Future for Cities in Higher Education

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Eye from Albany
April 2000

Future for Cities in Higher Education
by Paul M. Bray

New York State has the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River in its Adirondack Park as well as vast forested areas like Tug Hill and the Catskill and Allegheny Parks. The State’s bounty includes a countryside of small and large farms and picturesque small towns. There are also the leafy green suburbs.

Few realize the intricate connection of this natural and bucolic beauty with the State’s cities. No, the cities did not create nature and scenic features, but they did generate the wealth, ideas and political will that allowed us to protect and manage areas as wilderness and establish 150 State Parks. They are the marketplace for the State?s large agriculture economy.

Most of us, as environmental historian William Cronon points out, are captive of the pastoral myth that cities are a place somehow separate from that other key human landscape, The Country. We tend to love the country, hate cities and forget that they are not two separate places but rather are one whole. Public support for spending public funds in cities that increasingly seem distant and remote to the suburban majority has
dwindled.

This leaves cities alone to respond to societal ills and the challenges like public education that come with the ideal of social equality isn’t surprising. Therefore, it is heartening that a path to city revival is taking shape. It is found in town-gown relationships.

Not long ago most city colleges and universities prized the isolation of their ivory tower from the urban communities in which they were located. At worst, they would buy up surrounding houses and let them languish in ruin until they might be needed for future expansion. And at the same time city leaders responded to this indifference by showing little interest in their colleges and universities.

In the last few years the leaders of city based higher education institutions have had a wake up call. It dawned on them that the success of theirs schools could not be separated from their host cities. If their surrounding neighborhoods, for example, were under siege and their host cities were known mostly for their urban problems, they were going to have an increasingly hard time attracting students.

Now schools like Howard University in Washington, DC have done a big time turn around. Howard University is aggressively putting $24 million from Fannie Mae and its own foundation to renovating urban houses it owns, developing others and filling them with home owners at below market rates.

New Jersey has stepped up to the plate with a $2.5 million College & University Homebuyer’s Program designed to increase home ownership rates in cities. It provides faculty and staff of public colleges forgivable, no-interest loans of $10,000 to buy a home in designated urban neighborhoods and $5,000 for making exterior home improvements. The program is modeled after a successful University of Pennsylvania program that attracted 175 employees with $15,000 down-payments grants to buy homes in the University’s troubled West Philadelphia neighborhood.

Things are also happening in New York State. A couple of years ago the business community in New York City through the Association for a Better New York did a year long campaign to highlight the City’s many colleges and universities, that the Big City was a College Town. It was a public recognition by city business leaders that higher education was a major urban economic asset. Today, one only has to walk around New York University in Greenwich Village to see the dynamic impact a university can have on city life.

Union College in Schenectady, New York and Russell Sage College in Troy, New York have gotten in the act of promoting city home ownership. The lures that can be used include grants to college employees or anyone, free or low cost tuition for children of homesteaders and college generated amenities to improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods.

Higher education is not only uplifting urban neighborhoods, it has become an engine for creating urban jobs as its research activities in information technologies and bio-med lead to the creation of new jobs in cities. For example, through incubators for start up high tech business, colleges and universities are directly bridging their research and education to the marketplace.

Last year Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt sponsored legislation to include urban concerns of State University host communities within their mission and is organizing with the University at Buffalo a major town-gown conference to identity ways city schools to be a vital part of the answer to having economically vital cities. Hoyt believes that no institution has the ability to positively affect its community the way a college or a university does.

Just as it isn’t easy for people to understand the connection and, in fact, interdependence of cities and wilderness, the marriage of town and gown or city and university will have to overcome many ingrained notions based on years of estrangement. But self interest and survival are strong forces, so our cities will be looking more and more as university towns for their
identity and salvation.