EMORY, Va. — The proverbial ivory towers of liberal arts education are moving more and more to improve life in small, rural communities.Or at least one Southwest Virginia college has become a part of the movement, with plans to help small communities in the region with things such as water systems, K-12 education and strategic planning.An agreement signed Jan. 15 between Emory & Henry and the Rensselaerville Institute of New York has the potential to help reshape American higher education for the public good and help bring clean water to rural areas, according to officials from both institutions.The agreement sets up a collaborative whereby Emory & Henry and the Rensselaerville Institute will work to help communities throughout the country achieve outcomes for human gain.Described as a “think tank with muddy boots,” the Rensselaerville Institute focuses on improving life in rural, small towns and achieving human gain through a focus on individuals and innovation.Tal Stanley, Ph.D and director of the Appalachian Center for Community Life at Emory, and Jimmy Wallace, senior fellow at the Rensselaerville Institute and a practitioner in residence at Emory, said most of the projects in the past have focused on water, with some on sewer.But Wallace said the collaborative effort likely will go into education, and Stanley said the program also will work on strategic planning and health care.“We’re expanding the model,” Stanley said.Wallace worked 22 years for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development before joining the institute last year. During a 1997 conference, the institute promoted the Small Towns Environmental Program (STEP) that grew into construction programs done via the Sparkplugs Program, part of Self Help Virginia.Wallace said almost four dozen projects were completed across Virginia in that program, most in the coalfields region of Southwest Virginia.The institute approached Wallace in May of last year to join its effort to pitch the idea on a national scale.“That started a conversation that ultimately lead to this collaboration,” Wallace said, explaining that needs of the college and the institute could be met better in a complementary fashion.He said the collaboration could stretch into Northeast Tennessee because of the proximity if there is interest there.This spring, the collaboration will include students gathering follow-up data from the nearly four dozen programs Self Help Virginia did since 1997.A news release from Emory said that in many ways, the agreement builds on the Sparkplugs Program that was initiated by Sen. Mark Warner when he was governor of Virginia and continued by his successor, U.S. Sen. and former Gov. Tim Kaine. In a video statement from Kaine, the senator praised E&H and Rensselaerville for their strong reputations for transforming communities.In addition to a Community Sparkplugs Program, which works with community leaders who have a passion for making life better in their communities, the collaborative will focus on improving education at the primary and secondary level and on helping nonprofit organizations and philanthropies achieve tangible, higher outcomes.Institute President Gillian Williams is a former teacher and became the youngest principal in New York City.The third leg of the institute, besides the School Turnaround Program and Community Sparkplugs, is The Center for What Works, which enables clients to define, track, achieve, improve and communicate tangible outcomes from their efforts and dollars.“It was clear to us that this partnership was destined to be,” said Williams, praising E&H for bringing both commitment and action to service learning. “Very many people talk about service learning, but very few wrestle with how to make that happen.”While the initiatives of the program are designed to serve communities, particularly small rural communities, the long-range objective of the agreement is to create among young people the culture and skills to carry the work forward beyond the college years. “This isn’t just about education, but it’s about putting students on a path to becoming spark plugs themselves,” Williams said. “We are going to change the world, because there are students connected to this work.”In announcing the collaboration, E&H President Jake Schrum also announced that the Appalachian Center for Community Service at Emory & Henry would be renamed the Appalachian Center for Civic Life. The new title, Schrum said, demonstrates the center’s “new position on the cutting edge of education.”In the wake of challenging times, higher education is recognizing that it must play a greater role in improving life beyond campus boundaries. Liberal arts institutions, Schrum said, are more adept at meeting those challenges.“The liberal arts are constantly asking the question, ‘What are the matters of substance?’ They are constantly helping students make connections between their lives and the common good,” he said.Emory & Henry, Schrum said, has a 178-year history serving as a catalyst for increasing excellence in communities. The agreement takes that tradition to a bold new level that could add to a new vision for higher education.“What we’re looking at,” Stanley said, “is redefining citizenship and redefining leadership.”Projects the center at Emory has done and is doing include a Meadowview community and health center and water projects, focus groups and strategic planning in Glade Spring.The idea is to help volunteers do self-sustaining projects.“We don’t look to huge infusions of federal money because that money is gone now,” Stanley said.Wallace said many of the sparkplug projects accomplished goals at about half the cost of more traditional means.