Building Better Relationships to Nurture Communities With Chiropractic Values

By Guy Riekeman, DC, President, Life University

When the concept of universities first emerged in the Middle Ages, the little schools hopped from village to village looking for the cheapest rent. They had zero interest in whatever hamlet they inhabited at the moment. Oddly, as the schools built their own facilities, putting down roots in one place, the divide between scholars and local residents grew even wider. The learned folks carefully separated themselves from the riffraff just outside their hallowed halls.

Those ancient educators would scarcely recognize their ivory towers in the reflection of today's diverse institutions of higher education. Universities and colleges today are dynamic drivers of their local communities, serving as business incubators, thought leaders, inventors, research hotbeds, work-force generators, reliable employers and engines of economic growth.

Living Together

Every university or college has to "live" somewhere. Like any neighbor, we can become a valued member of the community everyone loves to have around, the hermit who won't let anyone walk on their grass, or the family with the trash cans in the front yard.

Communities expect us to be good neighbors. The "engaged university" is seen as a treasured asset and our communities expect us to connect in partnership and joint planning with city officials, business leaders and community supporters. This active community role enables us to contribute most successfully to the health of the region, while also fostering greater understanding of and support for our own missions.

A Two-Way Street

Effective short- and long-range planning on any campus requires two-way dialogue between the institution and its key stakeholders. The incentive for cooperation is high as schools must have access to city services, draw students and employees from the nearby community, seek city approval for campus expansions, and address sometimes-troublesome issues of student behavior with frustrated residents. Likewise, our towns have come to rely on us as vehicles for economic growth and attractive cultural offerings, and often for desirable facilities that can be used for community purposes.

Much of the new "enlightened," cooperative attitude between universities and their communities actually grew out of failed experiences with an isolationist approach. Too often, universities that weren't sufficiently engaged in the fabric of their local communities found themselves derailed by strident local opposition and even lawsuits as they tried to move forward with plans for new construction or saw their students viewed less as assets and more as nuisances.

In "Bridging 'Town & Gown' Through Innovative University-Community Partnerships," published in the Public Sector Innovation Journal, author Lawrence Martin, PhD, professor of public affairs at the University of Central Florida, explains the change of heart this way: "Pragmatically, universities began to appreciate that, in order to grow and prosper, their futures were inextricably linked with those of their surrounding communities (and vice versa)."

The Office of Community Partnerships of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines seven categories of university-community relationships: (1) service learning, (2) service provision, (3) faculty involvement, (4) student volunteerism, (5) community in the classroom, (6) applied research, and (7) major institutional change. Examples include the University of Pennsylvania's focus on revitalizing the neighborhoods surrounding its West Philadelphia campus by investing in local housing restoration, retail development projects, lighting installation and incentives to entice faculty and staff to live nearby.

Hunter College, with an East Harlem campus in New York, found an interesting way to connect by using innovative architecture to blur the lines between campus and community. A new building there features a corridor-like lobby of floor-to-ceiling glass walls that runs for a half block expanse along 119th Street, opening the building's activities to community interest and even scrutiny.

Chiropractic Out on the Town

In the early years, many of us in chiropractic actually behaved a bit more like the medieval clerics than Hunter College, seeing ourselves as too specialized and unique to participate in the local community. We embraced the global spread of chiropractic but often underestimated the importance of starting in our own backyards.

It may have taken us a little longer than mainstream colleges to realize how critical our relationship to our own local communities is, but there's no question today that we are fully engaged.

When the city of Davenport, Iowa was drafting plans to revitalize its downtown, it identified a new art museum to serve as an anchor to the south and the Palmer campus as a key anchor to the north. The city, local developers and Palmer worked together to create new student housing in a previously derelict section between the two points.

On the Life campus, we've recently launched a major effort in conjunction with our neighbor, Southern Polytechnic State University, the City of Marietta and Cobb County governments, and the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce to re-envision the area immediately surrounding our campuses. Combining the interests of Southern Poly, Life and our local governments provides an opportunity to create a collaborative whereby each user enhances the others.

Creating a University Zone

We've been inspired by other university communities, such as Westwood Village at UCLA; the Pearl Street Mall near the University of Colorado; and Philadelphia's Templetown, spurred by Temple University. Some of these institutions saw communities simply grow up around them and others proactively worked to create the type of community they wanted. That's the model we're pursuing.

Together, Life and Southern Poly see an opportunity to create an environment that supports and adds to the richness of our campus communities and reflects our vitalistic values. For example, we want to attract restaurants that offer sustainable, organic food choices, not fast-food chains. We want dry cleaners that use environmentally safe processes. And, we want to create sporting venues, shopping, performance spaces, student housing and even homes that appeal to retirees who would enjoy living close to two vibrant campuses.

Part of our visioning considers expanding both campuses to the east to create a presence on a major thoroughfare where the county and city also hope to create a green-tech corridor. This regionally-significant development would provide many opportunities to exemplify sustainability through redefining connectivity with walkable and bikeable roads, trails, boulevards and parks, pursuing environmentally responsible companies as tenants, and protecting waterways.

A Chiropractic Community

There's no question that today's chiropractic colleges interact extensively with their local communities, providing thousands of patient visits in on-campus and outreach clinics, serving as robust employers, participating in local health initiatives and reaching out to high-school and college students interested in the health sciences. It's time, though, for chiropractic colleges to begin actually shaping our local communities. We can serve as strong voices to advocate for more accessible walking and biking opportunities, more healthful food choices, environmentally sustainable building practices and, of course, easy access to chiropractic care for all area residents. That's the sort of place all of us would like to call "home."

Dr. Guy F. Riekeman, current president of Life University in Marietta, Ga., has held leadership positions in chiropractic education essentially since his graduation from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1972. He was appointed vice president of Sherman College in 1975 and has served as president of all three Palmer campuses and as chancellor of the Palmer Chiropractic University System. In 2006, he was elected to the board of directors of the Council on Chiropractic Education.

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