Our History

Born in Fire

The roots of the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs trace back to the 1968 unrest in North Minneapolis following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The urgency and turbulence of the situation prompted Ewald (Joe) Bash, National Youth Director of the American Lutheran Church, and Joel Torstenson, an Augsburg College sociology professor, to build a unique program for college students to understand the nature of the urban crisis.

Joel Torstenson: “I count those years as the most exciting of my academic life. The classroom became a kind of community of shared affection. We realized we were in this together, and there were no easy answers, but there are complex answers.”

The Crisis Colony

The program, called Crisis Colony, presented an audacious challenge to the institutions of higher education at the time: take students out of the classroom and into the streets, where their learning could be tested by and connected to urgent issues of the times. While such “experiential learning” programs were then uncommon, Torstenson was eager for responses from American colleges to the urgent challenges of contemporary civil rights struggles, anti-war protests, and urban decay.

HECUA’s Inequality in America grew out of the ideas and framework of the Crisis Colony. 

With Augsburg College’s support the Crisis Colony began in June 1968. Eighteen students from several area colleges lived together for eight weeks in a vacated Jewish synagogue in North Minneapolis, a historically under-resourced and majority African American neighborhood. The students became closely involved in community activities, from forming a neighborhood newspaper to participating in neighborhood churches, to working in public housing. Local community leaders and Professor Torstenson taught seminars on urban issues.

Most years Crisis Colony students lived and worked in the Northside of Minneapolis. For one year, the Crisis Colony House was based in South Minneapolis, in Whittier. The house pictured above, at 2620 Harriet Ave., was “occupied” during that year. 

Growth and Development

The following decade was marked by challenge, change, and growth for HECUA. The Crisis Colony evolved into the Metro Urban Studies Term (now Inequality in America), joining a small group of similar programs across the country helping students explore conflicting perspectives on cities. In the 1970s, HECUA grew into an established inter-institutional organization with academic programs in the Twin Cities and San Francisco. For six years, HECUA ran a short-term program on “Issues in the Reform of the Criminal Justice System.” HECUA also developed international programs to explore the same kinds of issues in other countries: how do societies define and provide quality of life for their citizens, and what are the institutions and values that influence these decisions? In 1973, the Scandinavian Urban Studies Term (now The New Norway) was introduced to explore community-building and urban planning in the cities of Scandinavia. In 1977, the South American Urban Studies semester (now Community Partnerships in Latin America) was developed to explore development, urbanization, and contemporary Latin American issues.

A handbook for the Scandinavian Urban Studies Term (now The New Norway). 

HECUA continued to grow, developing new programs and shuttering a few offerings in response to student interest and current events. During the 1980s and 1990s, HECUA established itself nationally as a leader in experiential education through the work of then-President Garry Hesser and Executive Director Nadinne Cruz.


After nearly 50 years, HECUA has grown to be a consortium of 25 colleges, universities, and associations dedicated to education for social justice. Together we shape academically rigorous off-campus study programs that address the most pressing issues in our neighborhoods, nations, and world. Our collaborative model engages students, faculty, and practitioners in learning that prioritizes social transformation and community building. At HECUA we learn by reflecting and acting with others. HECUA specializes in integrating theory and practice, bringing together key disciplines that equip students to be active citizens and leaders – locally and globally.

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