There are excellent philosophical arguments about why universities are expressions of the public good. They are accurate, time-honored and true. But the best demonstration -- and the most closely watched -- is how a university responds to its environment.
Before local budgets tightened in the 1990s, there was something sacrosanct about town/gown relations. Colleges were occasionally involved in partnership with local officials, especially if higher education leadership determined that a robust and appealing environment was in the best interest of the institution. Faculty, staff and students interested in community, social justice programs, or acting individually as good citizens contributed to the college's presence in the region.
The institution typically prepared an economic impact survey, often designed to answer questions about and provide justification for the continued tax-exempt status of the institution. But most colleges and universities behaved and represented themselves as isolated, magnificent "cities upon the hill" sitting in splendid isolation and quite apart from the communities in which they were located.
Higher education institutions face new pressures today. Cash-strapped localities have eroded opposition to PILOT (payment in-lieu of taxes) programs. Most colleges and universities make voluntary contributions of cash or in-kind services. Higher education institutions face new consumer demands. The look and feel of their surroundings factor into admission decisions made by students and families who choose the institution because they "know it when they feel it."
Further, most colleges and universities understand that a college education includes the thousand teachable moments that occur outside the classroom. This includes providing an environment where the town is effectively an extension of the classroom. As the delivery of learning changes, towns become more important to an institutional sense of self.
Within this context, higher education has emerged as some cross between "little engines that could" locally and a dominant driver as a key player in "eds and meds" complexes across the country, depending upon the metropolitan region. The literature developed over the past decade, the impact of the great recession on communities, and the emergence of ideas as the determining feature in the new American economy change the way that colleges and universities relate to their community. While scale matters, the effect is the same regardless of size or region.
Colleges and history must factor the role that they can or should play in their regions into their strategic plan. It was always easier to develop a strategic plan to serve the very real needs of internal constituencies, including faculty and students, than to imagine how a good strategic plan fits into a regional future. The time has now come, however, to see higher education strategic planning as an extension of and a catalyst for regional aspirations and development.
If America is emerging as an "idea" economy, higher education leadership must think strategically about the responsibilities-and, yes, opportunities-that this new economy represents for their institutions. The most important question is perhaps best restated as a regional one: What is my region?
The secondary questions are obvious: How do we create synergy to prosper within it and drive a "new idea" economy that is inexorably linked to my institution? And, how do we develop a strategic plan that prudently pushes a community-based agenda by linking the college or university to where regional aspirations will be rather than toward what exists at the point at which the plan is written?
Put in other terms, is it possible to imagine an institutional strategic plan that helps define and meet the best aspirations of the region? In doing so, can higher education institutions, working in partnership, drive not only an economy but also define a region's sense of self and future direction?
To do so, colleges and universities must be cautious and deliberate in their approach. They should begin by creating a good research base from which to draw their planning points. Higher education institutions must also take the lead in establishing cooperative, productive and timely conversations with the region's economic, political, social and cultural leadership. In most instances, local institutions should offer themselves as a unique and dominant regional asset. They must assiduously avoid chest thumping, arrogance and the expectation of a deal. It's why universities exist as a public good.
This process of engagement will never end nor should it. The effect over time, however, is to blur the distinction about what separated the university as an isolated "city upon a hill." By working with the "eds and meds" community, regional planners also emerge as a catalyst for change and innovation, bringing the "idea economy" to the table and energizing town/gown relationships as a cooperative, synergistic, organic partnership. This approach addresses critical questions about how universities serve regions, prepare workforces, and create environments that are sustainable and dynamic.
In a global economy, universities must plan for the world beyond their gates. They must see their regions much as regions must see them-as an unparalleled asset that can drive their collective future.
The best strategic plans shape institutional vision and positioning. By linking strategic planning to regional identity, American colleges and universities define their relevancy performing a public good by doing what they do best -thinking out loud. Borrowing a line from the movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", illustrates this point. At a critical moment, Sundance turns to Butch and suggests: "You just keep thinking, Butch, that's what you're good at."
American colleges and universities must drive the new idea economy. It begins at home.