Opening Universities as Global Urban Actors

By Jean-Paul D. Addie (Georgia State University)

The relationship between the university and the city is evolving in an era of global urbanization. It is now a well-worn adage that we have entered an ‘urban age’ with more than half the world’s population living in cities. This epochal transition raises unprecedented opportunities for universities to mobilize their expertise, influence policy agendas, and assume critical roles as urban leaders on the global stage. Yet it also presents profound challenges for academic institutions, both in terms of changing expectations and functions of higher education and where in the world – and the city – university adaptions need to unfold.

Over the past four decades, the rise of an increasingly urbanized ‘knowledge economy’ has led universities in North America, Europe, and further afield to be afforded privileged positions in national innovation policy frameworks and local economic development agendas. In the words of Henry Etzkowitz, a prominent analyst of, and advocate for, ‘entrepreneurial university’, universities are “the generative principle of knowledge-based societies” and have taken on leading roles in both urban and regional development. However, at present, the notion of the ‘urban university’ remains predominantly tied to the idea of place-based, highly-localized education institutions: universities as urban ‘anchors’ and economic engines tied to, and serving, their immediate locales. In large part, such roles emerge from ‘local dependencies’ ranging from large-scale urban landholdings and student catchments to links with industry clusters and local influence on university governance. But universities are also pursuing urbanized strategic objectives that regionalize and globalize their footprints in new and novel ways. They are leading regional innovation, forging international institutional networks, engaging in global place-making, and tackling interdisciplinary societal ‘Grand Challenges’. The list goes on…

As universities pursue diverse modes of organizational restructuring and roll-out highly-variegated spatial and institutional strategies, they have a tremendous capacity to both catalyze local economic growth and inform broader debates on responsive, adaptive, and sustainable urbanism through their research, teaching, and outreach. Their size and complexity, though, make it difficult for urban communities and decision makers (both near and far) to identify, access, and mobilize the knowledge they hold. Academic administrators, urban leaders, and public officials have often failed to grasp the implications of their spatial relations and struggle to account for the range of urban interactions occurring on a day-to-day basis across multiple sites of academic activity. This is especially true in large, globally-connected urban regions that host a multitude of higher education institutions. The old adage that the university is an institution in, but not of, the city persists – but it cannot hold as urban centers and societies extend at increasing scales. How, then, can adopting a different understanding of expanded urban socio-spatial relations deepen our understanding of potential modalities of urban university engagement?

Recent research published in Urban Affairs Review demonstrates that shifting our focus from the place-based ‘urban university’ towards a relational understanding of ‘universities in urban society’ offers a more encompassing approach to capturing higher education institutions’ urbanizing functions. Building on the ideas of influential French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre, this involves replacing territorial or administrative readings of ‘the city’ with three core characteristics of ‘urban society’ as the basis of the 21st-century urban university. First, mediation, draws attention to how universities produce and disseminate knowledge. Second, centrality, indicates that where university engagement happens has a tremendous impact on their ability to inform urban decision-making. Third, difference, highlight whether universities are actively engaging diverse urban communities, and the technologies used to these ends. To illustrate what this means in practical terms, the study conducted a qualitative content analysis of universities strategic plans in London (41) and New York City (74), using a coding structure to assess these characteristics across nine key indicators: internal co-ordination, knowledge exchange, and external relations (meditation); institutional networking, campus development, community engagement, and urban orientation (centrality); and opening access, and new pedagogies and technologies (difference).

The results reveal universities are pursuing a broad array of urban engagement priorities, with a significant degree of variation over the nine indicators. These differences reflect variations in institutional types, structural capacities, and the overarching policy environments across the case cities. Overall, London’s universities operate with an urban imaginary that predominantly views the city as a networked arena for knowledge transfer. The city’s urban higher education sector strongly emphasizes the development of mediation practices – to a much greater extent than its New York City counterpart. 39 of 41 universities reference knowledge exchange as a pressing concern, whether it be through a focus on “enterprise and commercialization” activities, as in the case of Brunel University, or the University of the Arts London’s desire to “inform and stimulate” the city’s creative economy. To this end, interest in creating strategic partnerships with local government or targeted industrial clusters appears as clear leitmotif. University networking is another recurrent strategic planning goal, often to promote internationalization but also as means to share specifically urban expertise, as exemplified in City University’s leading role in the ‘World Cities World Class Universities’ (WC2) network (which also include Baruch College in New York).

New York City universities, in contrast, mobilize more city-scaled and place-based approaches to urban engagement, while tending to be more explicitly focused on their internal and external community stakeholders. This orientation is most evident in the civic mandates situated in the institutional missions on the universities and colleges of the public City University of New York (CUNY) system. More generally, the rhetoric of universities as ‘anchor institutions’ is more established in American higher education circles than in the United Kingdom, where ‘civic university’ discourse prevails. Strikingly, many New York universities are explicitly looking to engage the city as more than lure to attract students. Fordham University’s ‘Toward 2016’ plan, for instance, builds on the premise that “New York City provides… a special kind of classroom” while Brooklyn College (CUNY) seeks to “capitalize on Brooklyn as a learning environment and gateway to the world”.

Strategic plans, of course, do not necessarily lead to institutional action. However, this study’s findings suggest cities, global or otherwise, ought to take stock of their higher education systems. Variations in university type, size, and institutional orientation have significant impacts on the contributions universities can make to sustainable urban agendas – from local impact to global connectivity. They also influence the potential opportunities urban actors can explore when building strategic partnerships with academic institutions. Urban decision-makers should therefore utilize diverse, locally-specific mechanisms when engaging universities. This involves developing strong relationships beyond management and leadership levels to facilitate direct knowledge exchange with specific research institutes and individual academics. By adaptively capitalizing on diverse knowledges and disciplinary contributions, ‘universities in urban society’ can proactively function as knowledge producers that conduct, analyze, and disseminate data through teaching and research, and as capacity-building institutions that bring together different groups and ways of understanding contemporary urbanization.

There is need, though, for a final word of caution: embrace universities, but be realistic. Universities hold mandates and serve communities that are not neatly tied to their immediate urban contexts, even as their relational and networked connectivity redefines local place and global space in equal measure. They are under significance financial and political pressures that limit their capacities and direct their orientations (evidenced in the recent strike actions by university staff in the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere). And at the same time, institutional red tape and the competing priorities of internal stakeholders can do much to derail initiatives. If urban university strategic planning to turn from talk to effective implementation, collaborations and engagement must be targeted in ways that tap into specific resources to tackle specific, clearly-identified, and mutually-beneficial objectives.

Read the article here.

Jean-Paul D. Addie is an assistant professor in the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University. His research interests include university urbanism, city-regional urbanization, urban infrastructure, and socio-spatial theory.


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