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.
This is a popular topic these days, particularly in difficult economic times. People like Richard Florida have linked the presence of research universities and their graduates with cities that have a larger concentration of the “creative class,” which then leads to more development. There are a lot of cities and communities that hope they can tap the local college in order to boost the local economy. It looks easy: the local university has a bunch of PhDs and eager students.
But how exactly this is supposed to happen is less clear. I remember the battle that took place in South Bend in the last five years. The University of Notre Dame wanted to expand and partner with the community to construct an “innovation center” that would blend the university and businesses. However, this became controversial as it involved bulldozing a number of houses, bringing up some of the old issues between the wealthy school and less wealthy city.
It sounds like this conference offered more specific ideas of how the university can partner with local communities and businesses in order to prompt growth. Since each school and community offers unique advantages (and disadvantages), such partnerships are likely to take a good amount of work. Both the school and community need to feel that they will benefit from the time and hard work that is necessary to put something together.