Overcoming Rivalries to Bring Higher Ed Downtown

Downtown universities, writes Frank Fairbanks, create quality jobs, improve the quality of life in the broader central city, provide new cultural venues and create a positive street environment.
January 23, 2008
Frank Fairbanks
By Frank Fairbanks  |  Contributor
Frank Fairbanks was a GOVERNING contributor. He has served as city manager of Phoenix since 1990 and was named one of GOVERNING's Public Officials of the Year in 1994.

Like most cities, Phoenix is committed to the success of its downtown area. This focus isn't about civic ego; it's about creating quality jobs, strong central city neighborhoods, a diverse cultural environment and an urban design that promotes an active pedestrian lifestyle.

Recently, Mayor Phil Gordon and our city council developed a new goal and strategy for downtown. In general, strengthening education had long been a major goal for the city as a whole. It became clear, however, that the inclusion of higher education institutions in the downtown area would not only produce crucial educational outcomes, but that university activity could dramatically contribute to the success of other downtown goals. Downtown universities would create quality jobs, improve the quality of life in the broader central city, provide new cultural venues and create a positive 24/7 street environment.

Despite a burgeoning population of 1.5 million and an area of 550 square miles, the only public university in Phoenix was a small branch of Arizona State University in suburban Phoenix. ASU, with its original campus in Tempe -- a first-ring suburb -- had grown to be one of the largest universities in the nation, but was running out of space. The University of Arizona was located over 100 miles away in Tucson.

Arizona's rapid population growth meant that the public university system was constantly trying to catch-up with increased demand. Exacerbating the limited student capacity at public institutions was the lack of sizeable private universities in the Phoenix area. Constrained state funding for capital projects coupled with a limited endowment base translated into a relentless challenge for the universities to grow more rapidly. Arizona universities appropriately focused on strengthening research capacity and maintaining the quality of education.

The city of Phoenix acted to combine its needs, challenges and resources with the universities' to meet our common goals -- to develop a major new downtown campus of ASU, and a medical school in downtown Phoenix with the University of Arizona.

To be successful, the city and the two universities not only had to build a trusting partnership, but all parties also had to embrace the need to reinvent the visions and plans of their institutions. We knew we couldn't be successful without strong, progressive support from state government, the state Board of Regents, and the private and nonprofit sectors.

The growth concept described above was developed in early 2004. All of these facilities are now open and operating, and exceeding our expectations.

The city of Phoenix assembled land, developed public support and provided capital funding. Eighteen acres of underused land in the downtown area were acquired for the ASU campus. The city reached out to the community at large and the downtown neighborhoods to build support for the project. The mayor and city council advocated for the ASU construction project to be the largest project in the 2006 bond issue. The voters authorized a total of $233 million in general obligation bonds to build the first phase of the new ASU campus.

The city pledged another 28 acres of city-owned land for a biomedical campus. On this land, the University of Arizona planned to build an extension of its Tucson medical school, in partnership with ASU. The Phoenix Metropolitan Area was the largest metro area in the US without a full medical school (although, there is a private school of osteopathy in the metro area).

Showing incredible creativity and initiative, ASU moved at lightspeed to take advantage of the city's partnership offer. ASU President Michael Crow led the transformation, and won with the approval of the Academic Senate and deans of the moving colleges within months. ASU developed a concept of "ASU in many places." Essentially, ASU spun off the following colleges into downtown Phoenix: the College of Public Programs, including Public Administration and Social Work; the College of Journalism and Mass Communications; and the College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation. ASU also added a general undergraduate University College to the development plan, in order to support these degree programs, and is building a new residence hall in downtown Phoenix. The movement of these schools allowed expansion of the remaining schools on the existing campus.

The University of Arizona was equally aggressive. The faculty of the UofA Medical School was content in Tucson, but had the vision to see the need to serve the much larger Phoenix metropolitan area. The university had the broad perspective necessary to appreciate the strategic benefit of investing scarce resources far from its existing campus. The UofA worked quickly and with determination to gain accreditation of a new Phoenix facility, expanding its existing medical school. Starting a new medical school from the ground up would have required several more years of accreditation work.

In some ways, their most impressive feat was to overcome longstanding, natural rivalries in order to create another important new program in downtown. Both the UofA and ASU put aside the normal, intense university competition to come together to build the Arizona Biomedical Collaborative research facility. The facility is adjacent to the Medical School and is staffed by faculty from both universities. For good measure, the UofA added a satellite of its top-rated pharmacy school to the campus.

Many other players made success possible. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano did much of the heavy lifting and provided critical executive leadership; crucial support also came from the Arizona Legislature; and, the Arizona Board of Regents intensely led and supported the collaboration between the universities.

Measured by student interest, the project has been incredibly successful. In its second year of operation, the new ASU campus has 3,000 students, and is quickly moving to grow to 15,000. Similarly, the Phoenix UofA Medical School has opened with its first class of 24 students, and is well on its way to a target of 150 students per year. The Arizona Biomedical Collaborative already has 30 researchers at work.

And we have only just begun. Student interest has exceeded all estimates, and further expansion plans are in development. Hospitals are vying for the opportunity to construct clinical facilities to serve the medical school, nursing school, pharmacy school and biomedical researchers. The growing challenge is to find enough land for the expansions being planned.

This amazing effort is proof of what can be accomplished by creative people working together to accomplish good.