David Eichenthal: Universities Play Vital Role for Cities Well-being

David Eichenthal

At the end of June, I had the chance to speak with approximately 60 leaders of urban colleges and universities at the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities’ annual meeting.

For me, one of the most exciting components of the National Resource Network is our deliberate strategy to engage higher education leaders in our work.  New York University (NYU) is key member of the consortium leading the Network and our strategic partners include the University of Southern California and the University of Chicago, as well as the Coalition.

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After spending more than a decade in local government, I led a non-profit policy and research organization housed at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.  I know first-hand the potential that exists for both universities and cities when they work together to build a strong cities and strong communities, but I also know that there are obstacles.

There are at least four major roles for colleges and universities in cities:

Economic drivers of the local economy. In many cities, colleges and universities are among the largest employers – add to that supplier relationships, construction and all of the other indirect economic effects of a local college and university

Critical players in economic development. Workforce and opportunities for research and other partnerships can drive – or stall – a city’s ability to retain and grow jobs.

Institutional support for local government capacity.  Many colleges are the training ground for the local public sector workforce, from teachers to department administrators

Knowledge development.  Higher education institutions can be the source of policy and research expertise that can inform local government action.

The central role of higher education in the leadership and work of the National Resource Network reflects our view that they are essential elements of a city’s economic prosperity.

That why, as we begin our assessment process in cities, we encourage cities to invite higher education institutions to the table as important community stakeholders.

It’s why the initial focus of our research and policy agenda is a project where NYU and the Urban Institute are collaborating – with support from the Ford Foundation – to explore specific roles that colleges and universities can play in some of the cities where the Network is providing direct assistance.

And it is why we are enlisting the USC Price School – with funding from the Annenberg Foundation – to explore how gateway cities in the Los Angeles region are addressing challenges and opportunities.

Even when both local government and higher education want to work together and see the value in working together, the relationship is not always perfect.  In my experience, this is often due to misunderstanding and lack of communication rather than a lack of interest. 

Through our approach and through the partners that the Network has already brought together, we hope to demonstrate how to bridge those gaps.  We can’t afford not to.  The economic challenges in many cities are too great to not have higher education be a critical partner with local government to address them.