College Relations: Boston’s Brains Behind the Olympics

In a fascinating op ed in the Boston Globe recently, Andrew W. Lo, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Tom Rutledge, chief investment strategist at Alpha Simplex Group, looked at how the area’s colleges and universities might support Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics.  

The reaction across Boston to the City’s selection as a finalist for consideration has been mixed, to be sure.  Criticism runs from the practical to the parochial, with the most measured comments questioning the rate of return in redeveloped infrastructure, increased tourism, and enhanced recognition as one of the world’s top 50 global cities.  The principal criticism, especially following the over-the-top $50 billion price tag of Putin’s unfinished and at times odd extravaganza, has been the cost to the taxpayers.

Lo and Rutledge imagine a number of interesting scenarios through which Boston’s colleges and universities might contribute to lower the cost, address the financing, communicate the story, and ameliorate the social, health, and management problems.  They propose, effectively, to turn America’s 6th largest combined statistical metropolitan area into a working case study, using the Olympics as a backdrop to address the 2024 Summer Games’ potential to teach all of us.

It’s an interesting argument that has implications well beyond a hypothetical examination of the role of universities as educators.  The real lesson emerging from the article is how American colleges and universities can capture the imagination, redesign the environment, and develop a template that puts the puzzle pieces that represent the strength of a growing, dynamic region into a coherent plan for growth.  The example becomes more important and relevant as a story about higher education as a “doer.”

For most of American history, America’s colleges and universities have sat in isolated splendor as “cities upon a hill” separated by gates and green lawns from the towns in which they lived.  In these circumstances, the college relied on its non-profit status as an educator and saw little value in extending its relationships very deep into the neighborhoods that surrounded it.  

As colleges grew, issues like off campus housing, student safety, and municipal service use became more important, but the reaction from college administrators was defensive at best.  Among faculty, the issues were more “cause-based” and cerebral but typically lacked the holistic engagement required of successful town/gown partnerships.

The result could be anticipated as cash-strapped municipalities moved to challenge the tax-exempt status, withhold the building, sewer, and occupancy permits, and tried to legislate the behavior of students.  American higher education continued to educate but in an increasingly acrimonious environment.  The politics remain ugly and have become unwinnable.

That’s why the article on how Boston’s “brains” could contribute to the 2024 Olympics is timely and telling.  It forecasts a change in strategy now being adopted by many colleges, building upon first lessons learned by institutions like the University of Pennsylvania in their collaborations with West Philadelphia.  More than strategy even the nature of these and countless other partnerships across America illuminate a change in intellectual commitment to the university as “doer.”  

In a sense, Boston reinvented itself to build a case as what Lo and Rutledge call “the innovation capital of the world in asset management, life sciences and medicine, technology, and other R & D-intensive disciplines.”  If the claim is subject to debate, the impact that higher education has on the region is clear.  When colleges and universities actively seek to build out and grow their environment, they merge intellectual capital and economic development into a broad partnership that translates into jobs, tax revenue, and an improved social, educational and cultural environment.

So, what is the lesson then for American higher education?  

Perhaps the most important is that any serious strategy to grow a college or university must incorporate a “sense of place” that builds upon a relationship with its environment.  Good college and university strategic plans must base the educational foundation for growth upon an understanding of the role that American higher education plays in the community.

Additionally, a college’s strategy must link its people, programs, and facilities into a master plan to implement it.  There is a synergistic link between the strength of an institution and the community that surrounds it.  There must be no apologies for breaking out from the confines that limit colleges and universities mandate to educate broadly.  In the 21st Century, the meaning of education and the relevancy of how institutions deliver it has changed.  Colleges are economic engines and must have a seat at the community table.

For those colleges that think they are too small, regional, or poor to engage the community, the future is at best a defensive skirmish to cut their losses in town/gown battles.  Scale and clout can be nurtured in isolation or cooperatively across institutions.  The trick is to change the mindset and do something to become the “doer” in the new American economy where colleges and universities can restate their relevance not only as educators but also as economic drivers, locally and regionally.

Developing the college as a community asset requires a change in culture, mindset, and institutional energy.  But it may turn out that the best laboratory built by the institution in the future will be the one that they constructed in partnership beyond the college gates.

 

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