Town and gown: SIUE, Madison County form partnership to link campus and community

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Consider a student who may be weary of strict academic lectures and wants to see where all of this classroom learning is going to fit into the real world.

Then consider a business owner who wants to find new ideas and new energy but isn’t sure where to look.

A new cooperative program between Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Madison County hopes to match the expertise of academia with the needs of business and the community to make all sides stronger and more successful.

And keeping newly minted college grads in the community can’t hurt.

“We have a brain trust here at SIUE,” said Alan Dunstan, who has been head of the Madison County board since 2002. “As students graduate from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, we like them to stay in the community where they got their degree and actually see a lot of opportunities here.”

The town-gown discussions began during last year’s tenure of interim SIUE Chancellor Steve Hansen. When Randy Pembrook became chancellor in August, he brought with him experience in working with the community from his days as chief academic officer at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

There, he said, it was important for the school to reach out to the city and the county, which provided a big share of its funding. He emphasized that experience when he was interviewing for the SIUE job, and when he arrived he was pleased to find a similar partnership attitude starting in Edwardsville.

“I got to jump on a moving train,” Pembrook said.

Where that train is headed, both men said, is toward greater collaboration and a shared sense of progress.

“You have the students at a university that are thinking about, reflecting on the challenges within a community,” Pembrook said. “Then you find the partners that want to be a part of that, whether that’s a business or a social services agency. And you figure out ways to have the students, on a day-to-day basis, doing the things that they’re learning about, whether it’s applying engineering techniques, whether it’s dealing with psychology issues.

“Those are the things I think make for exciting programs, and it’s a way to keep our students in the area.”

It’s also a way to fulfill the obligations of a school like SIUE, he added.

“I think public universities have an obligation, a responsibility to be partners in communities,” Pembrook said. “So it fits very well with our mission, which is shaping a changing world. I challenge young people: What is it you want to shape, and how are you going to do that?”

Hard times, new direction

The fiscal crisis in Illinois education and elsewhere also is a factor in making sure resources are used as widely and as efficiently as possible.

“We have challenges in Illinois,” Pembrook said. “So to kind of evolve where the partnership also involves communities and businesses is a great next step. For a long time, I think it’s been largely the university and the state, the government funding.”

Added Dunstan:

“Let’s face it. We are in the state of Illinois that has some very big financial problems today, and it does affect college. What we want to do is put a little recognition on SIUE. This college is here. Everyone knows it’s here. Let’s continue to sell it as a great institution.”

To do that, Pembrook said, the college has to sell what it does best: creating and spreading knowledge.

“Historically,” he said, “we relied on information that existed, and that’s what we taught from. When you think of how quickly the world is changing now, I think a lot of faculty members realize that what is going on right now – in technology, in industry, that has a direct bearing on what students should be learning. I think faculty are broadening the way they think of the educational experience.

“People learn more quickly when they actually have a chance to apply things. So I think pedagogy is changing from the idea of the professor having all the information to the professor creating situations to that people can practice their skills, so they can reflect on what they’re doing. I think that’s where the community model is so good.”

And that model works best, Pembrook said, when you put together the kind of group that SIUE and Madison County is working with.

“One of the most difficult parts of this,” he said, “is that you have to have the right people in the room talking about the right potential projects. Someone has to be thinking about how do we get this person from this business and this person from this particular department together to make those connections. And once you have those individuals in the room, I think it flows very naturally.”

The new partnership is still getting organized, both men said, with more people expressing interest all the time. How will its success ultimately be judged?

Pembrook said by looking at internships for students, partnerships with businesses or government agencies and how often faculty members are sought out for their expertise.

And Dunstan has a stretch goal that could put the county up there with other centers of innovation.

“Let’s just say that we have someone that starts a business in a garage, like Microsoft or a company like that,” he said, “and they’re able to use SIU faculty and students to help that program. And all of a sudden they mushroom into that next technology thing that nobody even knows what it’s going to be, and it stays here locally.

“With the job opportunities for SIUE students, it’s just a tremendous opportunity that we’re trying to do here. I’d just love to see the next Microsoft or the next Apple or something come right out of Madison County, Illinois, with the help of SIUE, and just see it grow. It would be tremendous.”

To help make that happen, Pembrook has one message for people looking for solutions:

“What are your issues? Let us know, and we’ll work on them together.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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Town and gown: SIUE, Madison County form partnership to link campus and community

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