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Cities Make Universities, Not The Other Way Around

This discussion at Matt Yglesias’ blog about whether universities make cities prosperous is interesting but I think the reverse causality is more relevant: how cities help create prosperous universities.

Clearly, colleges and universities can exist in near-total isolation. There are plenty of campuses that thrive as autonomous city-states with only a bare minimum of surrounding municipal infrastructure. Grinnell, for example, is a perfectly ordinary medium-sized town in the middle of Iowa whose population stayed between 5,000 and 10,000 people for the entire 20th century and happens to contain a highly-selective liberal arts college with a billion-dollar endowment. Same thing with Storrs, Connecticut and many others.

But just as clearly, cities are a huge advantage for universities on the make. What do NYU, Washington University-St. Louis, George Washington University, the University of Southern California, and Northeastern University have in common?  In recent decades, they’ve all clawed their way up the ranks of institutional prestige and selectivity. And they’re located in New York, St. Louis, D.C., Los Angeles, and Boston, respectively. There are few if any examples (Duke, maybe) of universities that have pulled this off without a major city as a base.

It’s not hard to see why. During the same time period, many American cities became great places for people—particularly young people—to live. A few weeks ago I spent the day at a college fair for high schoolers in Miami and it was amazing how many schools used proximity to New York City in the first line of their pitch. (I believe the official motto of Adelphi University is “XLV per Manhattan momenta temporis requiret ad vehiculum.”) Cities provide services—police, fire protection, housing, transportation, bars in which to get drunk—that universities don’t have to. And cities have places to work once students graduate.

The thing that puzzles me about the example of NYU, USC, GWU et al is why more people don’t start new city universities. If you don’t try to provide a comprehensive set of academic departments and services—an insane thing to do in this day and age, really—and instead specialize in some kind of suitably millennial, interdisciplinary set of studies, all you need is a modest amount of real estate in an appropriately cool part of town and enough seed capital to poach some name-brand professors, hire a good marketing firm, and purchase accreditation on the open market. A city the size of New York could accommodate dozens of such institutions. It’s just that nobody thinks to build them.

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