News & Media

The Power Dynamics of Community Partnerships in a Post-COVID World

By Nate Addington, Director of Community Engagement and Outreach at University of Missouri- Kansas City

Brad Anderson was the illustrator of the Marmaduke Comic from 1954 until his death in 2015, at the age of 91. If you’ve ever opened the comics section of a newspaper, you likely saw one of Anderson’s one-frame illustrations of the mischievous canine who didn’t know his own size. In a 1999 interview with the Dallas Morning News, Anderson discussed Marmaduke’s oversized proportions. “I wanted a dog that doesn’t know it’s a big dog because big dogs don’t realize how large they are. They want to sit in your lap.”

From small-town liberal arts campuses to massive public research institutions, colleges and universities can unwittingly play the role of Marmaduke in their communities. The post-COVID world requires we be even more attuned to the needs of our community partners to avoid common engagement pitfalls.

A report released in June of 2020 indicated 83% of large and mid-sized nonprofits saw a decrease in revenue since the start of the pandemic. These losses were attributed to a 47% decrease in employment across respondents. Additionally, a Florida State University survey of small businesses and nonprofits reported 15.2% of participants permanently closed their doors, and 14.5% of participants closed temporarily since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has left many of these organizations looking for new forms of support, which presents colleges and universities with the opportunity to recommit to their communities and their core mission of public service. However, institutions of higher education should treat their community partnerships with a new level of care during this unprecedented time.

The pandemic has also greatly affected our efforts as an industry. Enrollment projections are increasingly murky, faculty are asked to take on larger teaching loads, and administrators are often left holding more responsibility due to staff and budget reductions. It would be easy to look at our community partners and think our plights are equally challenging. But for many community partners, whose annual budgets are often dwarfed by a single academic department’s expenditures, the relative stability of higher education can look like a lifeboat in rough seas. This opens the door for lopsided partnerships, agreements, and MOUs where the community partner takes on a larger responsibility in the short term, in the hopes the partnership will yield long term benefits.

Higher education has a long legacy of over-promising, under-delivering, and unduly burdening our community partners to accomplish our teaching and research agendas. Like Marmaduke, we can be vastly unaware of how our size and influence can exert unspoken pressure on those we are attempting to serve. In a time when our country needs the mission of higher education to deliver more than ever, we must approach every partnership with a pure sense of open and honest reciprocity. Where, if anything, our community partners are getting the better end of the deal.

  • Commission on Economic & Community Engagement
  • Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness, & Economic Prosperity
  • Council on Engagement & Outreach
  • Economic Development & Community Engagement

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