Town and Gown

There have been tensions between town and gown since universities first came into existence. In more recent years, communities have come to appreciate universities as a major driver of economic development. Any basic primer on technology-led economic development stresses the role of local universities in both creating a skilled workforce and in spinning off new companies. (See the State Science and Technology Institute for resources on tech-led economic development.) So this story in today’s Wall Street Journal caught my eye — Colleges Teach ‘Urban Development 101’ – WSJ.com:

Universities, increasingly, are extending their reach to off-campus development in an effort to give their surrounding areas and town centers a vibrant and modern feel. In the process, they are becoming major drivers of economic development after concluding that their fortunes are directly tied to those of their cities.

The story describes a couple of major real estate developments by U Penn, U Maryland College Park and Case Western. Interesting, but not new. One of the major town/gown frictions has always been the universities’ real estate expansion. As the story notes:

Neighbors also eye some expansion projects warily, such as New York University’s proposal to add six million square feet to its campuses in the next 25 years, half of that in Greenwich Village. “There are more and more parts of the neighborhood where you feel like NYU is the sole defining entity, and that footprint is growing and growing,” says Andrew Burman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

What really intrigued me, however, was the statement that universities have concluded that “their fortunes are directly tied to those of their cities.” That is debatable. More and more top universities are globalizing (for example, see U.S. Universities Rush to Set Up Outposts Abroad – New York Times and California universities take globalization of business education to new level – International Herald Tribune). As this trend continues, there is a real danger of localities becoming wary of general support for local institutions of higher education. After all, why support those institutions with tax dollars for activities that don’t directly benefit the local community. Universities are going to have to walk a careful line between turning themselves into a footloose global institution and cultivating their local roots. Not to say this can’t be done. But it does raise a new challenge – and set of issues — in the old town/gown saga.

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