Saturday, February 1, 2003

Ivory towers put out hands to help surrounding cities

By Paul Singer
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Trying to shed their image as uncaring ivory towers during a poor economy, universities are becoming more engaged in economic development in cities surrounding campuses.

"Outside our walls, many of our neighbors lack the opportunity to flourish," Yale University President Richard Levin said Thursday. "We must help our cities become what we aspire to be on our campuses - a place where human potential can be fully realized."

Levin was one of dozens of city and university officials from across the country who met Thursday at Case Western Reserve University to discuss examples of town-gown cooperation on urban improvement projects.

Other officials reached by phone echoed opinions shared at the conference that university-community collaboration is getting new interest.

Universities' interest in their communities is not simply academic altruism, said Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron.

"If our local economy is not strong and not attracting investment, ultimately we will die as well," Proenza said.

Edward Hundert, Case Western's new president, admits that universities often are accused of being uninterested in the cities they inhabit, but he said that is beginning to change.

"My real hope is to have this be the start of a national dialogue about how universities and cities can work together to make cities healthier," he said.

The National League of Cities has a subgroup called the University Communities Caucus, made up of city officials who share a similar list of complaints about their local university, said caucus chairman Bill Bertschy.

Bertschy, a city council member from Fort Collins, Colo. - home of Colorado State University - said cities have long resented universities that are not required to abide by city zoning or planning rules or do not pay property taxes.

Cities also are concerned about universities filling the towns with rowdy young people crammed into run-down rental properties, he said.

"I think institutions have been the ivory tower, but now they are realizing their responsibility more to the local communities," Bertschy said. "If the city is not safe or if it's run down or the school systems are in disarray, it's hard to attract faculty."

Yale has led a project to redevelop downtown New Haven, Conn., and Virginia Commonwealth University has developed a biotechnology research park in cooperation with the city of Richmond.

The University of Rochester in New York has launched a project to incorporate community health projects into its curriculum.

Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, said there is a clear economic incentive for universities to care about their host cities: donations.

"Half of the annual philanthropic support that we receive comes from St. Louis," Wrighton said.

"Well, if St. Louis is not wealthy, how can we expect them to be supporting us?"

Wrighton said his goal is to work with St. Louis to try to keep graduates in town.

"Our aspiration is to build a stronger economic base, help start new companies, and as they become successful, they'll be able to be generous - not only to us, but to the symphony, the zoo and the art museum," he said.

But in a city like Cleveland, this concept might be a hard sell.

Case Western students in a cafe down the hall from the conference expressed doubts about their career futures in Cleveland and Ohio.

Ryan Conrad, 20, of suburban Barberton, and Swarup Rao, 20, of Bangalore, India, said they see no hope for employment in the Cleveland area after graduation.

The economics majors said they likely will have to go to New York or Chicago to find jobs.

"There's not a real chance for an economics job in Ohio," Conrad said.

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