Colleges Are Urged to Play a Greater Role in Regional-Development Efforts

December 08, 2010

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.

The meeting was organized by the Transformative Regional Engagement Roundtable, an organization started at Pennsylvania State University that brings together universities, government, business, and nonprofit groups to focus on innovation-based regional development.

Timothy V. Franklin, who is director of public partnerships and engagement at Penn State and served as the conference's chair, says colleges should view their economic-development role on a regional scale, rather than as a responsibility limited by city lines or neighborhood boundaries. Communities that do not attract research dollars themselves need colleges' help to transform their economies, says Mr. Franklin, who formerly led a technology center in rural Virginia set up by Virginia Tech, calling for a kind of "innovation equity."

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, opened the conference, talking about her effort to make economic revitalization a driving mission of her 64-college system.

Ms. Zimpher said she has faced critics who believe that SUNY's colleges and universities should "get back in their box" and not engage in economic-development work. But she has pushed forward to try to foster "regional innovation hubs" that get all of SUNY's institutions, from community colleges to research universities, working in areas that reflect both the system's academic and research strengths and the state's economic assets: life sciences, nanotechnology, information technology and high-performance computing, and energy.

The university system also has begun a greater collaboration with the state's private colleges and with the City University of New York on economic and research priorities. Representatives of the three groups recently met with Gov.-elect Andrew M. Cuomo about their efforts.

"We will be better if we do this together," Ms. Zimpher said.

But another speaker, Joe Reagan, president and chief executive of Greater Louisville Inc., says higher-education administrators haven't always been good partners. When his regional-development group surveyed leaders in different business sectors, it found that college officials had the fewest ties to key actors in other fields.

What's more, Mr. Reagan says, he initially struggled to get the presidents of the 30 postsecondary institutions in and around his Kentucky city to work with one another on a plan to improve educational attainment there. The higher-education leaders, however, have since come together with industry executives as part of a project called Higher Income Requires Education, or HIRE, that seeks to increase the number of college-degree holders in Louisville by 55,000 over projections within a decade, through strategies such as getting working adults with some college education to go back to school.

A fellow panelist, Wanda F. Garza, executive officer of the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative at South Texas College, says collaboration can pay dividends. For example, college officials and business leaders have pressed for the creation of a research and education park in the Rio Grande Valley area, to be supported with federal and private-sector funds. In the current budget climate, such a project would likely have not gotten off the ground without such partnerships, she says.

Wayne H. Watkins, associate vice president of research at the University of Akron, says colleges can apply creative approaches to business and economic development. For example, Akron's research foundation recruited a handful of retirees in key industry sectors as fellows who can act as consultants to local entrepreneurs and start-up companies.

Other speakers suggested that colleges can serve as safe, neutral places for the various parties involved in development issues to hash out strategies and air differences.

But Mr. Reagan, of Greater Louisville, says the most important role colleges can play is by being "great universities, with great educational outcomes," turning out larger numbers of skilled graduates.