• August 29, 2015

Colleges Are Urged to Play a Greater Role in Regional-Development Efforts

Colleges must play a greater, and more deliberate, role in helping regions innovate and thrive in an increasingly competitive and globalized economy, speakers urged this week at a conference on higher education and economic development.

Economic development is "no longer about attracting businesses," said Sam M. Cordes, co-director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development. "It's about attracting people, about attracting talent."

Participants in the two-day conference, "Providing a Uniquely American Solution to Global Innovation Challenges: Unleashing Universities in Regions," delved into the various ways colleges can help build stronger local economies, including acting as conveners for conversations about regional development, aligning their curricula with local elementary and secondary schools, and producing and retaining well-educated workers.

The meeting was organized by the Transformative Regional Engagement Roundtable, an organization started at Pennsylvania State University that brings together universities, government, business, and nonprofit groups to focus on innovation-based regional development.

Timothy V. Franklin, who is director of public partnerships and engagement at Penn State and served as the conference's chair, says colleges should view their economic-development role on a regional scale, rather than as a responsibility limited by city lines or neighborhood boundaries. Communities that do not attract research dollars themselves need colleges' help to transform their economies, says Mr. Franklin, who formerly led a technology center in rural Virginia set up by Virginia Tech, calling for a kind of "innovation equity."

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, opened the conference, talking about her effort to make economic revitalization a driving mission of her 64-college system.

Ms. Zimpher said she has faced critics who believe that SUNY's colleges and universities should "get back in their box" and not engage in economic-development work. But she has pushed forward to try to foster "regional innovation hubs" that get all of SUNY's institutions, from community colleges to research universities, working in areas that reflect both the system's academic and research strengths and the state's economic assets: life sciences, nanotechnology, information technology and high-performance computing, and energy.

The university system also has begun a greater collaboration with the state's private colleges and with the City University of New York on economic and research priorities. Representatives of the three groups recently met with Gov.-elect Andrew M. Cuomo about their efforts.

"We will be better if we do this together," Ms. Zimpher said.

But another speaker, Joe Reagan, president and chief executive of Greater Louisville Inc., says higher-education administrators haven't always been good partners. When his regional-development group surveyed leaders in different business sectors, it found that college officials had the fewest ties to key actors in other fields.

What's more, Mr. Reagan says, he initially struggled to get the presidents of the 30 postsecondary institutions in and around his Kentucky city to work with one another on a plan to improve educational attainment there. The higher-education leaders, however, have since come together with industry executives as part of a project called Higher Income Requires Education, or HIRE, that seeks to increase the number of college-degree holders in Louisville by 55,000 over projections within a decade, through strategies such as getting working adults with some college education to go back to school.

A fellow panelist, Wanda F. Garza, executive officer of the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative at South Texas College, says collaboration can pay dividends. For example, college officials and business leaders have pressed for the creation of a research and education park in the Rio Grande Valley area, to be supported with federal and private-sector funds. In the current budget climate, such a project would likely have not gotten off the ground without such partnerships, she says.

Wayne H. Watkins, associate vice president of research at the University of Akron, says colleges can apply creative approaches to business and economic development. For example, Akron's research foundation recruited a handful of retirees in key industry sectors as fellows who can act as consultants to local entrepreneurs and start-up companies.

Other speakers suggested that colleges can serve as safe, neutral places for the various parties involved in development issues to hash out strategies and air differences.

But Mr. Reagan, of Greater Louisville, says the most important role colleges can play is by being "great universities, with great educational outcomes," turning out larger numbers of skilled graduates.


1. rjtricoli - December 09, 2010 at 07:45 am

The greatest result of good partnerships between higher education and the communities in which they are located is increased enrollment and graduation rates in high schools and colleges and universities, and stronger economic development for the region. Mr. Reagan may be correct when he comments that colleges and universities have not always been good partners. The responsibility for any good partnership is with those engaged in the agreement. When both partners work to develop agreements that are mutually beneficial to the community and the campus, the results are positive.
Service-learning and civic engagement activity often includes critical research conducted, by faculty for communities, which is necessary for communities to understand issues and problems. Often times dissappointment occurs when communities come to the table with the understanding that universities and colleges can "fix" their problems. The role of colleges and universities is to bring their expertise to the table as a tool for community and corporate leaders to employ to lead themselves in their desired destination.
The partnerships developed between colleges and universities and local communities and regions is driving economic development not just here in the Unites States, but in most countries of the world. The presidents and provosts at colleges and universities that are driving outreach and partnership missions are making the greatest impact everywhere they are located. Faculty, students, and communities are the beneficiaries. Additionally, one of the most promising outcomes is that students who are engaged in service-learning and civic engagement are understanding the impact their work is having on the communities in which they are learning. Engagement in these college and university partnerships is helping to grow our next generation of community and corporate leaders.
Mr. Reagan, as a native Kentuckian, I hope you won't give up on developing those partnerships. There are some extraordinary presidents in Kentucky who are deeply commited to this work and who clearly understand the mutual benefit to community and campus.
Robin J. Tricoli, ATL

2. rpesek1953 - December 09, 2010 at 10:41 am

Colleges and universities can assist their local communities and regions by introducing their international students, many of whom are studying Business Administration here, to local business leaders. At Ashland University we taught our internationals about networking by presenting a workshop through our placement office and inviting them to a luncheon with members of the business community. The university partnered with the area council for economic development in hosting the event. This resulted in an increase in the number of potential export markets as local businessmen made connections with future business leaders from around the world. Bob Pesek (bobpesek@gmail.com) Ashland University

3. 11245928 - December 09, 2010 at 11:46 am

Where and how you partner in regional economic development depends on a number of things, including the flexibility of the institution to control its own destiny, the ability of partners to see the institution as a reasource, the ability to leverage funding and private industry partners to create new synergies, etc. If an institution can do all these things, and act quickly and decisively, it can be a good partner. usually, two or mnore institutions can not act in concert in a decisive and prompt fashion.

4. marciag - December 09, 2010 at 02:08 pm

University-community partnerships are not a new idea, but they are a good one. Michigan Technological University in Houghton on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has been partnering with its local community in economic development efforts for several years, through the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation SmartZone. A high-tech business incubator and economic development engine, the MTEC SmartZone has helped launch nearly a dozen successful, technology-based businesses in this remote, rural community, by harnessing the bright minds and technological innovations of faculty and students at Michigan Tech. Now the University has taken another giant step by establishing the Michigan Tech Entrepreneurial Support Corp. to help move new technologies from university labs to successful start-up businesses. Any community lucky enough to have a university in its midst should sit down with representatives of that university, examine their unique local strengths and needs, and find ways to help each other thrive. Jennifer Donovan, Michigan Tech, jdonovan@mtu.edu

5. davi2665 - December 09, 2010 at 02:32 pm

The poster child for a great university-industry-community partnership is at SUNY Albany. Prof. Alain Kaloyeros has built a powerhouse nanotechnology program that has attracted literally hundreds of businesses and partners to work with them, to provide employment opportunities in the greater Albany area, and to provide countless academic opportunities for university professors and students. This requires strategic investments, sustaining support from the state, and the administrative good sense to leave the truly outstanding leadership alone to continue building this premier program. A critical component of such partnerships is to foster the knowledge-based leadership, and not cater to the attempts by the state and university upper administration to use this program for their own political purposes.

6. jeff1 - December 10, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Yes, this is old news to many universities. Conversely, the pressure for economic development is heightened today and perhaps for the long term given our nature as a society and the long-term economic mess we are in. I am at an urban institution and I am in an older moderate sized East coast city where the tax base is declining and industry has departed (yes . . . that could be many places) and the city sees, in part, taxing us as a non-profit using creative student per head fees and other approaches as one tool to help them balance their budgets. We bring thousands of parents and families to our city, our purchasing is largely local and our several thousand employees make significant contributions to the city and region. We are directly and significantly engaged in economic development and would like to do even more . . . but the state and the city have to make it easier for us to do so . . . have to support our growth . . . and have to partner with us rather than see us as a budget stop gap!

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