Article for Universities and Community Schools, published by the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania

To Change a University, Start with the Community

By Stephen L. Percy and Mary Jane Brukardt
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Changing the direction of an institution of higher education is, as a former University of Wisconsin Regent once wrote, a lot like trying to move a battleship with your bare hands. It takes strategic leadership and a lot of people willing to help push.

This is the story of that push, the continuing tale of how the idea of community-university engagement has become an invigorating--and transforming--vision for an entire institution.

Time for a Change

In 1998 the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was ready to consider a change in course. The Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin System's largest urban public university was ending a seven-year term to return to the classroom. Student enrollment was back to more than 22,000 students for the first time in the decade and faculty numbers were stabilizing after years of cutbacks. New student housing and renovations to major buildings promised to highlight the university's enviable location near the shores of Lake Michigan, just minutes from downtown.

As the university looked to the future it was clear it needed a compelling vision, one that would help shape and define its mission as an urban, research university as well as its unique role within the UW-System which also includes the internationally recognized flagship campus in Madison and twelve other four-year comprehensive universities. Despite Research II status and strong undergraduate and graduate programs serving a large contingent of returning and continuing students of all ages, UWM wanted to do better in attracting minority students, outside dollars and innovative faculty. The Search and Screen Committee for the new Chancellor, after many meetings with faculty, staff, alumni and students, determined that what the university needed was a visionary leader who could help UWM become a more responsive, innovative urban university.

UWM found that leader in Nancy L. Zimpher, who came on board in the summer of 1998 from the Ohio State University where she had been dean of the College of Education and Executive Dean of the Professional Colleges. While at Ohio State she had helped direct its Campus Collaborative, working with community groups to transform the university’s neighborhoods. No stranger to the power of community-campus partnerships, Zimpher recognized in UWM its strong history of outreach and service and the potential for finding new purpose and mission in the principles of engagement. Shortly after her arrival, she challenged faculty, staff and students to imagine a future as a new kind of university, one inextricably linked to its community: "It’s not just us serving the city. It’s not just the city serving us," she said in her first campus speech. "It is the notion of together building a city and university that are the heart of metropolitan Milwaukee. This is the essence of [what we will call] The Milwaukee Idea."

An Old Idea Made New

Of course the idea of community engagement as an animating mission for the academy is not a new one. As Seth Low, president of Columbia from 1890 to 1901 said in his inaugural address, "…there is no such thing as the world of letters apart from the world of men." This progressive tradition was the fertile soil in which Wisconsin’s university system was nurtured in the late nineteenth century. It was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that the notion of "The Wisconsin Idea" was first expressed: "the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state." From its earliest years to today, The Wisconsin Idea has embodied the university’s mission of research and outreach—as well as teaching—to provide information, policy and service to the state and community.

When the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was founded in 1956, it continued this philosophy, with the expressed purpose that it be "Milwaukee’s university," a "powerful partner" with the city. UWM faculty, staff and students have taken that charge seriously, engaging in literally hundreds of projects and partnerships with neighborhood schools, small business, downtown development agencies, community activists and social service agencies. In 1996, for example, UWM received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to form a Milwaukee Community Outreach Partnership Center (MCOPC) to pursue broad-scale neighborhood revitalization. Administered by the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research, MCOPC brought together an interdisciplinary team from across campus that included The School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Centers for Economic Development and Urban Community Development, the Employment and Training Institute, and the Department of Sociology.

Since MCOPC was formed, UWM faculty and staff have joined with a community partnership of educators, parents, neighbors, community organizations and businesses to create full-service community centers at three area schools. MCOPC staff and students from the School of Architecture and Urban Planning worked with residents of a home for the chronically mentally ill to design suitable housing. UWM’s Employment and Training Institute conducted regular job opening surveys to assist technical training organizations in matching openings to workforce skills, and produced school-to-work and career planning materials for middle and high-school students. Non-profit leaders participated in a year-long seminar called Community Action Scholars and learned "the value and power of shared experience." From community nursing to on-site tutoring, research for business start-ups to studies of welfare reform, UWM continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of "powerful partnerships" to enhance learning and strengthen community.

But as the recently released Kellogg Commission report on the future of state and land-grant universities notes, university engagement goes beyond conventional outreach and public service. Interdisciplinary coalitions and large numbers of community partnerships are important, but are only a prelude to the next step: "integrating engagement into the institutional mission" and "infusing engagement into curriculum and teaching." Such a vision for the "engaged institution" is, in the words of Chancellor Zimpher, "too ambitious to be the property of a single campus entity, like one department or one school." Equally important, engagement at the institutional level must include the community from the very beginning in its design and implementation.

And so, The Milwaukee Idea was born. Over the course of the past year, students, faculty, staff and community members have met to create and implement "Big Ideas"--"new ways in which UWM can join hands with the people of metropolitan Milwaukee." According to Zimpher, the Milwaukee Idea of community engagement will be "woven into the fabric of the university and into the way in which we do our work, adding color and luster to our strong tradition of teaching excellence, research and scholarship, service and engagement." If, as Ira Harkavy contends, "the radical reform of higher education is most likely to occur in the crucible of significant, serious, sustained, active engagement," UWM is testing that hypothesis where it counts: in the academy and on the street.

Step One: Imagine

How do you mobilize an entire university around community engagement? At UWM, it began with 100 people and one word: imagine. Imagine the shared future of Milwaukee and UWM. A "Committee of 100"—invited students, faculty, staff and community—met for the first time in October, 1998, and were tasked with fleshing out The Milwaukee Idea. What is it? What are the big ideas that will mobilize the university? How can community engagement improve student learning and research? Most important, what concrete action can be taken to make the ideas reality?

Over the course of only six months (a mere blink of an eye in traditional academic time!) the Committee of 100 (which soon grew to 200 as more people became excited about the process) organized into ten Affinity Groups to research and debate ways in which UWM could create bold new initiatives. Chancellor Zimpher and Stephen Percy, executive director of The Milwaukee Idea, scheduled a series of monthly large-group plenary meetings and set a March deadline; the rest was up to the members of the Affinity Groups. As Percy recalls, the process was "messy, evolutionary and definitely bottom-up." Groups, led by self-selected convenors, met on campus and by e-mail, shared ideas over the Web and came together to brainstorm concepts with the committee as a whole.

Early on, the leadership team for The Milwaukee Idea developed what came to be called "connectors:" a set of guiding principles that helped the Affinity Groups assess the validity of their proposals. First and foremost, the ideas had to be "big"--they had to result in significant and fundamental change to the campus and the community. In addition, the connectors included a commitment to fostering diversity and multiculturalism, nurturing new partnerships and collaborations, encouraging interdisciplinary relationships, enhancing student learning and campus culture, and supporting more open communication.

Communication became a watchword for The Milwaukee Idea process as the Affinity Groups’ ideas began to solidify. As James Carr, a senior vice president at the Fannie Mae Foundation reminds us, university efforts to engage the community must often first overcome well-earned and long-held skepticism and mistrust of institutions of higher education. So Chancellor Zimpher took The Milwaukee Idea on the road. She spoke to community and campus groups, at luncheons and breakfast meetings, and to business and civic leaders about The Milwaukee Idea and UWM’s desire for change. In addition, more than a dozen meetings were held with community groups on campus and off, sharing details about the proposed ideas before they were finalized. Groups included business leaders, alumni, neighbors, even the media. The goal was three-fold: to get public reaction back to the Affinity Groups for fine-tuning; to signal to the community that UWM valued its input and partnership; and to make UWM accountable for results. "We’re working without a net," said Zimpher. "What we are doing is public and must produce action."

Moving to Action

By March, the results were in. Affinity Groups identified ten "First Ideas" that reflected the values of the connectors and offered visionary new directions for the future of the university, grounded in UWM’s historic academic strengths. They included major initiatives in education, the economy and the environment: A new alternative general education requirement celebrating the city’s multicultural assets and involving community members in the learning process; a consortium for economic opportunity, linking university expertise with the community’s small businesses and entrepreneurs; new partnerships to study and implement programs addressing urban health issues; a "healthy choices" program targeting issues of substance use on campus and in the community; and an international center for freshwater research, among others. The ideas were announced by Zimpher at her inauguration as the sixth Chancellor of UWM and applauded by the mayor, county executive and governor.

The more important announcement, however, was not the ideas (they’d been publicly discussed for months) but the next step. As Zimpher stated at the very first Milwaukee Idea plenary session "ideas without action are meaningless." The real challenge of change is implementation and so Zimpher asked the impossible: teams of faculty, students, staff and community would work through the summer to create concrete action plans—complete with detailed budgets and staffing plans—to implement the ten First Ideas. In only four months, the working blueprints for moving forward would be complete.

While the Affinity Groups were open to anyone on campus or in the community, membership on the Action Teams was by nomination, based on interest, expertise and experience. The goal was to create small teams of about twelve to fifteen people, representing diverse perspectives and backgrounds, able to work intensively to create strategic plans for implementation. The Chancellor and her leadership team made the final selections. All nominees, however, were eligible to serve on advisory councils, which provided feedback to the Action Teams as their work progressed. Team leadership was shared by two UWM representatives and one community liaison.

Taking Stock

As of this writing, action plans for eight of the ten First Ideas are being evaluated by a team of campus and community representatives. The remaining two are gathering more community input. The evaluators are working with the Action Teams to develop realistic plans and launch strategies. Complete plans are now posted on the Web for campus-wide comment before final recommendations are made to the Chancellor. It is hoped that several of the ideas will receive the green light and begin implementation by the new year, less than eighteen months from the start of the process, with more to follow as they are ready. To that end, talks are being held with the Chancellor, deans, and university and academic staff committees to creatively resolve questions of governance, reporting, budgeting and staffing.

It is, of course, too early to assess success of The Milwaukee Idea. By no means has engagement been embraced campus-wide, nor have the many and varied opportunities for enhanced student learning, community participation and faculty research been realized, even in part. There are, however, signs that the "battleship" is beginning to change direction.

Early on in the Milwaukee Idea process, the leadership team identified "Eight Steps to Success"--measures to help assess accomplishments. They are:

1. Establish a sense of urgency

2. Create a guiding coalition

3. Empower people for broad-based action.

4. Develop vision and strategy

5. Communicate the change vision

6. Generate short-term wins

7. Consolidate gains and produce more change

8. Anchor changes in the culture

The sense of urgency at UWM was real. New leadership was in place. The secret to the success of The Milwaukee Idea can be found in Step 3: "Empower people for broad-based action." Chancellor Zimpher recalls the reactions she got as the process unfolded. "People would send me e-mails and say, 'We know you have all these people working on ideas, but surely you have a plan, Nancy.' I had to tell them, the plan is not mine. It belongs to UWM and to the people who create it and then make it happen." Thanks to the work of hundreds of people in the Affinity Groups and Action Teams, the university has a plan and specific strategies to get there.

The process has brought together individuals from across campus and the community, creating new networks and relationships. This has resulted in a cohort of enthusiastic students, faculty, staff and community people who are committed to implementing the ideas and to sharing the vision more broadly. As one participant in the Affinity Group process said at the final session, "The most meaningful result of this process is that it was so open. It allowed anyone who wanted to join in. This enabled people from across disciplines to talk to each other—it hasn’t happened before!" A measure of the success The Milwaukee Idea has had in encouraging "bottom up" creativity is that even as the logistics for implementing the First Ideas are being finalized, unsolicited proposals for the next round of ideas are already being received.

Thanks to The Milwaukee Idea, UWM has a new profile in the neighborhood and new ways to communicate with the community. The Milwaukee Idea office fields calls daily from organizations and individuals eager to explore potential partnerships and projects. A new Institute for Service Learning and a revived student volunteer center will provide additional support.

The sixth step to success—"create short-term wins"—can be measured in the Milwaukee Idea banners that dot the campus, the 100-fold increase in column inches generated in local media, and also in dollars. Corporate and individual donations have increased by 56% over the previous year, and grants for research funding have increased by 23% in the first quarter of the fiscal year alone. In addition, more than $5 million has been pledged directly to The Milwaukee Idea from State and system coffers.

And finally, is The Milwaukee Idea anchored in the culture of the university? That will take time, of course, but two important administrative mechanisms have been put in place to signal that community-university partnerships are the inspiration and the driver behind UWM’s aspirations to be a premier urban research university. The Milwaukee Idea office functions within the Chancellor’s office and a new position, Assistant Chancellor for Partnerships and Innovation, selected from the community and charged with directing community participation with the university, has been created.

So Far...

Chancellor Zimpher likes to tell the story of an encounter she had with a student, early in her tenure at UWM. It was a beautiful fall day and as the Chancellor walked across the plaza to the Student Union, he stopped her, introduced himself and told her how pleased he was with everything she was doing. Then he paused, and added: "So far!"

The challenge for change never ends.

For more information

To learn more about The Milwaukee Idea, see the website at Contact the office at 414-229-5916 for a brochure describing the First Ideas in detail.

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