LEWISTON – When local people are asked about the relationship between Bates College and the Lewiston-Auburn community, they often say “it used to be really bad.”
There was a kind of psychological fence around the college, separating the Batesies from the townies. “People didn’t feel welcome on the Bates campus, sometimes still don’t,” said David Scobey, director of the college’s Harward Center for Community Partnership.
As with other colleges in the ’80s, “there was a great divide” between colleges and communities, said Scobey, who was Thursday’s speaker at the Great Falls Forum. It was a time when colleges and universities withdrew from communities where they were located.
Higher education only paid attention to communities when they did “research about” the communities, Scobey said.
At Bates that began to change in the 1980s, Scobey said, when Don Harward started to involve students in community service learning. Bates became a national leader in service learning. Instead of only “research about,” the program involved students in “teaching for the community,” generating knowledge to help solve community problems.
That first wave of service learning was small. At Bates it involved only some classes. The community focus ended when the semester closed. And it the was almost always framed as serving community needs. “That had the danger of educating students to view themselves as offering charity,” Scobey said, unintentionally reinforcing “elitism.”
Two decades later, Bates and other colleges and universities are on a second wave of community partnerships, offering more long-term commitments and involving more students.
The conversation is no longer “how can we help you?” but “what can we do together?”
Community projects now include Bates working with local organizations involved in environmental work in community gardens and the Androscoggin River, elementary classrooms, and the Lewiston-Auburn Museum.
For instance, history students are working with the museum interviewing local elders about their stories. Using pictures and words, traveling exhibits will show and tell what it was like to work in the mills. Next year the exhibits may be placed at the mall, in schools, libraries or churches.
When the community helps students learn, and when students help the community, it’s “a win, win, win,” Scobey said. “The museum exhibits get better. The museum gets stronger.” Students get a richer education; they graduate not just scholars, but better citizens.
Bates needs the help of more people in the community “to help enrich the work we’re doing,” Scobey said.
Following his talk, Scobey took questions, including two tough ones.
Esther Shapiro described herself as a great Bates supporter. Her late husband, Isadore, graduated from Bates in 1931. He went on to serve as Lewiston High School principal. She blasted Bates Thursday for admitting too few Lewiston-Auburn high school graduates.
“There are people here who went to Bates who contributed greatly to this community,” she said. “Bates owes the community at least one admission” from Lewiston and Auburn, as long as qualified, able students apply, she said.
Scobey said he did not have the expertise to speak on how many local students are accepted at Bates. He agreed with Shapiro’s point, “that if we are not seen as a place that welcomes our neighbors in a whole host of ways, we can’t do this job of community partnership.”
Former mayoral candidate Charles Soule asked what Bates is doing about the growth of the college’s tax-exempt property that erodes the local tax base?
Scobey said in general Bates contributes greatly to the community’s wealth through jobs, investments and economic growth. It is his hope that his community partnership work will further foster economic development and prosperity.