University Design | David J. Staley

Knowledge Towns

David J. Staley and Dominic D.J. Endicott, Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023)

I have spent the last six months as a consultant with a team developing the campus master plan for a small regional university nestled in Appalachia.  The university shares many characteristics of other small colleges located in an economically declining region.  Like other universities, it frets about declining enrollments and sees a shift toward “popular majors” as an enrollment management strategy for survival.  The region is the very definition of Rust Belt: a formerly thriving river town that lost its manufacturing base some time back and has yet to fully recover.  The leading employers are the hospital and the university, an echo of the “Meds and Eds” economic strategy for similar such regions.  They would hardly seem to be the ideal case, but this regional university could benefit from a “knowledge towns” strategy.

Our new book lays out a strategy where colleges and universities and their surrounding regions can work together to accelerate creative place making. It is based on the understanding that the knowledge economy is becoming decentered, spreading out from a few urban hubs to extend across the country.  The pandemic accelerated the trend toward remote work and many knowledge workers discovered that if they could work from anywhere, they might wish to be in a place that is within proximity to amenities, is closer to family, has a better quality of life or access to affordable housing.  

“The shift to remote work has liberated knowledge workers from the office. The length of the COVID-19 pandemic has vastly accelerated and expanded the prevalence of remote work. Mass adoption of remote work has made it feel more feasible for many to move to cheaper and better places…This groundswell will usher in a renaissance of small locations.” (1-2)

One argument we make in our book is that proximity and access to an academic institution is one such amenity or attraction for these knowledge workers.  In addition to seeking out traditional-aged undergraduates, colleges and universities might partner together with regional economic development organizations to attract talent to their area.  

“As town and gown come together to develop a forward-looking strategy, they need to consider the history of each unique place and its institutions, its natural geography, and all of its assets and liabilities. They should also evaluate all possible drivers of attraction. Is the town walkable and bikeable, is the air breathable, are its services good, does it promote community exchange, does it enable innovation and commerce, does it provide cheap and high-quality housing, is it appealing across all generations? We could describe a place that can effectively address these questions as a ‘talent magnet.’” (2)

The idea of a talent magnet is certainly not uncommon in the higher education landscape, but we typically associate such initiatives with big R1 universities located in urban areas.  Our contention in Knowledge Towns is that even smaller colleges in small towns and rural areas can engage in this kind of strategy.  Indeed, the rural/small town location might prove a unique enticement to these knowledge workers.  

Owing to faculty initiative, the Appalachian-located institution I am consulting with boasts a nationally-ranked program in technology.  This program is certainly a lure to undergraduates but could also be used to attract tech talent to this region.  The university could set up an incubator to entice technology companies to set up shop on campus.  At the same time, the incubator could help students build their own companies.  Tech talent could be invited on campus as adjunct instructors in the technology program. Economically-declining areas often worry about brain drain—the hemorrhaging of talent to big cities.  The talent magnet approach we detail in Knowledge Towns might be understood as a “brain gain” strategy for small towns and rural areas.  

Developing a talent magnet involves much more than incubating a single program.  Attracting knowledge workers also involves the redesign of a city or town to be rewilded, to have plentiful third places, to have walkable streets and to be refashioned as a 15-minute city.  And the college or university must also redesign its mission.  We identify twelve initiatives a college or university should undertake to lead a local talent attraction strategy:

1) It physically 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, an incubator of social capital.  

5)  It offers mentorship services to knowledge workers.

6) It is that institution that educates for the interface between machine and human intelligence.

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 an institution where 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 its mission outward across the town, upsetting the usual town-gown relationship.

Rather than standing aloof from these place-making efforts, the university takes an active leadership role.  Indeed, it is our contention that these institutions of higher education must redefine their missions to serve their regions as talent magnets.  They can and should continue with their mission of educating undergraduates and providing the kinds of experiences demanded by this demographic. These institutions must look to innovative strategies in order to not only survive but thrive in the midst of the challenges facing higher education today.

David J. Staley is a higher education philosopher, strategist, futurist and designer, and is an Honorary Faculty Fellow in Innovation at CHELIP.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education and the co-author of Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets.

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