As director of the UniverCity Alliance at UW-Madison, Gavin Luter tries to bridge the gap between academia and the “real world.”
Launched in 2015, the program’s UniverCity Year is now working with Green County, where students are helping a small school develop plans for an alternative energy system, working on fighting opioid addiction, and analyzing potential sites for affordable housing in Monroe.
Previous partnerships with Dane County and Monona have tackled problems both big — water quality and a lack of affordable housing — and small — selecting the best lawnmower for maintaining city playing fields.
“My whole job is to get academia to understand the real world,” Luter said.
Luter, 35, grew up in Virginia and studied public and urban affairs at Virginia Tech, where he became interested in how universities are helping or hurting the communities around them.
“They can be a hugely powerful force,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t use their force for the good.”
Before moving to Madison in 2015, Luter earned a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and a Ph.D. in education at the University of Buffalo in New York, where he focused on the connection between schools and neighborhoods.
Luter, who lives with his partner, Quan Yan, on the Near East Side, served as director of Campus Compact for Wisconsin before taking over the UniverCity Alliance.
What exactly is your job?
I do intensive partnership building between units of local government and UW-Madison.
I one time had a professor say, ‘Do you want to study social problems or do you want to solve them?’ I said I want to solve them … I got really, really interested in how universities are either helping or hurting society by advancing problems or actually helping solve problems.
That’s part of the reason why I chose my career.
What is the UniverCity Year?
The UniverCity Year pretty simply is a partnership that is between a unit of local government and UW-Madison, where the local government identifies their priority areas and their projects they want to work on that they maybe don’t have capacity to do … and we try to link them with existing UW-Madison courses and other resources.
Local government is kind of the leanest and smallest form of government, so they don’t always have the resources to go out and do what it is they want to do. They don’t always have the money to go and hire the talent they need.
We try to help fill in that gap. We have a bunch of people doing good work. They’re from a top university in the world. Maybe they could do something for you. At the same time our students are also learning about real world issues and challenges.
The students definitely benefit. We are a university, so one of our main goals is to teach students … We also think that the local governments in particular benefit from this …When you’re working with Judah School, which is a 250-300 person K-12 school — one school — they can’t just go out and hire a consultant to tell us ‘how do we build an alternative energy system?’
The taxpayers could potentially benefit if they get more people moving to Green County because of our marketing materials.
Faculty members benefit as well. Because they’re learning new ways to teach their class content.
How do you choose which communities to work with?
Communities apply to us. To say that we just send out an application and we wait is misleading. We’re out there, we’re talking with localities.
What I really want is it to be a conversation. This is who we are, what we offer. Do you think you’re in a good place to take advantage of us?
We’re going to be working with Pepin County next year. I would never have had a conversation with anyone from Pepin if it weren’t for the Wisconsin Counties Association.
What are the challenges facing Wisconsin communities?
I think people from across the state want to know how are we going to live the best possible life. They don’t know sometimes where the jobs are going to come from. How are we going to have affordable child care? How are we going afford our house?
It’s not hypothetical. This is for real.
I think that’s good for us at UW-Madison to realize this is not a hypothetical thing out here. We’re dealing with the real world.