Higher Education: Cities? Hidden Asset

Bruce Katz and Evan Dobelle

In numerous recent articles on urban revival, we have read about the role of government, the role of the private sector, and even the role of ordinary citizens in renewing the greatness of America?s cities. Amid the call for public/private partnerships, and civic responsibility, however, we have seen almost no reference to the role of urban universities and colleges.

Bound by history and economic reality to their respective cities, these institutions are uniquely positioned to spur community revival. Unfortunately, as America?s cities have declined steadily over the last half century, too many urban colleges and universities have remained aloof, creating physical and psychological barriers between themselves and their communities.

But other institutions—Trinity College in Hartford, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, SUNY Stonybrook, Berkeley, to name a handful—have taken the opposite and, we argue, much better approach, embracing their neighborhoods, and the attendant challenges of cities. They are redefining the relationship between cities and urban colleges and universities.

Some of the motivation for this interest in urban problems is practical. Schools located in stressed neighborhoods cannot wall off problems—neighborhood decline will eventually breach the barriers. An institution in an unsafe or even a merely unpleasant area will lose some prospective students and faculty members. And, unlike private firms, universities and colleges generally cannot afford to rebuild their specialized facilities in a new part of town, particularly if high crime and low investment have reduced the value of their existing properties.

But a commitment to a healthier city and neighborhood does not come from self-interest alone. It also comes from a sense of the mission of higher education. What kind of citizens should a college or university create? What should it contribute to civic culture? We believe that institutions of higher education want to create citizens who recognize that justice, or compassion, or social change has a practical as well as a theoretical component; who understand how to reflect and how to act. Similarly, we think that institutions want to help create a culture of engagement, openness, and respect. These citizens and this culture cannot be created in fortresses, no matter how distinguished their reputations, how lovely their landscaping, or how heavily policed their perimeter.

It is time for colleges and universities to reclaim a position of moral leadership in our country, and restore their historic place in the success of American cities.

Trinity College, for example, has committed $6 million of its endowment to the revitalization of Hartford. This investment, which could grow to about $10 million, has been leveraged into more than $200 million of public, private, and foundation funding for three new schools, neighborhood recreational facilities, home ownership opportunities, and retail expansion in the city. Imagine what could happen if just 100 other colleges and universities invested $6 million in their communities. Arguably, such investments could leverage almost $20 billion—not to mention the opportunities created for student involvement. More than half of Trinity?s students have joined the revitalization effort in Hartford, and 150 out of 500 freshman have volunteered to help operate a new Boys and Girls Club on campus. As a result of these efforts, General Colin Powell, who dedicated the new Boys and Girls Club, designated Trinity as a college of promise—the first in the nation; the Kellogg Foundation has contributed a $5 million grant to further Trinity?s involvement.

More than a dozen institutions in or near seriously needy communities have endowments of more than $1 billion. And yet many have not tapped their wealth to benefit their communities. Their endowments are untouchable rainy-day reserves. Well, just outside the campus gates, it is raining. For all the talk of revived cities, new-model mayors and a downtown renaissance, urban neighborhoods are still struggling. One out of every five urban families live in poverty. More than half of the students in the 20 largest urban school districts in the country never graduate. Clearly, a genuine urban revival is still far away.

A short survey of other higher education investments (using endowment or other monies), conducted by Ira Harkavy and Harmon Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania for the Brookings Institution shows an array of possibilities for colleges and universities who want to invest in their cities. The University of Pennsylvania has made a $130 million commitment to the construction of a new hotel and the renovation or construction of retail space and is helping to create more than a dozen university-assisted community schools in Philadelphia.


Colleges and universities can also have a significant impact through their hiring and purchasing policies. These institutions are among the top employers in the twenty largest American cities. They spend millions of dollars on everything from office supplies to laundry services. Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Illinois at Chicago have a buy- and hire-local program, aimed at community residents and businesses. Penn will make $35 million in purchases in its West Philadelphia neighborhood this year; MIT?s ?Cambridge First? policy results in $30 to $50 million in annual revenues for Cambridge businesses. These programs do not require large capital investments—only will and conviction.

Community renewal is not a distraction from the ?real? mission of higher education. It is vital to it. Colleges and universities must recognize that they have a moral imperative to invest in the streets beyond their campuses, and to inspire students to apply the lessons of the classroom and laboratory to the service of community. This leadership will set a compelling example of citizenship and civic responsibility. We can think of no more appropriate role for this nation?s institutions of higher learning.

It is time for those in urban universities and colleges to exercise their responsibility not only to the life of the mind, but also to the lives on the streets.