The university as an anchor institution: a long-term partner of the city for social change

Photo: Lize Kraan

Sharing knowledge with local communities and tackling societal challenges together. That is key to Anders Utrecht, which maps and connects Utrecht initiatives that deal with social and environmental issues, develops podcasts to give initiatives a voice, and stimulates collaboration through workshops and research.  

Bridging the gap

While working as a researcher in Aotearoa, New Zealand, Ozan Alakavuklar found himself in an environment of small-scale, bottom-up and self-sustaining community organizations tackling societal challenges. There, he noticed that academia is perceived as something entirely different from the world of community work. And so he wondered: how can we do our research differently to accommodate this gap? How can the university become an anchor institution in the city – a long-term partner for social change?  

In Utrecht, he initiated Anders Utrecht, a project in which researchers of Utrecht University promote local knowledge sharing to build a network for long-term collaboration on issues like food and sustainability. The network consists of fifteen formal associations, social enterprises, citizen movements, neighborhood initiatives, and a group of Utrecht University researchers. “The organisations’ initial response was: what’s in it for us? So we invited them to meetings to find ways to collaborate as equal partners and explore how these initiatives could reinforce the value of engaging with our expertise and academic knowledge”.  

We really want them to get their hands dirty.

Dr Ozan Alakavuklar is a researcher and lecturer at Utrecht University School of Governance (USG)

Active contribution

As part of the new master program ‘Organizing Social Impact’, Anders Utrecht also connects students to organizations to actively contribute to their activities. The organizations involved may already have a practical issue that would benefit from research conducted by the students. Alakavuklar explains: “We really want them to get their hands dirty. If the organization is dealing with community gardening, then students will do gardening. This is what we call engaged fieldwork. It is no remote consultancy: it is truly seeing how societal impact is organized in day-to-day practice”.  

Stepping out of the comfort zone

Should all departments of Utrecht University collaborate actively with local partners? “It is not a ‘one size fits all’ because every societal domain has different needs. However, I believe in the value of close collaboration”, Alakavuklar states. This does not imply that a university loses its autonomy or independence, or that it should work for the direct interests of the organization involved. But it does mean that a university can step out of its comfort zone by uniting theoretical and practical knowledge for social change. 


This article also appears in the third edition of the magazine Close-Up, full of inspiring columns, background stories and experiences of researchers and support staff.

Go to Close-up #3