Charting Ahead: Navigating Threats and Challenges to the Urban-Serving Research University Mission


  • Desiree D. Zerquera University of San Francisco
  • Erin E. Doran School of Education-Iowa State University



Mission management, strategic efforts, policy context


The higher education context that our CUMU institutions must navigate is complex and begets challenges resulting from the distinct mission our institutions seek to uphold. The implications of these challenges give rise to impacts on everyone within the institution and consequently our constituents within the cities we seek to serve. Bringing together literature, emerging research, and points from discussions at the 2016 CUMU conference, this paper analyzes challenges and their implications and highlights the strategies being employed to navigate them. We consider the tensions inherent in the urban-serving university identity, the cost of serving urban regions, and the state structures that provide funding. All of these tensions have implications for commitment to mission, access for historically marginalized students, and the experiences of faculty within the institution. We also discuss strategic initiatives and efforts that reflect collaboration, strategic alignment, and innovation. This work is of value for those working within urban-serving universities, those who work to uphold their mission in higher education, and policy makers that shape the context of these institutions’ work.

Author Biographies

Desiree D. Zerquera, University of San Francisco

Desiree Zerquera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership Studies at the University of San Francisco. Her research examines the structuring of access and opportunity in higher education. She is particularly interested in the structuring of access within urban-sering universities and draws on her experience as a student affairs practitioner, policy maker, and engaged researcher to inform her perspectives.

Erin E. Doran, School of Education-Iowa State University

Erin Doran is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Division of Higher Education at Iowa State University. Her research examines the access and experience of Latinx students in higher education and how institutions serve these students. She is particularly interested in how institutions respond to state policies and changing demographics in ways that promote culturally relevant practice at all levels of the institution from upper administration to individual classrooms.


Allen, W.B., & Allen, C.M. (2003). Habits of mind: Fostering access and excellence in higher education. New Brunswick, CT: Transaction Publishers.

Astin, A.W., & Oseguera, L. (2004). The declining “equity” of American higher education. The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), 321-341.

Bahr, P.R. (2010). Preparing the underprepared: An analysis of racial disparities in postsecondary mathematics remediation. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(2), 209- 237.

Bahr, P.R., Toth, C., Thirolf, K., & Massé, J.C. (2013). A review and critique of the literature on community college students’ transition processes and outcomes in four-year institutions. In M.B. Paulsen (ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. 28, 459-511). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Barlow, M. (1998). Developing and sustaining an urban mission: Concordia University in Montreal. In H. van der Wusten (Ed.), The Urban University and its identity: Roots, locations, roles (pp.149-165). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers Group.

Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (1972). The campus and the city: Maximizing assets and reducing liabilities. Hightstown, NJ: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Cavanaugh, J.C. (2015). The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area: 2015 Overview. Retrieved from d31a40/1426259880425/Consortium+Overview+2015.pdf

Chavez, J. (2013, October 30). Enhanced admissions standards lead to UTSA’s most highly qualified students. UTSA Today. Retrieved from

Cisneros, H. G. (1995). The university and the urban challenge (Revised Edition). Rockville, MD: Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Cohen, A.M., Brawer, F.B., & Kisker, C.B. (2013). The American community college (6th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Crisp, G., Horn, C., Dizinno, G., & Wang, D. (2010). Modeling the racial and ethnic implications of admissions policy changes in the pursuit of tier one status. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 3(2), 71-84.

Diner, S. (2012). American urban university: An historical analysis. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 23(3), 61-77.

Dowd, A.C., & Shieh, L.T. (2013). Community college financing: Equity, efficiency, and accountability. The NEA 2013 Almanac of Higher Education: National Education Association. Retrieved from ac_2013.pdf

Ehrenberg, R.G. (2003). Reaching for the brass ring: The U.S. News & World Report rankings and competition. The Review of Higher Education, 26(2), 145-162.

Elliott, P. G. (1994). The urban campus. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Englert, R. M. (1997). The university's role in the improvement of inner-city education. Education and Urban Society, 29(3), 373-402.

Fain, P. (2014, November 14). Gaming the system. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from concern-among-college-administrators

Freedle, R. (2003). Correcting the SAT’s ethnic and social-class bias: A method for reestimating SAT scores. Harvard Educational Review, 73(1), 1-45.

Gándara, P., & Contreras, F. (2009). The Latino education crisis: The consequences of failed school policies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gardner, S.K. (2010). Keeping up with the Joneses: Socialization and culture in doctoral education at one striving institution. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(6), 658-679.

Gonzales, L.D. (2013). Faculty sensemaking and mission creep: Interrogating institutional ways of knowing and doing legitimacy. The Review of Higher Education, 36(2), 179-209.

Grobman, A. B. (1988). Urban state universities: An unfinished national agenda. Little Rock, AR: River Market Books and Gifts.

Handel, S.J. (2013). The transfer moment: The pivotal partnership between community colleges and four-year institutions in securing the nation’s college completion agenda. New Directions for Higher Education, 162, 5-15.

Harcleroad, F. F., & Ostar, A. W. (1987). Colleges and universities for change: America’s comprehensive public state colleges and universities. Washington, DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities Press.

Hathaway, C. E., Mulhollan, P. E., & White, K. E. (1990). Metropolitan universities: Models for the twenty-first century. In D. M. Johnson & D. A. Bell (Eds.), Metropolitan universities: An emerging model in American higher education (pp.5-16). Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.

Hodge, J. (2016, September 29). The benefits of collaboration in higher education [blog]. Retrieved from education/

House Bill 51, Texas 81st Legislature. (2009). Retrieved from

Jacquez, F. (2014). Demonstrating impact as a community-engaged scholar within a research university. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 25(2), 14-26.

Kahlenberg, R.D. (2000). A nation at risk: Preserving public education as an engine for social mobility . New York: The Century Foundation Press.

Kallison, J.M., & Cohen, P. (2010). A new compact for higher education: Funding and autonomy for reform and accountability. Innovative Higher Education, 35(1), 37-49.

Kirtman, L., Bowers, E., & Hoffman, J.L. (2016). Engaged scholarship: (Re)focusing on our mission. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 27(2).

Lahr, H., Pheatt, L., Doughtery, K.J., Jones, S., Natow, R.S, & Reddy, V. (2014). Unintended impacts of performance funding on community colleges and universities in three states [CCRC Working Paper No. 78]. Teachers College: Columbia University, Community College Research Center. Retrieved from funding.pdf

Martinez-Brawley, E. (2003). The metropolitan mission of a research university: A study of the context and opportunities for faculty. Arizona State University: Phoenix, AZ.

Maurrasse, D. J. (2001). Beyond the campus: How colleges and universities form partnerships with their communities. New York: Routledge.

Melguizo, T. (2009). Are community colleges an alternative path for Hispanic students to attain a bachelor’s degree? Teachers College Record,111(1), 90-123.

Meyers, D., Berling, V., & Corcoran, K.J. (2012). Creating a new future: Recruiting and retaining nontraditional students. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 23(1), 41-58.

Moore, S.D. (2013). Extended education’s role: Facilitating higher education to historically underrepresented groups. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 24(2), 9-20.

Morphew, C.M. (2000). Institutional diversity, program acquisition and faculty members: Examining academic drift at a new level. Higher Education Policy, 13(1), 55-77. doi: 10.1016/S0952-8733(99)00028-8

Morphew, C.C., & Baker, B.D. (2004). The cost of prestige: Do new Research I universities incur higher administrative costs? The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), 365-384.

Mulhollan, P. E. (1990). Aligning missions with public expectations: The case of the metropolitan universities. In D.M. Johnson & D.A. Bell (Eds.), Metropolitan universities: An emerging model in American higher education (pp.27-34). Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2015). Performance-based funding for higher education. Retrieved from

Noguera, P. A. (2003). City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. New York: Teachers College Press.

O’Meara, K.A. (2007). Striving for what? Exploring the pursuit of prestige. In J.C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. XXII, 121-179). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

O’Meara, K.A., & Bloomgarden, A. (2011). The pursuit of prestige: The experience of institutional striving from a faculty perspective. Journal of the Professoriate, 4(1), 39-73.

Perna, L.W. (2011). Understanding the role of research universities in improving college preparation and access at local urban high schools. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 22(3), 63-82.

Rhatigan, J., & Kelley, J. (1990). Access: A faltering commitment? Metropolitan Universities Journal, 1(2), 9-18.

Rhoades, G., Kiyama, J., McCormick, R., & Quiroz, M. (2008). Local cosmopolitans and cosmopolitan locals: New models of professionals in the academy. The Review of Higher Education, 31(2), 209-235.

Rousseau, S. (2007). Educational reform: Toward a K-16 framework. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 18(4), 48-66.

Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college and university: A history (2nd Edition). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Severino, C. (1996). The idea of an urban university: A historic and rhetoric of ambivalence and ambiguity. Urban Education, 22(3), 291-313.

Siewell, N. & Thomas, M. (2015). Building sustainable neighborhoods through community gardens: Enhancing residents’ well-being through university-community engagement initiative. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 26(1), 173-190.

Soo, D. (2010). An added dimension of mission: Metropolitan colleges and universities. Perspectives on Urban Education, Fall, 35-40.

Strayhorn, T.L. (2016). Factors that influence the persistence and success of Black men in urban public universities. Urban Education, 1-23.

Teranishi, R., Allen, W.R., & Solorzano, D.G. (2004). Opportunity at the crossroads: Racial inequality, school segregation, and higher education in California. Teachers College Record, 106(11), 2224-2245.

Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. (2012). 2012-2017 Statewide developmental education plan: A report to the Texas legislature Senate Bill 162, 82nd Texas legislature. Austin, TX.

Thelin, J. (1990). Rudolph rediscovered: An introductory essay by John R. Thelin. In F. Rudolph, The American college and university: A history (2nd Edition) (pp. ix-xxiii). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

University of Texas at El Paso (n.d.). The University of Texas at El Paso Mission. Retrieved from

van der Wusten, H. (1998). The urban university and its identity: Roots, locations, roles. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Venegas, K.M. (2011). Risk and shifting realities: College access and the 21st century student. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 22(3), 5-7.

Walzer, S. (2010). Crossing generational divides: Experiences of new faculty in higher education. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 21(2), 35-44.

Wagner, T. (1990). Making up deficiencies: Is there a choice? Metropolitan Universities Journal, 1(2), 19-29.

Watson-Thompson, J. (2015). Exploring community-engaged scholarship as an intervention to change and improve communities. Metropolitan Universities Journal, 26(1), 11-34.

Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital?: A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

Zerquera, D. (2016). Urban-Serving Research Universities: Institutions for the public good. Higher Learning Research Communications, 6(2),