The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted: February 11, 2016 – 3:01 AM

By Omar Blaik

A few weeks ago, as universities across the United States were grappling with accusations of institutional racism both current and historical, I was in South Africa working with several universities’ leadership on tackling a parallel challenge: creating open campuses integrated with their host cities in a still largely segregated society.

Despite the vastly different social and political context, the challenges of South Africa’s higher education system are related to our own struggles with issues of race and class that are unfolding on many American campuses today.

From discrimination and police abuses to fear of immigrants, many of our social ills stem from a lack of empathy that allows individuals or groups – ethnic, racial, or social – to feel self-righteous or morally superior. While societal, educational, and economic disparities play a big role, this “empathy deficit” is ingrained in a foundation of physical separation in our built environment.

In America, despite efforts to integrate over the last 60-plus years, we are still by and large a segregated society – whether through income, race, or class – and this is reflected in where we live, shop, and attend school. Our daily routines then influence our beliefs, norms, and ultimately the decisions we make, often overlooking the implications of such decisions for people who are different from us.

The root causes of this physical segregation are embedded in policy – how real estate is financed, how public schools are funded, and how policies are legislated. To deal with them, we need to promote physically, socially, and economically integrated neighborhoods.

This is where universities have a responsibility to act.

I am skeptical about the idea that removing a name from a building or forming a task force on diversity will fundamentally change the course of our current struggle for equality. No doubt these are important and symbolic gestures, but universities and campus life play a more critical role in shaping our understanding of the world, questioning our beliefs, and making the “other” familiar.

It is not just teaching and research that influence positive changes in society. Universities can do much more. They can build real, practical examples of integration on the edges of their campuses by engaging with the cities they call home and connecting their student bodies to the richness and realities of life.

We have examples of how we can achieve such aspirational goals. I was lucky in being able to contribute to shaping a broader institutional role in West Philadelphia for the University of Pennsylvania under the leadership of then-President Judith Rodin almost 20 years ago. Having lived next to the Penn campus since then, I can personally attest to the power of universities, communities, and cities working together to create vibrant and diverse neighborhoods.

But it was during my visit to South Africa that I was able to understand the potential power of local engagement at a national level. I visited two urban campuses situated within minutes of their central business districts yet fortified behind gates with heavy security, confining most of the student and academic activity to campus. These institutions, traditionally white under apartheid, have dramatically changed over the last 20 years, with enrollment more than doubling and the composition of the student body shifting to nearly 60 percent black.

The divide between the students who can afford to live on or off campus and the day students traveling multiple hours each way on public transit from the townships is real and persistent. However, unlike many locations in South Africa that continue to struggle with racial and economic divisions, universities are bringing together these diverse groups of students to pursue common goals.

In the midst of existing structural segregation, students, whether here or in South Africa, aspire to cross these divides, form relationships, and create a future that is more just and equitable. In South Africa, universities are pondering a more active role beyond their gates, recognizing that by creating an engaged and vibrant environment on their edges, they could offer all their students a “safe space,” showing them and the country at large a real-life laboratory of integration.

Given what we are seeing across U.S. campuses, American universities need to pursue robust local engagement strategies as much as universities in South Africa do, inviting city life onto campus and pushing campus life into the city.

Universities should patronize local businesses, hire diverse residents, immerse faculty and students in the life of surrounding communities, and help develop mixed-use and mixed-income districts around their edges.

Learning happens in the classroom and laboratory, but it also happens in coffee shops, public spaces, music venues, and art galleries. It is in these spaces that friendships are made, ideas are debated, life challenges are experienced and confronted. They are where we can learn to tolerate and understand and even empathize with one another.

A university setting that offers interaction and engagement can teach empathy. And when we accomplish that, we can imagine a future in which our public policies and our decisions will be more equitable.

Universities, if managed with vision and intentionality, not only can contribute to our knowledge economy and human advancement, but can also ensure that we nurture a just society.

Omar Blaik is the chief executive of the consulting practice U3 Advisors, which has an office in Philadelphia.