Barn Raising Matters: Nancy Cantor at September Dayton Days

Maura Casey, a former New York Times editorial writer and now an associate with the Kettering Foundation, reports on Nancy Cantor’s recent visit to the Kettering Foundation. Cantor was invited to speak during September Dayton Days, our monthly research meeting. In particular, she was asked to address one of Kettering’s research questions involving institutions of higher education: How can community engagement practices evolve beyond service and volunteer models to contribute to and strengthen the civic life of communities?

When Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark Nancy Cantor talks about how to connect higher education with surrounding communities, her primary sources can be expressed in two words: wise grandmothers. As chancellor of Syracuse University between 2004-2013, she went out of her way to find, and listen to, the elders in the nearby neighborhoods who were key to those communities.

Cantor spoke about the experience during Kettering’s Dayton Days on September 10. She said the university’s decision to move its architecture school to an abandoned warehouse in downtown Syracuse and give a huge floor to the west side neighborhoods meant that they would be engaging with the area in formal and informal ways. She wanted to be thoughtful about how they did this and wanted the faculty’s involvement in the surrounding area to be a long-term commitment.

“If (university professors) are teaching about civic engagement and only doing time-limited engagement, then they never really become citizens of that community, [which is] so critical to the long-term success of the effort,” Cantor said. “I always remember the grandmother on the near west side, saying, ‘I just don’t want another guy coming in asking if he can do a survey on what it is like to live here. If that is all you are going to do, we don’t want you.’” Another tidbit of wisdom from the wise elders: “Ask us, we sleep here at night.”

Cantor argues that, at its best, when universities become involved in the community, it becomes a kind of democratic “barn raising” that helps both the immediate area and the university. And she made a business case for such activities with university trustees: “Your catchment base may be beyond the university, but if the community collapses, students and faculty will not want to come. The richness and diversity of scholarship and education will be fundamentally tied to the prosperity and thriving of the diverse communities that are our nation.”

And, she said, professors’ efforts within the community should be as important to their careers and achieving tenure as publishing, although Cantor acknowledged the difficulties in changing rules regarding faculty evaluations and promotion to give more weight to civic engagement.

“The food co-op a young architect designed and got built, does that constitute a product? It can be evaluated for creativity and impact, but it will not necessarily appear in a journal,” Cantor said. “I have asked faculty why it is so appealing to work on maternal health in Haiti when moms and babies are dying down the street, yet we think of that as something you might do on a volunteer basis, not part of your professional responsibility.”

Kettering program officer Derek Barker added that from Kettering’s perspective, the “raising” of the barn might be more important than the barn itself. While universities often address issues like prenatal health and literacy through expert outreach, working with the community builds a different kind of relationship and civic capacity.

Barn raising matters, both to universities and to neighborhoods.