Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Trouble With Land-Grant Universities

Flagship state schools, particularly in the Midwest, are relics of an economic geography dominant in the late 19th century. The agricultural focus was fine for putting a university in the middle of nowhere, where aspiring farmers could funnel in from all around the state. Today, that very isolation is wasting valuable brain power:

The University’s renowned international reputation, the health care industry, quality of life, green space, proximity to Detroit and easy access to Detroit Metropolitan Airport are all named as important factors to Ann Arbor’s prosperity.

[Lou Glazer (president of Michigan Future, an Ann Arbor-based think tank that conducts research on Michigan’s transition to a knowledge-based economy)] said it is the size of the University’s research operations and Ann Arbor’s central location in Southeast Michigan that distinguishes Ann Arbor from other college towns.

This combination is what gives the University more spin-off potential than other schools, he said, adding that if Ann Arbor was located a hundred miles north or south, the University would have a much smaller impact on economic development.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, another flagship research school, is an example of academia’s irrelevance if the school isn’t in a prime location, Glazer said.

“The University of Illinois in Champaign has almost no effect because it’s out in the middle of a corn field,” he said.

Pittsburgh is fortunate to have two major research universities within city limits. The density of knowledge production in Oakland, just 5 miles from the CBD, is fueling Pittsburgh's latest renaissance. This asset really comes to the fore in the latest issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly.

"Pittsburgh's College Corridor" starts in downtown with Point Park University and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. In Uptown is, of course, Duquesne University. Oakland has Pitt, CMU and Carlow University. Lastly, there is Chatham University in Shadyside. Increasing the connectivity between these institutions, along with better transportation to and from the airport, should be priortiy one for economic development.

The biggest obstacle to realizing this vision is the barrier between downtown and Uptown. At the heart of the matter is Mellon Arena, which some residents would like to save. The Civic Arena effectively isolated the Upper Hill District and destroyed the Lower Hill District neighborhood. Reconnect the Hill with downtown and breathe life into the College Corridor.

This isn't just a big idea that made for a nice story. Joanna Burley, Director of Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, makes the following offer:

We've got an awful lot of schools in this area. If someone came through with an interaction plan that really made sense and benefited all of the schools and higher education in this region, I would take a very serious look at it.

I challenge the Pittsburgh social media community to craft an interaction plan. Do check out the story in Pittsburgh Quarterly. Students from all seven schools were interviewed and make a number of good suggestions. For example, I see a clear need for a blog covering the College Corridor scene. This blog could spark a functional collective identity, something I think social media is uniquely positioned to do.

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