Do Cities Need Universities to Survive?

Four university presidents detail what they can (and can't) provide a city

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Courtesy: UCLA

The so-called "town and gown" relationship between cities and universities has become increasingly important in recent years. As universities contribute more and more to the local economy through research, reputation and building, they’re seen not only as educational and cultural institutions, but economic development tools. But how much should cities rely on universities?

This essentially was the question posed to four university professors at a panel discussion in Los Angeles. Hosted by Zocalo Public Square and moderated by The Chronicle for Higher Education editor Jeff Selingo, the event asked whether universities can save cities.

“We really can’t believe that universities can save cities,” said Gene Block, chancellor at the University of California Los Angeles. He argues that even though universities contribute to a city's culture and economy, they can’t be fully relied upon to solve major foundational problems should they arise.

And so far they haven’t, according to Rice University President David Leebron.

"I don’t really see it so much as a question of whether universities can save cities. Cities generically aren’t really in any danger," Leebron said. "The real question, I think, is can universities make our cities more competitive, and more competitive on a global scale?"

Leebron said universities can play a major role in helping cities provide jobs and education that attract people and businesses from all over the world.

"That’s both in terms of what they can contribute to the economic advancement of the city, but also importantly what the universities contribute to the quality of life in the city and the quality of governance in the city," Leebron said.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow said that universities will continue to be a part of ensuring a city’s economic success, but also that they will be a key part of a wider scale regional economic cohesiveness. He points to the concept of megapolitan regions, in which ten major clusters of metropolitan areas in the U.S. are expected to be home to about 80 percent of the country’s future population.

"The role of the universities in each of them is not to save the cities, because they are what they are," Crow said. “It’s whether or not in the United States the universities can be facilitative of our megapolitans being competitive and at the same time have some concept of economic justice in the way that they evolve."

The university heads pointed to some of the benefits they bring to the community, such as an increased involvement in K-12 education. But they also touched on the more physical side of university building projects. University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias pointed to a massive mixed use project the university is pursuing right off campus in South L.A. It will be the largest redevelopment project in the history of that part of town.

And though the university clearly is a developer, it’s not only a developer, according to Nikias.

“This university is in the business of educating people and doing research. We’re not a real estate company,” Nikias said.

Unsurprisingly, the four university heads spun their relationship with their cities in a positive light. None were willing to argue that their cities wouldn’t survive without them. But the link between the two is undeniably powerful. And as these universities and the knowledge-based economy they enable become more important, the interrelationship between universities and cities will become even closer.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.