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Tom McRoberts

Tom McRoberts, director of the Center for Small Towns.

Partnering with small towns

UMM's Center for Small Towns partners with Minnesota's rural communities on revitalization projects

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Nov. 29, 2006

"After we explore the heavens, we will inevitably discover that what we were hungry for all along was the personal connection found only in building community here on earth," said former astronaut and senator John Glenn last month.

Speaking at the Carter Partnership Award Ceremony Oct. 31, Glenn connected space travel to public engagement work being done in Minnesota communities--work that won the Center for Small Towns and the City of Morris the Carter Partnership Award for Campus-Community Collaboration.

"The Center for Small Towns started with a dream...the dream of U of M Morris former chancellor David C. Johnson," says Tom McRoberts, director of the Center for the past two years.

Johnson shared his dream with Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education on the Twin Cities campus, and Roger McCannon, who became the initial director of the center. Together they worked to make the dream a reality, gaining the support of Robert Bruininks, current University president, then the executive vice president of the University, and with funding from the University of Minnesota Foundation.

Much of what made the award possible was the work of McCannon and his colleagues in the Center for Small Towns, says McRoberts.

David Fluegel, coordinator of the center for more than nine years--from its beginning stages to its current success--says that when the center was started, significant economic and other changes were occurring in the region. Many small towns were struggling to find ways to stay vital and make ends meet.

"To explore the possibility of something like the Center for Small Towns, we set up some focus groups in the communities in the region to ask people, 'If there were such a thing as a Center for Small Towns, what would you like to see it be or do?'" says Fluegel. "Overwhelmingly, the response was, 'We don't want to be researched, we want to be helped.'"

At this point, they saw an opportunity to locate the center on the Morris campus and "find ways for faculty and students to get involved with different projects. Our focus has really been to work with local units of government, schools, and nonprofit organizations in the region," says Fluegel.

Using U knowledge to effect change

"One of the strengths of the Center for Small Towns is that, in addressing community issues and problems, it draws upon the resources of the University, across the entire University," says McRoberts.

David Fluegel
Center for Small Towns coordinator David Fluegel

One of the main resources of the University is its faculty, who have the option to be involved in the center in a number of ways. Faculty members can work consistently over a long period of time or be involved for just a short time period. They can work on multiple projects or select one.

"When a community comes to us with a project or an issue of concern, our task is to link them with the expertise of the faculty of the University," says McRoberts.

The Center also emphasizes the importance of community involvement in their student population. For example, in introductory statistics classes, students use data compiled about small towns and rural places. They analyze the data, examine urban-rural differences, and follow up by writing an article for the newspaper of the community in which they've done their research.

"Rather than taking the textbook and using examples from New York City or some other place in the country, they use information from an area they are familiar with so they have a deeper understanding of the places they come from," says Fluegel.

"We take special pride in involving students in these projects," McRoberts says. "It's a part of their undergraduate experience, doing practical problem solving and project building in communities within this region."

The far-reaching arm of the center

The Center for Small Towns has made a commitment to serve communities beyond Morris, and in their decade of service it has accomplished that goal.

"Within West Central Minnesota, there are not many communities we have not worked with on some project, small or large, in our ten-year history," says McRoberts.

McRoberts and Fluegel realize the importance of both sides of their partnership, the city of Morris and other communities and their relationship with the center.

"Not every community is going to want or need an academic institution to help in identifying new and better ways to do their community revitalization work, but our experience shows that we really can help communities, and we continue to get an increasing number of phone calls asking for our assistance," says Fluegel.

"Together we can address the problems and revitalize the communities that we are a part of, and that's what we are being recognized for," says McRoberts. "That is what the Carter Partnership Award is all about."

FURTHER READING UMM honored for campus-community collaboration

Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail