Advancing the Metropolitan Mission

By | January 23, 2017

Advancing the Metropolitan Mission

Regional comprehensive universities have a specific institutional role to play on the landscape of higher education.  A core part of the mission of institutions like the University of South Carolina Upstate’s is a responsibility to partner with, and work to improve, our surrounding communities.   Dubbed the USC Upstate metropolitan mission, we are committed to engaging with our community partners on multiple levels.


Our beautiful 330-acre campus has a major impact on our local Spartanburg community.  As an extension of our academic mission, the University hosts cultural and sporting events.  We enhance our communities with our theater and music performances, our library, gallery spaces, arboretum and protected green space.  But in addition to how we enrich the quality of life for our community, USC Upstate also has a direct economic impact.  We have 550 full-time employees and about 500 part-time employees serving approximately 6,000 students and more than 26,500 alumni. Using a model developed to measure the economic impact of universities by the South Carolina Department of Commerce, a conservative estimate of our impact states that USC Upstate contributed $152,437,408 into the local economy in 2015-2016.  With a state investment of about $11 million a year, USC Upstate continues to demonstrate an ability to leverage the state’s investment into a significant impact for our community.


Imagine this community without USC Upstate. The University provides training and technical assistance to numerous community groups, organizations, non-profits and initiatives. Who would provide research expertise, data analytics and report writing for the Spartanburg Community Indicators Project, the numerous award winning community health improvement projects led by the Mary Black Foundation, the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM) and the Spartanburg County Detention Center?  Our science educators made more than 20,000 visits last year to K-12 schools with innovative STEM programs to interest students in science.  USC Upstate opened a new service learning program pairing students, faculty and the community in working together to solve community problems. This program led to USC Upstate students volunteering 55,050 hours in the community.


As USC Upstate begins to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the University is recommitting in a powerful way to our metropolitan mission. And this is being done in a way that matters deeply to the academic community.   That is, community engagement activities now play a role in promotion and tenure decisions in the same way achievements in basic research, scholarships and creative activities have in the past. This change in the reward structure for faculty was the result of a great deal of generative discussion and debate over this past semester. Why does this matter?


For every organization, aligning the reward structure with the larger vision and goals of the institution is a key aspect of success.   As a comprehensive research university, USC Upstate has now taken steps to insure that our dedicated faculty members do not need to choose between their commitment to serving our community and their own internal career success.  We now have the ability to not only celebrate but also to reward community engagement work.


Let me give concrete examples.  A health communication scholar is planning how to spend research time in the coming semester, which will be dedicated to conducting basic research on a national campaign to decrease adolescent obesity.  The research must follow the norms needed to be published in an academic peer reviewed journal. These norms could include developing the correct sample size, balancing the message design, and following all the laboratory protocols designed to rule out alternative explanations and so on.  The faculty member’s time and energy would be focused on this national project.  But our local health agencies may need the expertise of this faculty member to develop a Spartanburg public health campaign targeted to the growing obesity problem in our children.  If developed by the faculty expert, the campaign would be based on the best available evidence.  But that campaign and its results and impact, although vital to our community, may not lend itself to “publication” in an academic journal.  A historian may choose to continue working in the archives on a book for publication or that faculty member may help a local community historical association to develop an exhibit.  With the new promotion guidelines, that faculty member who chooses to embed their work in efforts aimed at improving the community we live and work in, can be rewarded for it.


Both the University and the Spartanburg community are strengthened by these internal changes.  Chancellor Emeritus of Indiana University-Purdue University Charles Bantz, told us at the inaugural lecture for the forum “Creating the Future for the Urban and Metropolitan University” that our community engagement goal must begin with improving our local community. The faculty have shown they are embracing the metropolitan mission in a productive manner.

USC Upstate has enjoyed working with the Spartanburg community for the past 50 years and is looking forward to enriching the Spartanburg community in partnerships for the next 50 years and beyond. Together, we will create a future that is enriching, engaged and healthy.

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