What Does it Mean to be an Anchor Institution?

Laura Wilmarth Tyna, Director of Community Engaged Learning, Lewis University

June 28, 2019

In 2016, I had a chance to attend the Assessment Institute, which is hosted in Indianapolis each year by Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). I attended a great session that explored the concept of “anchor institutions.” Although the language was familiar – a large organization working to simultaneously educate students and contribute to the community – I realized I didn’t fully understand the specific goals or components aligned with the anchor institution initiative. I was excited to learn more, though, frankly, I judged that my institution was many years away from such a goal, as we were just beginning to embrace a relationship-based model for working with the community.

Lewis University, a Catholic and Lasallian institution with a wonderfully justice-oriented mission, is located in Will County, Illinois. The main campus is about 35 miles southwest of Chicago and about 6 miles away from Joliet, Illinois’ fourth largest city. When I started at Lewis four years ago, I was thrilled to see that the mission is front and center in decision-making on campus. Faculty and staff have a solid understanding of our institutional focus and most can recite mission values from memory. Despite this strength, at times our justice orientation shows up in very inwardly focused ways, lifting up only those who attend the institution, instead of bringing this mission out to the public for the common good. In an area that doesn’t boast a lot of institutions which align themselves with regional well-being, Lewis’ decision to become an anchor institution, providing intentional support to our local community, could have a real impact in the region.

In case you aren’t familiar, let me share with you a bit about anchor institutions. According to the Democracy Collaborative, an organization that is actively exploring how best higher education can work to build community wealth, anchor institutions are “enterprises such as universities and hospitals that are rooted in their local communities by mission, invested capital, or relationships” and which control “vast economic, human, intellectual, and institution resources.” Essentially, these are organizations that won’t pick up their operation and leave to get a tax break or to pay cheaper wages to their employees. Instead, anchor institutions are place-based and connected in a community. Moreover, they are also institutions that have the ability to influence the local community with their decision-making.

Since that conference a few years ago, the community engaged learning program at Lewis – which asserted the importance of shifting toward a relationship-based model of community engagement – has really flourished. We’ve seen continued growth in faculty interest in community engaged pedagogy, consistently positive feedback from students, and perhaps most importantly, an encouraging response from new and existing community partners alike. We’ve spent our time transitioning from a placement-based model to one which embraces relationships and partnerships – with local community agencies, with faculty, and with students – as our priority.

With this significant shift in mind, Lewis has recently taken up the anchor institution conversation. We were already increasingly engaged with partners to contribute to the local community – whether through the curriculum, or through co-curricular collaboration – but folks in my office, the Office of Community Engaged Learning, didn’t have any sense of things like local hiring practices, purchasing from locally owned vendors, or other financial decisions being made by other offices. So we brought the idea to our Community Engagement Cooperative (CEC), which brings together various offices who engage with community partners regularly. Member offices include Community Engaged Learning, University Ministry, Career Services, Alumni Engagement, and the sustainability arm of our Facilities department. The response was overwhelmingly positive. This concept, it seemed, was exactly the next step we all needed to bring cohesion to our disparate, yet well-intentioned, community engagement plans.

The conversation about Lewis University as an anchor institution is a very young one still. We have vetted the concept with our Community Partner Advisory Board, which brings community voice to institutional decision-making, and are still sharing it with various offices on campus; however, I’m so encouraged by the response from community partners and colleagues alike, who recognize how much more we could all do to support our region by choosing an intentional path to fully accept a role we might naturally play in an area that doesn’t boast a lot of other anchoring organizations.

Moving into the 2019-202 academic year, I’m excited to see where this new initiative will take us. We’re currently exploring offering a new workshop series for community partners and beginning to think about the role of community based research as a tool for better supporting the local community. It’s an exciting adventure and I’m curious to see where Lewis University and our wonderful community partners will go together next.


Democracy Collaborative (n.d.). Engaging with eds, meds, and other anchor institutions to help them help communities. Retrieved from https://democracycollaborative.org/democracycollaborative/anchorinstitutions/Anchor%20Institutions

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