By Kim Grimshaw Bolton and Calmetta Coleman
Photo by Shaun Sartin

Nearly 200 representatives from higher education and medical institutions from across the country gathered at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center on Nov. 18 for the 2014 Anchor Institutions Task Force Conference, hosted by UChicago.

In a keynote address, University President Robert J. Zimmer told the audience that anchor institutions can catalyze economic, social, and cultural development and shouldn’t wait for government or others to do so.

“Institutions like the University of Chicago have had the opportunity to flourish, and they can, in turn, purposefully advance the possibility of others to do so and, thereby, strengthen all of us and our social fabric,” Zimmer said, noting that UChicago has considered itself an anchor in the city of Chicago since its founding in 1890. “The first president, William Rainey Harper, was very clear that the role of the University was to be a research and education institution, but one that had clear and direct impact on the city around it.”

The Anchor Institutions Task Force, based in New York, functions as a think tank with a network of more than 500 members. The annual AITF conference brings together representatives of higher education and medical institutions to share best practices and develop strategies for advancing the role of anchor institutions in their communities. The conference was held in Chicago for the first time this year, and the Chicago Community Trust and University of Illinois at Chicago were co-hosts.

“It is crucial to leverage the enduring resources of anchor institutions to strengthen communities and reduce disparities in areas such as education, economics, and health,” said AITF Director David Maurrasse. “By bringing representatives of anchor institutions together with government and philanthropy, we can identify strategies to enhance how anchors work collaboratively in their communities and improve the health and vitality of localities and regions.”

This year’s conference was the group’s largest, with nearly 200 attendees, and AITF membership has steadily increased in recent years, including a growing international movement, according to Maurrasse. Institutions represented at the conference included the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, and the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. There were panels on four topics: education, economic development, international anchors, and community health.

Zimmer noted that UChicago currently fulfills its anchor role in four primary ways: as an educational institution, through research, as an economic engine, and by promoting the arts. Among the UChicago initiatives that support the city, Zimmer highlighted UChicago Promise, which helps Chicago high school students prepare for and succeed in college through academic programming, workshops, and financial assistance to those attending the University; the Crime Lab, a national model for conducting controlled experiments to evaluate the efficacy of policies to reduce violent crime; UChicago Local, through which the University partners with area organizations to connect businesses and job seekers in mid-South Side neighborhoods to opportunities at the University, the University of Chicago Medicine, and their vendor networks; and the Arts Incubator, a University development in Washington Park that is bringing the community together both to practice and experience art.

Shayne Evans, CEO and Director of the University of Chicago Charter School, and Dr. Doriane Miller, Associate Professor at the University of Chicago Department of Medicine, participated on education and health panels, respectively. Evans noted that the charter high school was recently ranked second in the Chicago region for college enrollment. He shared some key components that have contributed to that success: students start researching college opportunities in sixth grade, and there are two full-time staff members in the college graduation office and seven college counselors on staff.

“We have one counselor for every 60 students,” Evans said, emphasizing the need for dedicated resources. The typical ratio is one to 350 or 400.

Miller detailed some of the health challenges facing the University of Chicago Medicine’s service area. Between 48 and 65 percent of households have annual incomes below $25,000, there are significant levels of obesity, and high mortality rates from diabetes. The South Side Health Care Collaborative was launched in 2005, to find medical homes for patients seen in emergency rooms whose needs would be better addressed through primary care.

“We have established partnerships with more than 35 community clinics and hospitals on the South Side, and generated programs to link community residents to the University for specialty care, community provider education, and training,” she said. UChicago Medicine recently released its 2013 Community Benefit Report on its wide array of community outreach and services.

Heather Foster, Public Engagement Advisor for the White House Office of Public Engagement, also spoke to the group about the Affordable Care Act, encouraging anchor institutions to remind individuals to sign up for access to health care through the Act.

In his welcoming remarks, Derek Douglas, the University’s Vice President for Civic Engagement, explained the three components that are essential for an institution’s success as an anchor. “You need leadership that is committed to civic engagement, it needs to be in the DNA of the organization, and you need to partner with the community,” he said.

The University’s role in the Anchor Institutions Task Force conference followed the release of a report by America’s Urban Campus, a consortium of 17 Chicago institutions of higher education, highlighting the role of colleges and universities in the economic and social fabric of Chicago. The Chicago Community Trust funded that study, as well as hosted the opening reception for the AITF conference on Nov. 17. Trust President and CEO Terry Mazany concluded his keynote address at the conference by challenging the institutions to “stand tall for science and stand tall for the equity of educational opportunity for all.”

Originally published on December 4, 2014.