If Colleges Are Dismantled, Consider the Impact on Their Cities

André Da Loba for The Chronicle

October 16, 2016

Everything today is being unbundled: television, hotels, even the European Union. Some education reformers would like the university to be next. Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, argues that disaggregation of the university’s services is a positive and inevitable process that will make the university more efficient and accessible.

Craig is not alone in seeking to parcel out a number of the university’s duties. Anant Agarwal of edX has argued that everything from admissions to food service to health care are extraneous to the institution’s central purpose. Information technology, through MOOCs or credit-bearing online courses, is key to achieving better, faster, and less costly course delivery. In the United States, online programs make university education accessible to working parents, the military, and other nontraditional students. Coursera’s new partnership with the State Department is extending that reach to refugees abroad. Much is to be gained, others have argued, from relegating to history the centuries-old association of higher education with time and place.

Yet the university has an additional purpose that is missing in these conversations and that historically played a central role — service to surrounding communities and cities. In fact, history provides a valuable lesson about what might happen if the university’s services were unbundled. And it shows that this central feature of the university would be lost — along with the local economic and cultural benefits that the university provides — if it were to be dismantled.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, even as the world became more interconnected, ascendant universities remained embedded in the cities that promoted them and benefited from their successes. From the last quarter of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, the fortunes of universities often rose or fell with the ability of their presidents to maintain relationships with their communities. Community support positioned a university for global prominence.

The 19th-century reformer Daniel Coit Gilman, who founded the first German-style research university in America, Johns Hopkins, in 1876, understood the delicate balance required between appealing to the desires of the community and achieving his goal of an institution with national prestige. He persuaded mid-Atlantic railroad magnates that their investment in Johns Hopkins would help the city and university thrive. Other ventures, such as Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., lacked community support, and their equally compelling entrepreneurial efforts to bring the German university model to America faltered.

Perhaps nowhere were the benefits of the reciprocal relationship between town and gown more evident than in early 20th-century New York City. Under the leadership of presidents Seth Low and Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia University capitalized on the growth of New York to catapult to the top of American higher education, while Baltimore’s stagnant economy stalled Gilman’s ambitions for Hopkins.

Peripheral cities and towns also benefited from universities. In fact, intellectual centers that could not have developed in larger capitals were possible in peripheral cities. The Land Grant movement brought forth the "Wisconsin Idea," the "Michigan Plan," and other regional sources of educational pride. At the University of Wisconsin, new opportunities for civic partnerships and the democratization of knowledge epitomized the Wisconsin Idea, which integrated civic duty and applied fields into the university’s commitment to pure research.

Before we dismiss these stories as made obsolete by new kinds of learners and technologies, we need only look at the resonance of this history with current scholarship on cities and education. The urban sociologist Richard Florida has argued that universities play a key role — much larger than is usually attributed to them — in the development of technology, talent, and tolerance. However, as Florida reveals, there must be a reciprocal relationship between the university and its surroundings for both to reach their full potential. "Colleges and universities have to contribute to the regional absorptive capacity of a creative ecosystem. They need not only to generate innovations but also to absorb them." Getting this reciprocal relationship right is delicate.

Ten years ago the challenge to the mutually beneficial relationship between the university and the city came from the globalization of the university that led to international branch campuses. Today Ryan Craig lampoons universities’ extravagant real-estate expenditures like the $8.4 million that The New York Times reported universities like Texas Tech spent on aquatics facilities. This "arm race in facilities" certainly demands scrutiny. However, this newest wave in the form of unbundling threatens to obviate the brick-and-mortar campus altogether.

With a tagline that claims "The World as Your Campus," Minerva Schools at KGI, a San Francisco-based liberal arts college founded in 2012, holds classes online while students move between global hubs from Berlin to Buenos Aires. In announcing Coursera’s new developments at an educational-technology conference in London, one of the company’s founders, Daphne Koller, argued that most students were not "walking on lawns next to ivy-clad buildings." This snub of the campus experience is the usual defense given for the benefits of online learning — that it is elitist and inaccessible — and will soon become a thing of the past.

However, the current pattern of investing suggests otherwise. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that "in 1995, about 30 percent of all venture capital invested in the U.S. went to companies in the Bay Area. By 2015, that figure was close to 50 percent." That is, information technology is leading to centralization and not diffusion — a fact that should give pause to those of us who work in universities in smaller cities. Not just because, as professors at San Jose State protested, we fear our teaching will become redundant — there will always be a room for great teaching — but also because without the institution of the university the communities in which many of us work won’t survive.

Ventures like Coursera and Minerva provide fodder for Kevin Carey’s The End of College, in which he writes that tomorrow’s university will be "The University of Everywhere." In an interview about the book he suggests that in this new university the learning will happen online "interconnected over global learning networks and in organizations that in some cases aren’t colleges as we know them today, but rather 21st-century learning organizations that take advantage of all of the educational tools that are rapidly becoming available to offer great college experiences for much less money."

Notwithstanding the prognostications of disruption, the twin forces of globalization and MOOCs have not felled the university. And in fact studies show that online programs draw a majority of enrollments from students who live less than 100 miles from the college. The local has persisted for the economic as well as cultural benefits that universities offer their communities.

The risk of unbundling is that nobody knows what held the package together, and the value it offered, until it begins to unravel. However, history reminds us that the university is more than the sum of its parts. In our efforts to achieve the goals of access and efficiency we should protect our campuses and our communities, or we might actually lose that crucial thread to the past.

Emily J. Levine is an associate professor of modern European history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.