A proposed Center for Rural Excellence would focus Indiana University resources and expertise on improving the lives of residents in rural and small-town communities in southern Indiana.
IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel previewed the center in her 2017 State of the Campus address, in which she proposed an “IU Corps” to coordinate volunteer and service activities by IU Bloomington students and recounted progress tied to the campus’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan.
The Center for Rural Excellence, she said, will be in the vanguard of approaches to issues facing small-town and rural areas. Its signature effort will be the Indiana Eleven Initiative, focused on Monroe County and 10 other surrounding counties.
“The challenges facing our region are characteristic of too much of rural and small-town America: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and poor educational and health outcomes, including the scourge of addiction,” Robel said. “The goal of the center is to improve materially the lives of the people living in these counties, and to demonstrate how a research university’s broad resources can, within the constraints of its core mission, be marshaled to improve the well-being of an entire region.”
The proposed center, aided by a planning grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., will focus on themes of sustainable communities, health and wellness, entrepreneurship and economic development, educational attainment, capacity building and leadership, and culture and the built environment.
The focus on health and wellness aligns with Indiana University’s Precision Health Initiative, a research initiative to develop patient-centered medicine therapies and the first recipient of funding under the university’s Grand Challenges program; and with the development of a new Academic Health Center on the IU Bloomington campus in partnership with Indiana University Health.
Robel and her staff have visited communities in the region and met with civic, nonprofit, education and business leaders, asking about their relationships with Indiana University. She said IU Bloomington has received nearly 100 requests from the communities for partnerships in fields such as sustainability, health, and arts and humanities.
“A group of colleagues from every school on campus has met to think through how we might organize our students to meet the needs of our neighbors through the development of an IU Corps that makes visible their incredible spirit of volunteerism,” she said.
The State of the Campus address also focused on efforts to increase campus diversity and accessibility and to recruit and retain first-generation and under-represented students. Since 2012, IU Bloomington has increased financial aid targeted to its neediest students by 72 percent. By 2020, Robel said, it will more than double the funding.
Robel also highlighted campus initiatives, including the renovation and restoration of the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, the Arts and Humanities Council’s First Thursday Festivals and China Remixed events, the creation of a School of Art and Design and new programs in Intelligent Systems Engineering, and the university Grand Challenges research program to address urgent challenges.
The Center for Rural Excellence, she said, is a “grand challenge for our region” that will engage faculty and students in applied research and service, build durable partnerships and add to a knowledge base of research that will extend the impact of the initiative far beyond the region.