Weigh the Anchors, but Join Them Up

August 8, 2011
by Bill Barnes

University presidents describe their schools as increasingly "engaged" and ready to undertake "anchor institution" roles in their communities and regions. This emerging attitude presents both a great opportunity for positive partnerships in cities and a challenge for everyone to avoid the negatives of some past university/community relationships.

A recent conference of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) highlighted some of the more constructive and promising stories.

Arizona State, for example, moved whole colleges to downtown Phoenix as part of a revitalization effort there; Morgan State plans to provide assistance to many elements of "the Morgan Mile," its surrounding Baltimore neighborhood; Virginia Commonwealth leads a "cradle to career" education strategy in the Richmond, Va., area; Wayne State is a key actor in the MidTown Corridor partnerships in Detroit.

These sorts of involvements require leadership and institutional commitment. They go beyond projects based on the energetic expertise of individual faculty and far beyond day-to-day town/gown problems like zoning, parking, drinking or noise.

Even - or, perhaps, especially - in the midst of current fiscal troubles, local government leaders can weigh the capacities and intentions of local "anchors" and seize the opportunity to engage with them for action.

National Organizations

University leaders have joined together nationally to encourage these efforts. USU's 46 members are major public urban research universities represented by their presidents and chancellors. The conference aims "to leverage the intellectual capital and economic power of urban universities in service to their cities." The Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities has 68 members that share a "mission to use the power of their campuses in education, research and service to enhance the communities in which they are located." A third group, the International Town and Gown Association, has both higher education and local government members and aims to be "the primary information resource point for common issues" between the two.

Municipal officials have also found value and purpose in coming together around this topic. The University Communities Council at the National League of Cities focuses on "concerns and partnerships between the university and the city or town."

The "anchor" category also suggests other potential partners in governance. These might include hospitals and large medical facilities, arts and cultural institutions, major utilities, civic and community organizations, churches, foundations and other entities that are relatively immobile and have a substantial sense of responsible citizenship. Many have a regional presence that goes beyond any one municipal jurisdiction.

Eds, Meds and Controversies

A 2008 Brookings study by Timothy J. Bartik and George A. Erickcek found that higher education and medical institutions have four types of major economic impacts. "Eds and Meds" bring new income to the area from elsewhere in the form of spending by out-of-area students or patients. Eds raise metropolitan residents' earnings by improving their skills and marketability. Expanding research can spur metropolitan economic development. And the presence of Meds (where wages tend to be higher than average) can stimulate higher wages elsewhere.

These kinds of effects can be enhanced - and negative ones avoided - by concerted strategies in conjunction with the city and economic and workforce development organizations.

On the other hand, neighborhood controversies have been perhaps the most consistently visible results of university activism, especially related to physical expansion. The local histories, as a 2010 report from CEOs for Cities carefully expresses it, "weren't always positive." In addition to "cultural differences" between the "peculiarities" of the academic world and communities and the threat of community disruption and resistance to it, "scars" from previous conflicts "last a long time" and must be recognized, respected and overcome. A "strong sense of history" and "patience" are required. City Halls and others that join university ventures to improve nearby neighborhoods should be aware of such histories and would do well to heed this advice. 

Broad Civic Leadership

Possibilities for university partnering on citywide or regional civic challenges involve broad sorts of issues and may be part of a more significant shift in the make-up of what political scientist and urbanist Clarence Stone calls the local "regime," which he describes as "the informal arrangements through which a locality is governed."

In many places, for example, corporate leadership has moved away or become less engaged. Royce Hanson and his colleagues recently summarized an array of rich scholarly literature and their own recent research to conclude that "...the institutional autonomy, time and personal connections to the central cities of many CEOs have diminished and... The civic organizations through which CEOs work appear to have experienced lowered capacity for sustained action."

Are universities and specifically, university presidents and chancellors, contributing to filling these broad and deep civic roles? Civic is as civic does, and the answer will surely vary from place to place and leader to leader. It will also depend upon the ability and willingness of government leaders to weigh these anchors and to join them up productively. 

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him atbarnes@nlc.org. Previous columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org.