Essential to any top-tier university’s success is a positive public image. And essential to any positive public image is philanthropy, outreach and public service.
USC accomplishes all three of these through its Good Neighbors Campaign. The fundraiser, held annually each October, supports university-community partnerships such as Troy Camp and the Community Health Fair. This year’s fundraising goal is a not-so-modest $1.6 million — $100,000 more than last year’s record-breaking total.
Campaigns like the GNC, however, are predicated by more than just reputation. Being a good neighbor to surrounding communities honors USC’s commitment to education, public service and personal and communal development — a commitment integral to the school’s mission. But community engagement goes hand in hand with community awareness, and on that front, USC has faltered as of late.
USC has recently implemented projects that threaten the same community it has pledged to support. Most recently, USC’s University Village redevelopment project was halted by the Los Angeles City Council after it was determined not to have taken the affordable housing needs of community members under full consideration.
USC now faces a disgruntled neighborhood, a delayed construction project and a public relations faux pas because it momentarily forgot that engaging with the community goes beyond the mere pledge to do so.
Students, alumni and administrators must support community initiatives like the GNC to ensure that USC’s commitment to community is upheld and to meet our responsibilities to society as an enlightened center of wealth.
USC’s mission vows to foster “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.”
Such development necessitates community engagement for two reasons: On the individual level, community service exposes students to a wider range of lifestyles, backgrounds and circumstances, encouraging a more complete understanding of the world in which we live.
The GNC, for example, helps to fund the Joint Educational Project, which allows students to experience firsthand the problems of a tightly budgeted, under-staffed inner-city education system. JEP gives students the opportunity to provide supplementary instruction and tutoring to kids in local elementary, middle and high schools, giving them the rare opportunity to recognize their own educational privilege while passing on the knowledge and skills afforded by that privilege to a less fortunate community.
On the social level, community engagement through the GNC better equips community members themselves to contribute to society. JEP, for example, enhances the academic capabilities of local children, improving their chances of graduating from high school, entering college and realizing their full potential within society.
In this way, community engagement gives of itself. The more effort, care and financial support that institutions of means such as USC put into the community, the more resources the community has at its disposal to further its own enrichment. The effects of one intervention — teaching a child to read before he or she reaches kindergarten, offering a job to a local resident, introducing a student to his or her creative passion — can continue to benefit society and, in turn, USC for years to come. USC and its students need only set the pendulum in motion.
It is, perhaps, for this reason that USC names public service as one of the principle means by which its mission is accomplished, alongside teaching, research, artistic creation and professional practice. And it is, perhaps, for this reason that USC students collectively log more than 900,000 hours of volunteer work each year.
But we can do better.
The GNC donation website poses a challenge to potential donors: “Are you a good neighbor?” But asking that question requires that USC sets the standard of being a good neighbor, something the university is not currently doing with regards to its handling of the UV project.
As long as the GNC and similar initiatives are appreciated as more than political tokens — as long as the fundamental importance of reciprocal support between university and community are understood — we can prevent seemingly inconsiderate mistakes like this one from happening again. We can preserve the commitment to education, public service and personal and communal development that will truly make our university a place for critical thinking and positive change.
We must never let this commitment go. We must remain the university we claim to be. And that requires making the difficult ethical choices in a world full of easy business decisions.
Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column “Open Campus” runs Wednesdays.