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Shari Garmise, Senior Vice President for Urban Initiatives and Executive Director of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, Reflects on Her Tenure and the Future of Public Higher Education

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Shari Garmise, APLU’s Senior Vice President for Urban Initiatives and Executive Director of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), stepped down from her position as Executive Director after 10 years at the helm of the USU. We asked her to reflect on her time at APLU and USU. We’ll ask USU’s new Executive Director, Ashlie Prioleau, to share her insights on the urban public higher education landscape later this month.

How was USU started?
USU was launched in 2014 by Nancy Zimpher while she was president of the University of Cincinnati in partnership with Joseph Danek, principal of TIG consulting. In its early incarnation, it had two broad purposes: 1) Lobby Congress to recognize and resource urban-serving universities as the next-generation of land-grant universities; and 2) Develop initiatives to advance the anchor role of urban serving universities – the work universities do to address urban challenges. Before moving its management to APLU, USU did help develop a bill – the Urban University Renaissance Act – and launched its first initiative. Funded by Living Cities that initiative aimed to scale STRIVE, a cradle-to-career network also co-founded by Nancy Zimpher in the wider Cincinnati region.

What’s been USU’s guiding mission?
The Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) is a university president-led organization committed to enhancing urban university engagement to increase prosperity and opportunity in our nation’s cities and to tackling key urban challenges. How we implement this has changed over time, as have our priority focus areas. Having said that, whatever form it has taken, USU has always had initiatives touching health equity, educational equity, and community development.

USU’s work has spanned a wide array of issues areas from student success to improving the health of diverse populations to workforce development to building smart resilient cities. What have you learned from working in so many different areas?
I’ve learned the following hold true no matter what you do:

  • Build partnerships within APLU, with members, with external stakeholders and with funders. The problems we are trying to solve are too big. We can’t do it alone and we need a range of skills, competencies, and perspectives to design and execute the work.
  • Partnerships add complexity to already complex work so keep to your mission and stay focused. It’s easy to get lost. So keep the big picture front and center or you run the risk of drowning in the details.
  • Always start with a draft something. Groups work better if they have some ideas or guideposts to start with, rather than blank slates.
  • Look for cross-cutting themes even where you don’t expect to find them. One of the things we ran into is that many of the challenges, solutions, and approaches showed up across all the work we did. Even in these seemingly different areas, we were grappling with things like basic needs, getting the right data and the data right, and finding ways to change hearts and minds.
  • Communicate more with the public. We forget to tell people about the work we are doing.

USU formed a partnership with APLU in 2010. How has the partnership benefited both APLU and USU?
The benefits are many but different for each organization.

USU receives organizational capacity (finance, human resources, strategic communication), access (thus the ability to leverage) the wealth and breadth of APLU staff expertise, member networks and national reputation, and benefits from APLU’s meetings and proposal infrastructure.

APLU gains a dynamic, engaged presidential network, an innovation engine within its own structure that can, at times, take bolder risks with its initiatives and activities, a network of MSI’s with a history of collaboration, and an additional revenue source.

What makes urban public research universities unique?
Urban public research universities are not just in the city but of the city. They have a very diverse student body, usually reflecting the demographics of their region. Student success has long been on their agenda.

Urban public research universities are part of the urban fabric, and that will be reflected in their students, their research, and the nature of their engagement.

To be urban is to be innovative because of their commitment to their cities. Because of that need to innovate, you will find urbans leading into new areas of work. Already we see them boldly integrating Artificial Intelligence, dismantling racist structures, evolving new pathways into the workforce, working with K-14 in creative ways, and so much more. Models of change are often urban, and they are dynamic models—universities you should keep on your radar to understand where the world is going and how universities are evolving to get there.

The pandemic has caused immense challenges for public research universities. What opportunities has it created for them?
Quite a few actually. Here’s a starter list:

  • Universities demonstrated their ability to change on a dime. Not just to move classes online, but restructure labs and rearrange staff and students to support COVID testing, reframe research and expand research to fight the pandemic, deliver testing and other resources to isolated communities, train faculty at scale in new pedagogies, and so much more. As the world continues to change at a rapid pass, universities have shown they are a resource that can help society navigate that.
  • Building off the first point, their public role was highlighted as they became part of the infrastructure to manage the pandemic and support communities hurt by it. They did it by using all their assets – faculty expertise, research, student assets and dynamism, and community partnerships.
  • Innovation flourished on campus as folks had to figure stuff out. Many of them did. Every campus has stories to share not just on how they figured it out, but how the figured it out well.
  • A willingness to step in and take on the bigger problems through multi-disciplinary approaches. USU has made anti-racism and advancing racial justice and equity a work priority. Part of this is also about making connections in powerful ways. For example, we have long focused on social determinants of health, recognizing that health and health equity is more than simply a medical problem. The pandemic pulled back the curtain to expose that truth on this, but that has been on the urban agenda since USU partnered with APLU ten years ago.

Looking back on your 10 years with USU, what’s one lesson you would share with leaders of urban public research universities?
I have to share a few. The world is to complex for just one lesson.

  • Create a culture that embraces change, questions assumptions, and blurs lines between student and staff, community, and university.
  • Address challenges with the future you want clearly in mind. Design toward that future, don’t just tweak at problems.
  • Take collaboration to the next level. The level of changes needed can’t be done alone.
  • Urban Initiatives

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