College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

The Oxford Citizen: Q & A With McLean Institute Director Albert Nylander

September 25, 2015 | Courtesy of The Oxford Citizen

Dr. Albert Nylander at the 2015 Celebration of Service Award presentation. Photo by Robert Jordan/UM Communications

Dr. Albert Nylander at the 2015 Celebration of Service Award presentation. Photo by Robert Jordan/UM Communications

Dr. Albert Nylander is Director of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement and Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi. The McLean Institute strives to model, facilitate, and evaluate community engagement efforts at the University of Mississippi.

The McLean Institute for Community Development was founded in 1984 to honor the legacy of newspaper publisher George McLean of Tupelo, whose mission was to raise the quality of life for all Mississippians. McLean understood that universities could be a resource for communities and regions seeking to raise their own quality of life.

The Oxford Citizen Managing Editor Jeff Roberson visited with Nylander recently to learn more about the McLean Institute.

Roberson: How long have you been at Ole Miss?
Nylander: I’m starting my fourth year as the director of the McLean Institute. However, I worked as a graduate student at the McLean Institute back in the early ‘90s with Dr. Vaughn Grisham, who is the founder.

Roberson: What is the McLean Institute all about?
Nylander: It was the McLean Institute for Community Development. Dr. Grisham founded it in honor of George McLean, a Tupelo businessman. Dr. Grisham received a grant from Mr. McLean to start a leadership program established (at Ole Miss) in the ‘80s. After Dr. Grisham retired in 2005, (the McLean Institute) wasn’t as active on campus. When Chancellor (Dan) Jones arrived, he made “Transformation through Service” a key priority in the UM2020 Strategic Plan. The university desired to have a central office institutionalizing a culture of community engagement. Thus, I was hired to expand these efforts and the institute became known as the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement. My task was to build something from the ground up and to connect it to the Chancellor’s initiative to create transformative experiences, both at the University and in the community. That’s what I’ve been actively doing since I came in 2012.

Roberson: So would the McLean Institute mainly be considered an outreach program?
Nylander: It’s an outreach but I would say it this way: It’s an institutionalized effort to change the university and create more of a culture of community engagement. Our mission here is to advance transformative service throughout the university and to fight poverty through education in Mississippi. It’s a bold mission to utilize the resources we have on campus, and in a mutually beneficial way, collaborate with communities to make a difference and to provide transformative experiences.

Roberson: Give us some examples of what it is you are talking about.
Nylander: We have a program on campus called Horizons for the Lafayette and Oxford community. It’s a six-week summer learning program for underserved students. This summer we had approximately 60 students from the Oxford and Lafayette County School Districts in the program, serving rising first through fourth grades. They were instructed in the STEM fields, and then participated in numerous enriching activities. Students also learned how to swim, taking lessons four days a week throughout the summer. This is one of the many projects underway at the McLean Institute. To make this program a success, we partner with many organizations both on and off campus.

Roberson: I’m sure there are many other areas the McLean Institute is involved with in the area and beyond.
Nylander: Another project is the Catalyzing Entrepreneurship and Economic Development program, which is a 1.6 million dollar grant we received from the Robert M. Hearin Foundation to support university students in community engagement efforts. This year the McLean Institute will provide scholarships to 30 students representing the College and schools across campus to learn about entrepreneurship and economic development, and how to partner with communities in Mississippi to create action-oriented projects around these ideas. For most of the year, the students are on campus learning about entrepreneurial activities, and learning about the methods and strategies to work in rural communities. Then students spend the summer in internships with various community and economic development organizations creating practical projects to positively impact these communities. For example, students served in organizations like CREATE in Tupelo, the Mississippi Development Authority in Jackson, and local non-profits throughout smaller towns. A couple of our students even started their own small businesses.

Roberson: Is this all in Mississippi or also out of state?
Nylander: The McLean Institute’s focus is Mississippi. Our student scholars represent many states, however.

Roberson: The McLean Institute is a great resource for people, their communities, and this university in a number of important areas.
Nylander: We serve as a connecter. If you look at, there are links where community partners may list their organizations in the university’s service directory, and connect to other university service opportunities. Many times communities aren’t sure who to call on campus regarding service activities, so the McLean Institute staff can assist in connecting people to desired units. You will also find other resources on the McLean website for people who want to be involved in community engagement opportunities by clicking on the “Get Involved Tab.”

Roberson: Isn’t there some area of finances that you and your staff are helping to educate people with as far as their money?
Nylander: Yes, McLean’s LOU Saves is a child savings program that seeks to improve quality of life by providing financial education to underserved youth. This is a partnership between the McLean Institute, Gordon Community and Cultural Center, McLean’s Horizons program, United Way of Oxford and Lafayette County, and the Oxford-University United Methodist Church. It’s a child savings accounts for elementary school students in the Oxford and Lafayette County School Districts. The accounts are opened with $50 seed deposits provided by the program, and LOU Saves engages in fundraising efforts to match up to $100 per year of deposits made on behalf of each participating child. Research shows that children with a bank account in their name are 6 times more likely to attend college, so the accounts are opened in the child’s name and are administered by a third party custodian. The accounts are restricted for expenses related to college or postsecondary job training expenses. We believe this program has the opportunity to be replicated throughout the state.

Roberson: How has the McLean Institute grown and what do you see for its future?
Nylander: In three years, the McLean Institute went from not being active on campus to a staff of five people, with a multimillion dollar budget. Over this time, we were successful in acquiring and raising several large gifts and grants. “Transformation through Service” is a key priority for the university, and the McLean Institute is central in delivering this initiative. Through the university’s Council on Community Engagement, which I chair, we’re aligning this priority with academic units. We are fortunate to have such tremendous resources at the university compared to many of the rural towns in the state. Therefore, it’s incumbent that we partner with these communities where their resources might not be as great. The McLean Institute is investing in people and communities for long-term change. And naturally we desire for those outcomes to be something better than when started. These community and economic development challenges will take us all working together to address. The future is bright for the institute, and we’ll continue to seek other partners who are interested in making a difference in Mississippi by fighting poverty through education. Education is the key! If others are interested in joining this cause, they can give me a call at (662) 915-2050 or email me at

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