A Non-exploitative Community-University Partnership? A Case Study on the Co-Education/Co-Research Model (CORE)

By Gaston Neville

Reposted from Penn Loh’s blog Practical Visionaries


Many universities collaborate with their local communities through research and outreach programs aimed at addressing systemic inequalities present within their local community. Very few, however, overcome the challenges of universities dominating the agenda and reinforcing hierarchies of knowledge and resources.

The Co-Education/Co-Research (CoRE) model attempts to transform the unequal power dynamics of community-university partnerships. The CoRE model, championed by the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, not only seeks equity but actively redefines partnership roles. With CoRE, the community isn’t merely an equitable stakeholder; they are accorded full parity with the university in both research and teaching.

Introduction to the CoRE Model

Aiming to cultivate enduring collaborations, CoRE champions a co-evolutionary approach, ensuring that partnerships are not only sustained but also grow and adapt over time.

The Challenge: Despite many Community-University Partnerships (CUPs) attempting to address the unequal power dynamics present within them, there remains a prevalent trend: the preferential treatment given to academia over community goals and knowledge. This problem permeates into many different aspects of CUPs, leading to a varied list of potential pitfalls. These include prioritizing student learning over community needs, the constraints imposed by the academic calendar, a tendency for fleeting semester-to-semester engagements, a fragmented approach between research, teaching, and practice, the emphasis on peer-reviewed articles overshadowing community benefits, and the disproportionate recognition given to international efforts compared to local community development initiatives.

Rather than imposing predefined agendas, CoRE’s method begins with a simple but important question posed to communities: “What do you need?” Based on the responses, CoRE collaboratively crafts plans with community groups to address their specific needs. By having the community group be an equal partner in this exchange, community needs are not overshadowed by the wants of a better resourced academic institution.

The CoRE model is unique in its financial approach as well. Instead of allocating funds for predetermined projects, community groups receive funds to co-create plans with Tufts. This fosters a sense of genuine partnership and shared objectives.

Key CoRE Experiences

A key CoRE partnership has been with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), a Boston-based community planning and organizing group. Through this CoRE partnership, Tufts has been able to assist DSNI in a flexible and holistic way, to the point that leaders within DSNI have called Tufts the “research arm” of their organization. 

Harry Smith, a former DSNI senior staff, noted that formalizing the partnership “moved us from a project-by-project orientation to UEP becoming the research arm of DSNI, nimble enough to adapt in the face of change and advance the CLT [community land trust] movement and our work around land use and planning” (Loh et al, 2022)

Besides research, the CoRE model also encourages a cross-flow of people between the university and the community group. For example, leaders within DSNI have enrolled in the Master of Public Policy mid-career program at UEP, and former UEP students have joined staff positions within DSNI.

Through the CoRE model, Tufts UEP has been able to make valuable contributions to DSNI and its community goals, such as helping launch the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, supporting the planning of an arts and innovation district in Uphams Corner, launching an educational program called Teaching Democracy that provides free popular-education training resources, and a stream of funding to DSNI that allowed the organization to plan ahead.

Critical Insights from the CoRE Model

Key insights from the CoRE model, especially in collaboration with DSNI, underscore the complexities of navigating varied hierarchies inherent in community-university partnerships.

A recurring challenge in these relationships is the pressure on community groups to seek academic validation of their endeavors, especially when interacting with external stakeholders like funders or municipal authorities. While universities can offer validation, as Tufts has with the DSNI partnership, this reinforces an existing hierarchy between the community and the university – a hierarchy CoRE wishes to eliminate.

Another nuance arising from the CoRE-DSNI partnership is the intricate relationships formed as a result of close ties between the university’s staff, students, and the community group. This closeness can sometimes blur boundaries, potentially leading to ambiguity and even mistrust. Community leaders may become uncertain about the affiliations of individuals associated with both entities.

Works Cited

Loh P, Ackerman Z, Fidalgo J, Tumposky R. Co-Education/Co-Research Partnership: A Critical Approach to Co-Learning between Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and Tufts University. Social Sciences. 2022; 11(2):71. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11020071
Available at: https://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/ijcre/article/view/7749/7846

Loh, P. Ackerman, Z., and Fidalgo, J. 2021. A Relational Approach to Transforming Power in a Community-University Partnership. Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement, 14:2, 1–16. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/11/2/71

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