Seeing the light not blight

April 28, 1995

In the week after the leaders of British universities met to debate their roles in "Cities of Learning", it is salutary to consider the group of urban universities in the United States that are actively redefining themselves.

The most obvious expression of this is the creation of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities, which held its third conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, last month, but there are other examples, like the launch of the Great Cities campaign by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the opening of an Office of New Haven Affairs at Yale University and the partnership Titusville 2000, involving the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The aims of the 50 universities in the coalition are set out in a common declaration how knowledge creation, dissemination and application can be made more responsive to the needs of metropolitan areas.

This involves redirecting teaching towards underserved groups, encouraging practical research on urban issues and strengthening professional service through partnerships with public and private enterprises. The thread linking these actions is a public commitment to make their resources more readily available to local communities.

There are three main reasons for the emergence of this common concern in the 1990s: competition for funds, the decay of the inner city and a re-evaluation of the reward structures. The delegates at the Little Rock conference were forcefully reminded that higher education was not on the list of priorities for public funding. Some $8 billion was lopped from university budgets between 1990 and 1993, and more will go as the "Contract with America" begins to bite deeper into federal funding. Nor can many universities now hope to compete with elite research universities by attracting defence-related contracts.

The challenge for these universities is to create the kind of political backing that led to the 1862 Morrill Act, which provides federal funds to land grant universities and colleges, with their emphasis on tackling problems in agriculture and engineering.

It is easy to demonstrate that most of the pressing problems facing the US - fear of crime, family disintegration, crumbling infrastructure, public schooling, economic competitiveness, etc. - are concentrated in urban areas, but there is not the political will to tackle them by directing funding to metropolitan universities, rather than building more prisons or kindergartens.

The pressures related to funding also involve increases in local taxation. Urban development in the older US cities in the 1980s was perverse in that jobs in the revitalised downtowns were more likely to have come from the expansion of the "Eds and Meds" than from tenants of the spectacular new office blocks. Hence a city like Philadelphia now has a quarter of its land owned by non-profit organisations which are exempt from some $100 million of property tax each year. The city is negotiating a "voluntary contribution" from the major non-profit institutions, including a rumoured $2 million in cash and $1 million in free services for the needy from the largest of them all, the University of Pennsylvania. The visible contribution of universities to the city has thus become an element in tax negotiations here and in other large cities.

The dramatic decline of the areas in which many of these universities are located has contributed to their re-evaluation. As the affluent population and new job opportunities have moved to the suburbs and "Edge Cities", such campuses as Wayne State University (Detroit), University of Southern California (Los Angeles) and Temple University (Philadelphia) have found themselves surrounded by decaying housing stock, inhabited by low income and minority ethnic groups, who experience serious social problems.

Small new campuses to serve the growing markets of the burbs, or the downtown business communities, have been feasible for some universities, but few could afford to relocate completely.

Their initial response to student recruitment concerns about crime was defensive, with surveillance towers for car parks and key pads for buildings, and there were also attempts to promote gentrification (like Yale's $20,000 grant to staff locating in New Haven). Now there is more emphasis on working with the community to improve conditions for all.

The involvement of Carnegie-Mellon and Pittsburgh universities in the technology centres are replacing the steelworks along the Monongahela river derives from the same model as the Stanford Industrial Park and the Research Triangle Park.

Likewise, encouraging student service to the community - not least through President Clinton's Americorps scheme - has strong links with the well established systems of internships within degree programmes.

There is a sense of integration in the expansion of neighbourhood-based schemes partly deriving from the public statements of high-profile university presidents - like David Adamany of Wayne State and Julius Chambers of North Carolina State - on the role of their universities. It also comes from the administrative reorganisation that is bringing together researchers within a university into a growing number of centers of metropolitan affairs, or public policy, or community partnership. Above all, it reflects the vision in a scheme like the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities campaign.

Jim Lewis is director of educational partnerships at University College, Stockton.

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