Walls and Quads, Campus and Community

July. How will you spend your summer vacation? Work? Travel? Time with family and friends? Playing catch-up on sleep, reading, and project commitments? Trying to avoid phone, fax, and e-mail for a few weeks or maybe several months?

For many students and faculty, summer provides travel opportunities, often to Europe. If you are a committed (or aspiring) academic, the great European universities are typically a required stop on your tour. Sweatshirts from Europe’s historic universities are comparatively inexpensive souvenirs and also a clever catalyst for subsequent campus conversations about “how I spent my summer vacation.”

The architecture of the great European universities—institutions chartered centuries before the first class of nine students arrived in 1636 at the college that was to become Harvard—is striking. Thick stone walls often separate the campus from the city, reflecting the medieval role of the university as a place of learning and as a space isolated from city (and civic) life.

The architecture of American universities is a bit more porous. Yes, we have The Yard at Harvard, and Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn at the University of Virginia, historic places defined by barriers and boundaries—gates at Harvard, green space at Virginia. But today, the walls that separate many colleges from their adjacent communities, especially in urban and metropolitan areas, are more metaphor than mortar.

Yet the barriers are real and have consequences, for campus and community alike. Many institutions are part of the town, but many are often remain unconnected to the community. Town/gown relationships can be serendipitous, but are often symbiotic.

If memory serves me well (always questionable), the industrial revolution fundamentally changed the nature and function of cities. For centuries, cities were centers of commerce, a place for people to meet and to barter: people brought their goods to the city. But the industrial revolution that began two centuries ago changed the nature of many cities from venues of commerce to centers of manufacturing.

It was during the industrial revolution that cities evolved into the venue where labor, capital, and material converged to create finished goods: garment factories in New York, steel in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, stockyards in Chicago, and auto factories in Detroit. These industries became the icons of their cities, the financial foundation for large segments of the population.

The transition from an industrial to an information society has taken a toll on many cities. Where mayors in the Northeast and Midwest once worried about the migration of manufacturing jobs to the Southern states, today mayors and governors across the country are concerned about the migration of manufacturing and technology jobs to venues outside of the United States.

University research centers across the country monitor this migration, routinely charting (and often bemoaning) the ebb and flow of industries and opportunity. Ironically, as older cities struggle with the loss of manufacturing jobs and the accompanying infrastructure decline, colleges and universities in these same cities are investing in information technology to rebuild (some would say reinvent) the campus infrastructure. While much of the money has gone for hardware and software, it is the campus network—initially wire, increasingly also wireless—that is the key element of the new digital campus infrastructure.

This institutional investment in IT infrastructure reflects, in part, campus efforts to maintain colleges and universities as what Edward Morrison, executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Development (REI) at Case Western Reserve University, describes as “quality, connected places.”

Of course colleges and universities have always struggled to be “quality, connected places.” The core of the connection in academe (the network, if you will) has been scholarship: journals, books, and professional correspondence, along with academic meetings and collegial banter, are the key elements of academic connectivity. The highly connected among us are what the sociologists of academe describe as cosmopolitans, focused on and identifying with our professional identities (Chaucer scholar, mathematician, psychologist, or even CIO) over our institutional affiliations (professor or administrator at Acme College).

The Internet and the Web, of course, have helped to redefine the meaning of connectedness, and have also provided us with new metaphors to describe it. But it was the late Clark Kerr, a labor economist by training, president of the University of California system in the 1960s, and a key force behind the influential Master Plan for Higher Education in California, who offered early predictions about what IT would mean for academe and the university’s relationship with local and national economies and communities. Writing in 1963, Kerr observed that “what the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile for the first half of this century may be done by the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth. And the university is at the center of the knowledge process.”

So let’s connect the digital dots. Four decades ago Kerr predicts that information technology “will be the focal point for [future] national growth,” and that “universities are at the center of the [IT] process.” Now back to Ed Morrison at REI: if the essential elements of convergence in the manufacturing economy were labor, capital, and material, Morrison’s work suggests that the critical converging elements for the information economy are brainpower, innovation, and “quality, connected places”—resources found at two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Taken together, Kerr and Morrison suggest that in the information economy, colleges and universities can (indeed should!) be actively engaged in the economic development. And this engagement g'es beyond the traditional reports that chart the ebb and flow of industries and opportunities. A key element of this “new engagement” is the network—both the physical network and the network as a metaphor. The physical wired network can be seen as an extension of the traditional barriers that have separated campus and community and it also has limits. However, the movement to wireless makes the network porous, open, and accessible. The emerging examples of campus-community, network-centered engagement are interesting These projects are coalescing under the banner of Digital Cities. In Cleveland, the OneCleveland project provides a compelling example of university leadership linked to technology engagement, economic development, and civic commitment. Other similar initiatives are emerging in the US and elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

Colleges and universities will not necessarily lead the civic efforts to convert 20th century manufacturing centers into 21st century digital cities. But they have an important role to play, offering the key elements of brainpower and connection that will be essential in these initiatives. The network is an element of—and a metaphor for—these initiatives.

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