The University as Public Utility by David J. Staley

One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the transition to remote work.  Many knowledge workers have discovered that given the permission to “work from anywhere” they may seek out places with affordable housing, lower cost of living and better quality of life.  Some small towns, secondary cities and rural areas have found themselves in a position to attract talent to their “Zoom towns,” especially if they were to adopt a “talent magnet strategy.” 

During the Pandemic, Purdue University aggressively worked to attract knowledge workers to West Lafayette. “Work From Purdue” was billed as “a first-of-its kind remote working community on campus.”  “Universities have long been selling points for community leaders seeking to widen their regions’ appeal to possible new residents,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, “an effort that may well be supercharged by the Pandemic.” Indeed, it is our contention in a forthcoming book that I am co-authoring—titled “A College in Any Town: Knowledge Enterprises as Talent Magnets”—that the location of a college or university is a critical piece of any region’s effort to attract remote knowledge workers. 

Central to such a strategy is the civic leadership of the college. Working together, cities in partnership with their local college can thrive together, adopting a place-making strategy that benefits both. 

A College or University serving as a talent magnet may look like an incumbent institution—with sororities and athletics departments and business, communications and liberal arts majors–but is distinguished by its additional commitment to the twelve features of a Talent Magnet strategy: 

1) It connects the region to the larger Knowledge Economy.

2) It educates for and encourages “lives of purpose” not only among traditional aged students but for residents of the town or region.

3)  It is physically expansive, extending outward across the town such that it becomes a “fifteen-minute campus.”

4) It is the most important “third place” for the community.

5) It works with the regional economic development team to drive a talent-attraction plan.  The mentorship of students is extended outward: mentorship to knowledge workers becomes a vital service offered by the College.

6) It is that institution that educates for the interface between machine and human intelligence, supporting the “bionic worker.” 

7) It provides life-long learning services as a central part of its mission, not simply as a community enrichment. 

8) It is a creativity cluster, incubating and implementing a full range of novel ideas.  

9) It functions as a venture capitalist fund both for faculty ideas and for entrepreneurs in the larger region. 

10) It is “rewilded.”  Environmental consciousness is treated as a transcurricular value.

11) It is a “fourth place” for the community, a blending of affordable homes, work spaces and convivial places serving students and residents in the larger community.

12) It extends urban development outward toward the town, upsetting the usual town-gown relationship. 

I will be hosting a CHELIP-sponsored Leading Edge Thinking in Higher Education webinar on April 13 to explore this strategy in more detail. 

In serving as a talent magnet, the college asserts itself as an anchor institution, but it should not mimic the ills brought about by some urban universities. In a recent book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, Davarian L. Baldwin argues that universities—or UniverCities, as he describes them—are becoming for-profit developers, with a host of dire consequences.  “Urban colleges and universities,” especially, “are increasingly setting the wage ceiling for workers, determining the use and value of our land, directing the priorities of our police, and dictating the distribution of our public funds in cities all over the country…public discourse remains overwhelmingly silent about the consequences of turning the US city into one big campus.” (14)

Although they have historically been devourers of neighborhoods—and especially displacing people of color—the movement toward universities as anchor institutions has frequently meant profiteering, not community service or inclusive place-making. 

An older cadre of activists and educators looked to urban schools as a beacon for enlivening the values of civic engagement.  The classroom and the research center, they believed, could be reoriented to address the needs of the city.  Meanwhile, a growing class of administrators, coming out of the corporate world, identified universities as central command posts for generating needed profits in new research and real estate markets. (36)

Both activists and administrators evoke the term “anchor institution” to describe their missions, yet Baldwin maintains that the two campus entities rarely work together, and, indeed, Baldwin would say that the latter’s initiatives usually usurp the former’s.  “And the failure to reconcile what have become parallel approaches to revitalization continues to shape how university-driven development is done in our cities,” he concludes. (37)

When I say that colleges in small towns and secondary cities can serve as anchor institutions of a talent magnet place-making strategy, I am asserting that they should not replicate the ravenous behaviors of some urban universities, but should seek to reconcile these two approaches: to be both an incubator of civic engagement and an economic driver, all in service to the community. 

This is why I have coined the term “university-as-utility.” A utility is an organization supplying the community with electricity, gas, water or sewage.  The University-as-utility would be an organization supplying the community with public goods, especially regarding the broad accessibility of knowledge as a place-making asset.  

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