Universities as anchor institutions in cities

Universities can play a significant role in the long-term success of their cities.  While universities may have once been called unengaged ivory towers, today, universities participate as active stakeholders in their communities.  Given the knowledge economy, universities can serve a vital role in improving the economic and social status of cities.  In today’s post, I want to describe the role of universities as anchor institutions and how they can benefit urban regions.

Photo credit: SMU

The scholarly literature describes universities (and hospitals) as anchor institutions, meaning stable organizations upon which to base development efforts.

Anchor institutions are like large department stores in a mall.  The serve as a key driver of people and activity.

Universities possess all the characteristics of anchor institutions.

How can colleges help with catastrophes: Lessons from April 27th

Four years ago, anyone who was living in Alabama can tell you where they were and what happened.  The state was struck with a string of violent tornadoes in a generational outbreak that killed over 200 people.  I remember staring in disbelief as local television stations showed the devastation live.  I remember messaging with friends to make sure everyone was safe.  It was truly horrific.  Yet, it also could have been much worse.  If the EF4 tornado that cut a path through Tuscaloosa had been just a few hundred yards to the north, it would have cut through the heart of campus.  I don’t even want to think about what the loss of life on campus might have been if that had occurred.

Photo credit: WBRC

One of the strange things about the tornado outbreak was that the damage was so bad in some places and other locations never even saw a drop of rain.  At our house, I’m not sure we even had a cloud in the sky while 20 miles away there was complete destruction.

Two days later I went to Tuscaloosa for the first time to help a local nonprofit distribute food and supplies.  My strongest memory is thinking that it all looks like it does on the news.  The difference is that everywhere you looked— 360 degrees— was tornado damage.  It was truly unbelievable.

When I think back to the way the University of Alabama responded, I think there are lessons for every campus.  Unfortunately, we know that colleges are not immune from natural disasters from earthquakes to floods to hurricanes to tornadoes.  Colleges can learn from the experience of Tuscaloosa to prepare for making decisions should the unthinkable occur.

1.  Get students out of town.  One of the first responses by UA was to cancel classes, cancel graduation, and send everyone home.  The city needed to free up infrastructure (both personnel and equipment) and sending students home helped with this.  College towns are notoriously quiet in the summer when the students are away.  When a crisis happens, people wondering around and in the way are no help.  Send your students home for at least a little while to help out local officials.

2.  Open campus facilities.  Universities have valuable facilities that can be used for assisting victims.  Residence halls, cafeterias, large spaces such as recreation centers all can be used to support the immediate needs of the community.  Have a plan for using this spaces including staffing.  Also, realize that some staff may be victims as well so contingency plans are useful.

3.  Leverage existing campus systems to provide volunteer opportunities.  Particularly for a large scale disaster, one of the biggest challenges is managing the wave of volunteers, supplies, and resources that begin to pour into the area.  Use existing networks and campus offices (for example:  student affairs or community service office) to organize.  Provide administrative and logistical support for the offices to dramatically ramp up their operations. It is easier to build up existing infrastructure than creating a new one from scratch.

4.  Provide a way for students to help.  When a disaster strikes their community, students are not only willing but eager to help.  Put them to use.  A university has a large and generally physically fit population to lend assistance.  Using the campus systems noted above, provide opportunities for students to help with clean up and other duties where strong young people can help.

5.  Use campus expertise for immediate help and support.  As a research university, UA was poised to help the community in other ways.  Using emergency grant funding from the NSF, engineering faculty conducted structural analyses of damaged buildings to assist with future construction and building codes.  This immediate research was critically important as the data can be lost when clean up begins.  You don’t want to delay the clean up process so leveraging local researchers was enormously helpful.  Faculty and graduate students can provide all kinds of immediate assistance from testing water to supporting K-12 schools to conducting damage assessments.  The ability to serve in this role will depend on the expertise of the university, but the community can leverage local experts in a crisis.

Unfortunately, we know that another natural disaster will occur on or near a college campus.  There is nothing we can do about that.

However, by learning the lessons from April 27th, I hope our colleges and universities can be ready to support their communities.

Cities and higher education institutions don’t always get along.  When disaster strikes, we can set that aside and use the resources and expertise of higher education to support victims.

I can’t think of a better way for higher education to show how much teaching, research, and service matter than leveraging those missions for a community in crisis.

Branding and Public Universities

Due to the unique role of state universities in an environment of limited resources, an inevitable tension exists between educational quality and access as evidenced during tuition and funding debates.  Tuition and federal financial aid policies are only part of the solution and institutions ought to reevaluate the use of state need-based financial aid programs.  In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from an article of mine that appeared in the Journal of Student Financial Aid.

As noted in the business literature, firms use branding to differentiate their product from others in the marketplace (Aaker, 1991, 1996). Branding can be applied to higher education, although it has seen limited application in the literature to date (Toma, Dubrow, & Hartley, 2005; Sevier, 2001). Little research exists on how the marketing approach of student financial aid programs influences students’ enrollment behavior (Perna, 2005).

The literature on higher education branding largely addresses broad generalities with few empirical studies on the current activities of universities to market themselves as a brand (Moore, 2004; Fickes, 2003). Aaker (1991) defines a brand as a “distinguishing name and/or symbol” used to identify and distinguish between competitors (p. 7). Branding is a multidimensional concept that can often serve as a key means of differentiation for consumer decision making (Aaker, 1996; Keller 2003).

Brand image, which is a collective set of perceptions consumers associate with a given brand, serves as a key notion for this study (Keller, 1993). The perceptions of external audiences about the university can impact any number of university initiatives from student recruitment to state appropriations. For this study, we use the concepts of image and branding to understand how a university can use a signature financial aid initiative to create and foster an institutional image of providing access as part of the brand.

Colleges and universities use a number of marketing and business strategies to attempt to differentiate themselves within the crowded postsecondary marketplace. These efforts often center on the admissions and student recruitment processes through the use of targeted marketing campaigns substantiated by brochures, view books, and other printed materials. In addition to these traditional avenues, marketing efforts are increasingly using technology with a strong web presence or use of DVDs. Whether using print or technology based materials, colleges employ a variety of aspects of their brand and image to attract and influence student opinions.

Logos, mascots, and school colors are among the most commonly used aspects of image that are leveraged. There are less tangible or obvious aspects of the institution that can be tapped to improve market position and brand image. The scholarly literature has not sufficiently explored the ways that culture can be used or “branded” to improve the competitive position of an institution (Toma, Dubrow, & Hartley, 2005).

The one thing you have to do at your next academic conference

Today, I am heading home from the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, which has been in Chicago over the last several days.  Academic conferences are a wonderful opportunity to meet new colleagues, reconnect with old friends, and hear about important work.  This used to be all I would do at academic conferences.  While these things are obviously important, I was missing something big and it is the one thing you have to do at your next academic conference.

Advice to Presidential Candidates on Higher Education Issues: Democrats Edition

The calendar still reads 2015, but already it feels like 2016.  Now that Hillary Clinton has joined Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio on the official hunt for the White House, the presidential campaign is gearing up.  Higher education (mostly student debt) played a small part in the last election, but it may play a larger role in this one.  This week, I’m giving advice to candidates in both political parties about issues and ways to talk about higher education.  On Monday, I talked about the Republicans.  Today, the Democrats are up.

Unlike the Republican candidates, the Democratic candidates have some of a higher education agenda to pick up on from President Obama.

President Obama has had an interesting run in thinking about higher education.  He started out pushing accountability and employment outcomes early in the administration when the recession was in full swing.  Then, during the 2012 election, he pivoted to talking about financial accessibility and reducing the costs of college.  Most recently, he pitched his plan for free community college.

As Democrats begin their primary campaign, the goal will be to adopt some areas of the Obama agenda while setting out some new areas.  This is true in many policy arenas, but particularly higher education.

1.  Continue supporting the Obama free community college program.

Community colleges are popular institutions with many benefits for students and the community.  Any Democrat will want to push access to college.  Picking up on the themes from the President’s proposal, candidates would be smart to continue the push for opening up community colleges.  The issue should be popular with the base while also allowing easy comparisons with Republicans looking to cut funding to government services.  If you’re going to have a fight about the role of government, opening up community colleges to everyone isn’t a bad place to start.

2.  Fight for the Dream Act and access to college for undocumented students.

One of the tremendous structural advantages for Democrats is how well the party does with minority voters.  The growing Hispanic population only makes this voting group even more important in 2016.  With two major candidates from Florida, the Republicans are poised to try to make a dent in this group.  Democratic candidates must continue pushing for the Dream Act and providing access to college for all students, regardless of immigration status.  This is an easy issue for Democrats to get behind and plays right to their strengths.

3.  Make a case for reversing the Innovation Deficit.

The Obama administration has often struggled with making the case for why spending cuts are not good for the country.  In the fight over sequestration, the administration had a hard time arguing why cutting federal research and other higher education related services were so potentially damaging.  If there is Democratic president after Obama, they must fight to reverse the damaging effects of the Innovation Deficit, the slow reduction of investment in critical research and development to ensure our country’s ability to innovate, imagine, and create the next great ideas.

4.  Embrace Elizabeth Warren’s attacks on student lending policies..

Elizabeth Warren represents an increasingly important wing of the Democratic Party.  Some of the most devastatingly effective arguments that she has been making critiquing current federal policy have been in the area of student loans and lending practices.  She has identified a number of key areas were reform is desperately needed.  Support of the Warren wing is critical for any candidate which means this suggestion makes good policy and political sense.

5.  Dial back on the Obama/Duncan critiques of higher education.

President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been frequent critics of higher education.  In many ways, the rhetoric from them hasn’t been much different from the Bush administration and Secretary Margaret Spellings.  I would recommend Democratic candidates back off on this rhetoric as it is not helpful to higher education or their own agenda.  Since the President’s crack about art history majors, I’ve been concerned about the way the administration has talked about higher education overly emphasizes aspects that diminish many of the non-vocational missions of higher education.  Scaling this back would better position the next candidate to pick up support that President Obama has lost in some higher education policy circles.

Education issues have long been a hallmark of Democratic politics.  Higher education presents a continuing opportunity for Democratic candidates to argue against Republican (and Tea Party) policies and reassert the role of the federal government and higher education in reducing poverty, improving educational outcomes, and helping our economy.