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Universities and Cities: Place-Based Anchors of City Development and Individual Accomplishment

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Recently, a group called CEOs for Cities looked at education and income in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in our country. What they found were that the differences in four-year educational attainment between cities account for three-fifths of the difference of income between those cities. Let me put that more simply: How educated your city is explains 60 percent of how wealthy your city is. According to that analysis, if this city, Chicago, were able to increase the number of residents with four-year degrees by just 1 percent, it would add $7.2 billion to the local economy -- just 1 percent in the number of four-year-college degrees held by city residents.

-- Vice President Joseph Biden, Spoken at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Richard J. Daley Urban Forum, April 27, 2009

As a public institution of higher learning, embedded deeply into our home city Chicago, we bring a full range of research, training and expertise to bear on complex and vexing urban problems, and by doing so better the lives of our fellow citizens. That is my premise: Universities in cities are an excellent investment.

We are one of the key place-based institutions in Chicago. The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) currently supports many excellent programs whose purpose is engagement within our city: the Great Cities Institute, Neighborhood Initiative, the UIC Chicago Partnership for Health Promotion, and the Principal mentoring programs targeted specifically for leadership in Chicago Public Schools. We must, however, remain alert to the constant challenges faced by cities, and continue to improve upon the relationships between our students in the classroom, in the neighborhoods and the larger communities of the city and its region.

I have recently assumed a leadership role with the national group of public research universities, called the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) and co-chair, along with Debra Friedman, chancellor of the University of Washington, Tacoma, the coalition's strengthening community strand.

This notion of urban university engagement with the city is most important in this new century. The twenty-first century is referred to as the "urban century." Not because cities are new forms of settlement, harking back to Jane Addams' era, but rather for the first time in history we are now an urban rather than a rural species. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States. While the population of the entire nation is around 312 million, over 83 percent, or almost 269 million of us live in 363 population density zones on the continent -- or the city/regions of our metropolitan areas.

According to the Brookings Institution, the one hundred largest metropolitan areas in the United States occupy 12 percent of the nation's land-mass; contain two thirds of our population and three quarters of all college graduates.

These same 100 metropolitan areas are responsible for nearly 80 percent of the nation's patents and 94 percent of all venture or investment capital funding. As a result, these top 100 city-regions produce 75 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, making the top thirty five of these metropolitan areas among the top 100 economies in the world.

The importance of urban research universities is clearly manifest in the scale of the impact, the "footprint," of the university in its city. By late in the last decade, urban research universities were among the top employers in every one of their respective cities. Overall, public research universities employed one million full-time staff members and were often viewed as a source of innovation. The last time we counted, we combined to spend over $200 billion in our regions on average, and each one of us spends over $450 million each year on wages and salaries.4

We own an average of almost 600 acres of urban real estate; we are the source of cultural and recreational activities for over 750,000 individuals each year, and we are the 16th largest employer in the Chicago area. Beyond all this direct economic benefit, we are good citizens--expending, as a group, over $6 billion each year in public service programs that, in turn, leverage further investments in our communities. We are also keenly aware of Chicago's priorities and we've made them our own. For example, workforce development in the STEMS, innovation, K-12 education and sustainability in architecture and culture are now hallmarks of UIC.

My colleagues, other university presidents and chancellors, serve on many boards and community leadership commissions involving partners in business, technology, government, education and culture.

4GCI study for USU of the secondary U.S. IPEDS data for those years; Background: Universities Vital to Cities, 2006-07

This "footprint" of the American research university in cities is growing. We are increasingly a significant and preeminent participant. As my colleague Nancy Cantor, the president of Syracuse University put it: "Where we are located is tied inextricably to what we are." The city is the university and university is the city.

The USU plays an important role: building on the increasing importance of universities in cities and establishing a national network of public, urban-based research universities dedicated to improving the economic prosperity and quality of life for all our citizens.

At UIC, the role of university engagement is most directly manifested in our "Great Cities Commitment," which comprises over 1,000 teaching, research and service programs intended to improve the quality of life in Chicago, its metropolitan area and in other "great cities" around the world. This notion of "Great Cities" puts the emphasis on the urban, ensuring that the university is also a key partner with Chicago using its considerable learning and research activities to advance our communities now, and position them to be strong into the future.

Much is made these days of the "value proposition" in any argument when discussing the role of universities, not-for profit organizations, and community foundations in their cities.

Beyond the economic, social and demographic importance of universities to their cities, what makes them "unique" aside from their recognized contributions (community real estate and land use, housing and neighborhood development and work force development and job creation) is this: We bring a full range of research, training and expertise to bear on the complex and vexing problems of urbanism in all its many facets.

The same thing is true for many of the city's identified problems -- from K-12 education, health and affordable housing, to work force training, poverty and unemployment. The university has the scale of disciplines and expertise to address the range of complexities that these urban issues represent.

I can think of no more appropriate or singularly place-based entity than the university, to "serve" this list of challenges that face the great cities of the U.S. and the world. The only thing more powerful than one university's contribution to its city is a COALITION of universities banded together with stakeholder communities, businesses and various governmental agencies, etc., to "serve" the city/regions of America and beyond.

As co-chair of the "Strengthening Communities Strand" of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities I suggest we continue to leverage the significant roles we play in our cities as both an undeniable institution of scale and an educational institution of unparalleled place-based range and ability.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Dr. David Perry, Professor of Urban Planning and Policy and Associate Chancellor for the Great Cities Commitment at UIC and Shari Garmise, Ph.D., Vice President, USU/APLU Office of Urban Initiatives.