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The Benefits of a Better Town-and-Gown Relationship

Perhaps the next big thing in local government ought to be a “higher education relations officer” who leverages universities’ assets to benefit the cities they’re in.

Aerial shot of the City University of New York campus.
City University of New York
A pervasive trend in city government is the creation of the position of chief innovation officer. The establishment of these offices is a recognition by city leaders that institutionalizing a focus on cultivating new approaches to improving performance will likely produce more and better ones than if it were simply left to chance. Some innovation offices will perform better than others, but I’ll bet that they prove to be more than a fad.

In that vein, perhaps the next cool thing in city halls ought to be the “HERO” -- the higher education relations officer. I got the idea that city governments ought to create a formal position focused on the strategic use of their colleges and universities from David Birdsell, dean of the City University of New York’s Baruch College School of Public Affairs. As Birdsell reminds us, colleges and universities are major assets to any city, bringing in students, purchasing goods and services, sometimes attracting substantial research dollars, and usually contributing substantially to the arts and cultural life. And often they are among the city’s top employers.

In 2007, I was part of a contingent from Kansas City visiting Seattle on a leadership exchange. A salient memory from that visit is Ron Sims, then the executive of King County, pointing out to us that the University of Washington produced $4 billion in annual local economic impact.

That sort of thing sounds like a worthy recipient of systematic attention from local-government leadership. Surprisingly, though, when you look at efforts to leverage the assets of local institutions of higher education to benefit a city, what you find is that they are almost always led by the college or university.

A classic example is The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets, written by Judith Rodin about her efforts in the late 1990s as president of the University of Pennsylvania to transform the west Philadelphia neighborhood in which the university is located. In her book, the city is more than a bystander in those efforts, but not much more.

The benefits of a better town-and-gown relationship need not only accrue to big cities with major universities. Richard Longworth, in his blog The Midwesterner, writes about the positive impact that Monmouth College, a small liberal arts institution, had on Monmouth, Ill. As in Philadelphia, that effort was led by the school’s then-president, Mauri Ditzler.

Quite a few mayors, including New York City’s Bill de Blasio, are recognizing the economic benefits of focusing on pre-K and K-12 education, but I’m not aware of any who have systematically tried to move up the food chain to higher education. While the long-term impact of focusing on young children is indisputable, the benefits derived from working with local institutions of higher education could be substantial as well, and more immediate. And as with innovation, those benefits are more likely to occur if they are systematically pursued than if they are left to chance. 

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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