
time was assigned to meet the university’s obligations under the 
agreement. 

The university initiative had three components, all of which 
were housed in a university center that I headed. The first was the 
public housing management; the second was the “academic” pro¬ 
grams in the areas of teaching, research, and service; and the third 
was service programs for and with the public housing residents. 
The idea was to create a synergy among that three that would allow 
for the generation of knowledge informed by involvement in the 
community betterment process. 

The “academic” component was headed by a respected 
member of the sociology department. His first challenge from 
the faculty was that his funding came from a university center 
headed by someone who was not a member of the academy. His 
colleagues saw this as somehow compromising academic freedom 
and integrity. His second challenge was that the “applied research” 
encouraged by the center was not the work of choice for tenure and 
promotion at a research university. His third challenge was the nec¬ 
essary interaction between two totally different worlds to enable 
the research and learning. His fourth challenge was that in order for 
the research and learning to have social legitimacy and scholarly 
accuracy, the concept of academic service had to be reconstituted 
as something other than a career-advancing or institutionally self- 
serving activity. 

In short, he was up against a set of university cultural norms under 
which the primary motivation for working in public housing was 
not to better the community, a necessary precondition to university- 
based community development, but rather to utilize nontraditional 
community access for traditional career and institutional benefit. 

While the vision for the endeavor was to create an opportunity 
for a new type of learning and a more relevant, responsible institu¬ 
tion, the university flowed to a different current. Good things were 
done for a while. There was a unique intercultural flow in both 
directions. Some people got jobs and houses. A detailed intervention 
database that tracked one hundred families was established. Data 



18 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 


was generated and articles examining the surface of the experiment 
were written. There were even tutoring programs and a community 
garden tended in the housing development by students from the 
university. 

However, there were other, less obvious but more unfortunate 
consequences that help to better contextualize the entire venture. 
One, as an example, involved a community leader at the housing 
development where most of the university’s efforts were focused. 
Mrs. K (as I will call her) had been the first resident on a public 
housing board in the nation. Her development was the first to have 
a community center. Nothing happened in her neighborhood that 
she didn’t know about. Most of the university folks considered her 
a charlatan; the residents considered her a leader. I liked her, and 
I believe she trusted me. 

The university folks approached her, for lack of a better term, 
much as colonial missionaries: partly with pity and partly with 
disdain. They attempted to buy her allegiance by giving her a 
consulting contract. Mrs. K had diabetes and hypertension and 
was on regular dialysis. Medicaid paid her bills. The consulting 
contract stopped all that. It also caused complications with the 
Internal Revenue Service and her social services support network. 
The endeavor that generated career- and reputation-enhancing 
research also led to destruction of the social and financial support 
upon which Mrs. K’s well-being depended. 

The above observations are made not to impugn individual 
behavior, but to note how university institutional requisites worked 
against the needs of the community to be served. I do not think that 
any of the noted actions were consciously malicious. They were 
more likely the most efficient route to the access that was sought 
for the purpose of generating research. 

Indeed, even though I grew up near public housing and worked 
extensively with poor people’s organizations, and the head of the 
residents’ component was a former civil rights organizer, I have no 
doubt that on more than one occasion our actions served the uni¬ 
versity even though the needs of the community may have dictated 
a different approach. The need to collect a paycheck can motivate 
anyone to rationalize almost anything. 

The upshot of the entire experience is that ten years after 
the work in public housing commenced, there is little if any¬ 
thing remaining that one would consider university or commu¬ 
nity improvement. The focus public housing community is now 
only empty buildings, Mrs. K has passed away, and the university 



Enhancing Higher Learning through Engagement in Community and Human Development 19 


has no service-learning or community-based programs in public 
housing. The unique hundred-family database, which tracked 
every intervention and outcome for each family member, has also 
been forgotten. 

I became president of the comparison university in 2000. Many 
of the ideas and lessons learned from my prior university-based 
community development work came with me. The institutions are 
different in ways other than their historical underpinnings. The 
second institution is public, it is the only university in a smaller 
city, and for the most part the faces of the people who work here 
are the same color as the faces of the people who populate the 
challenged neighborhood of which it is a part. 

Our public posture from the outset was that the progress of the 
university was tied directly to the betterment of the community 
around it. It was a declaration of necessity. Indeed, the vast majority 
of the ministers and public employees, including schoolteachers, 
social workers, and other public servants in the surrounding city, 
were educated here. The university has for a very long time been 
the primary and preferred employer for the local African American 
populace. 

Interestingly, as we moved into the community betterment 
arena some institutional challenges were the same as at the first 
institution. One example was the education initiative. Through 
a sizable grant from the federal government we were able to 
comanage our neighborhood K-12 schools. Despite the obvious 
opportunity to generate knowledge and better both our commu¬ 
nity and our college of education, the involvement of the latter 
was much less than enthusiastic. The ostensible reason was that 
the initiative was housed in the president’s office and not in the 
academic college. 

Some of the other cultural norms of higher education are 
present as well. For example, because this institution is an emerging 
research entity, the bias toward basic research has a growing pres¬ 
ence in its tenure and promotion process. There is also the sense 
that there is little to learn from the members of the surrounding 
community who are not also members of the academy. 

On the other hand, while it is too soon to tell if the commu¬ 
nity improvement work of my present institution will become 
institutionalized over time, for the moment there are encouraging 
signs. With minimal seed funding we were able to create a service- 
learning requirement that is now widely accepted by the students. 
The service-learning program places students in government and 



20 Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 


nonprofit agencies; it recently won a national award for the work 
performed in connection with Hurricane Katrina. 

Other community initiatives are in the beginning stages but 
seem promising and increasingly well accepted. Two neighbor¬ 
hood reconstruction initiatives have started, one of which has the 
potential to be a national “new urbanism” model. A healthy life¬ 
styles initiative is in place and growing in popularity. In addition, 
the public school initiative, which met early resistance, is now the 
pride of the university and meeting all of its stated goals. 

It is difficult to know for certain why, at least in the early stages, 
some community development activity seems more acceptable at 
my present university. First, there is a vast difference between 

the bully pulpit of the president as _ 

opposed to that of a senior adminis¬ 
trator. There are probably historical 
and cultural differences between 
historically white and historically 
black, public and private, research 
and emerging research universities 
that are at play and require further 
exploration. 

In any event, it seems clear 
that we live in a greatly challenged 
world. The level of human suffering 
and unaddressed need is such that 


“Perhaps a better 
model is needed, one 
that minimizes insti¬ 
tutional constraints 
against the university’s 
direct involvement 
in community and 
human development. ” 


no individual, no institution can be afforded the luxury of inaction. 
All are required to respond according to their ability, and modem 
universities are large, powerful institutions with great ability to 
effect positive change now, and in the future through the graduates 
they produce. 

Perhaps a better model is needed, one that minimizes insti¬ 
tutional constraints against the university’s direct involvement in 
community and human development. Institutional missions can 
include a commitment to the underserved. Presidential vision can 
embrace community relationships. The learning process can incor¬ 
porate experiential enlightenment. The faculty reward system can 
facilitate a focus on community and human betterment. 

Knowledge for its own sake is important, but a model that 
incorporates the praxis of thought and action is more appropriate to 
the times. We should thi nk then do, leam from what we have done, 
think on it some more, and then go back and do it better. Such a 
learning process generates a deeper understanding of human needs, 





Enhancing Higher Learning through Engagement in Community and Human Development 21 


educates better leaders, and builds healthy communities in the pro¬ 
cess. In other words, it would ensure that the idea of university- 
based community development would no longer be an oxymoron, 
but rather part of higher learning’s reason for being. 

About the Author 

• Ronald Mason, Jr., assumed the presidency of Jackson State 
University on February 1, 2000, bringing with him more than 
twenty years of experience in higher education, community 
development, and law. Fie is chief executive officer of the only 
university based in the largest metropolitan area and capital city 
of the state of Mississippi. At the time of his appointment by the 
Board of Trustees, Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, 
Mason was serving as the founder and executive director of the 
National Center for the Urban Community at Tulane and Xavier 
Universities in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Prior to his work in urban issues and community develop¬ 
ment, Dr. Mason enjoyed a successful eighteen-year tenure at 
Tulane University that encompassed several positions, including 
senior vice president, general counsel, and vice president for 
finance and operations. 

Dr. Mason has been involved in numerous public ser¬ 
vice and professional activities, including membership on 
the boards of the American Council on Education, National 
Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, 
Office of Postsecondary Education, and the White House Board 
of Advisors for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

Dr. Mason also serves on the boards of the Thurgood Marshall 
Scholarship Fund, National Association for Equal Opportunity 
in Higher Education (NAFEO), Quality Education for Minorities 
(QEM), Jackson Medical Mall Foundation, Mississippi 
Technology Alliance, and Mississippi Authority for Educational 
Television. 

He is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and received his 
B.A. and J.D. degrees from Columbia University in New York 
City. He is a graduate of the Harvard Institute of Educational 
Management and the recipient of the Mayor’s Medal of Honor 
from the City of New Orleans and the Martin Luther King 
Lifetime Achievement Award from Dillard, Loyola, Tulane, and 
Xavier Universities. 

In 1996, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban 
Development appointed Dr. Mason to serve as a Federal 
Monitor of the Public Housing Authority in New Orleans. This 
role afforded Dr. Mason the opportunity to establish innovative 
partnerships between institutions of higher education, grassroots 
community programs, and federal initiatives that eventually 



grew into the National Center for the Urban Community at 
Tulane and Xavier Universities. 

He is married to the former Belinda DeCuir and has one 
daughter, Nia, and two sons, Jared and Kenan.