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New Hope for College Towns

Cities and universities may finally be learning to work together.

Arizona State University’s downtown campus
(Charlie Leight)
A strong collaborative relationship between a university and the city in which it is located is such an obviously good idea that it is remarkable that it has such a long history of not working very well. In my view, the classic analysis of this situation is contained in Not Well Advised, a 1981 book by the consultant and policy analyst Peter Szanton. While universities were seen as “potentially rich sources of useful advice to municipal governments,” little of that advice had any effect on cities, he wrote.

Not much has changed since then, and there are good reasons why it’s hard to create an effective and sustainable partnership between cities and universities. For one thing, both have relatively high turnover at the top; strong relationships take time to develop, but mayors, city managers and university presidents often have a relatively short tenure. And both cities and universities are dynamic, open systems that are hard to focus and direct. There are also misperceptions that get in the way: The idea that what universities offer is brainpower that cities lack is more than a little off-putting for some on the city side. In their view, the university’s best contribution is as an anchor institution -- employer, landowner and potential developer.

But I think we are about to see a new era in this relationship. Many of today’s mayors are well educated and comfortable working with academics, and they are looking for collaborators to help them with the challenges they face. One clear signal of this change is the establishment in 2015 of the MetroLab Network, which describes itself as “a city-university collaborative for urban innovation” and whose animating force is Martin O’Malley, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor. The network now consists of more than 40 formal partnerships between local governments and universities.

Two aspects of this effort bode well. MetroLab has an advisory group filled with people who understand the issues well -- former mayors, respected urban scholars and university leaders. And the fact that it is a multicity network gives it a resilience that a single partnership working alone would not have.

MetroLab is already producing results, but to me the clincher might be what’s been going on in Phoenix. About 10 years ago, its voters approved a $223 million bond for a downtown campus for Arizona State University, which is based in Tempe. Today, ASU’s Phoenix campus has 10,000 students and is a vibrant downtown hub. Mayor Greg Stanton’s 2016 State of the City address was filled with references to the powerful relationship between the city and ASU and the benefits they each derive from it.

It’s taken us a long time to get there, but developments like the MetroLab Network and what cities like Phoenix are doing may finally show us how to get real impact from a relationship that has been unsatisfying for so long. 

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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