Research universities and city development

Higher education can play a vital role in supporting the social and economic development of cities. As part of an ongoing research project, I have been considering the unique role of higher education serving as an anchor institution in urban development. Along with my co-author Karri Holley, we recently published a case study exploring these dynamics in more detail. The article, “The 400-Pound Gorilla”: The Role of the Research University in City Development, was recently published in Innovative Higher Education. In today’s post, I share the implications and conclusions of our case study on cities and higher education.

Photo credit: MIT

This study utilized the concept of spaces of interaction (Stachowiak et al., 2013) in order to understand the university’s role in and relationship with the city.

Using data collected from 17 interviews with individuals representing higher education, government, community organizations, and business in the U.S. city of Metropolis, the study revealed the inherent tensions between pursuing the objectives of a research university and working with city development.

The university in this study sought federal research grants, scholarly publications, and other institutional indicators of prestige necessary to succeed as a top-ranked academic institution.

As determined by rates of federal research funding and national rankings, MU was successful in this endeavor. At the same time, the city of Metropolis underwent a substantial transition from an industrial economy to one driven by knowledge work, health care, and other white-collar occupations.

We respond to the research questions, which guided the study before offering conclusions and implications for future research.

First, what factors shaped the interaction between the university and other city groups?

The university and other city groups were largely guided by distinct missions that shaped their organizational behavior and decision-making. These missions did not necessarily overlap, nor did they complement each other.

The university sought to engage in behaviors prioritized by a knowledge generation mindset.

These priorities often resulted in theoretical knowledge or contributions to human understanding, not necessarily knowledge that might be applied to improve the quality of life for city residents.

City groups seemed to prioritize efforts toward engagement and collaboration, but the unequal power dynamics and resource allocations between the university and other local actors complicated these efforts.

Second, what perceptions exist as to the role of the university in terms of city development?

Metropolis University was seen as essential to the city’s economic transition and its economic success. But this contribution was mediated by the sense that the university could (and should) do more.

One interviewee described MU as the 400 pound gorilla in the city; participants acknowledged its immense power, but also its interest in serving city needs only when the university might benefit from such service.

Finally, how do internal and external stakeholders view the balance between city development and the research mission of the university?

While MU stakeholders felt that the university was an academic institution, city stakeholders often perceived the university as a community institution. While an academic institution can provide benefits to its surrounding city, these benefits can be incidental and not part of a strategic initiative.

On the other hand, community institutions are those that work in collaboration for the betterment of all city residents. The unrealized potential of the university to contribute to these efforts was a source of frustration.

The challenge for stakeholders both internal and external to MU is how to negotiate the desire to increase the institution’s status and prestige as an elite research university while at the same time directly engaging with the problems facing the city of Metropolis.

While the university seemingly possessed immense potential value to benefit the city, this potential did not seem to be a primary emphasis for MU.

The result of this tension is a sense of frustration and at times disappointment in the leadership that MU provides to the city.

Unquestionably, the data show the perception of MU in driving economic growth, especially after the decline of the industrial base of the city. A feeling of disconnect persists, however, between the city and MU’s aspirations.

The challenge facing community stakeholders is that many faculty members and administrators at MU did not believe the institution had a particular social responsibility to the city. While no university stakeholder expressed opposition to pursuing research projects that might lead to social or economic benefits to the city at large, few at MU seemed willing to change their work in order to achieve this end.

These results present implications for research universities as well as city leaders who may seek to rely on academic institutions to fuel economic and social development in urban areas.

Extant literature suggests that universities hold the potential through partnerships with businesses, community organizations, and local government to provide significant returns for their cities (Anchor Institutions Task Force, 2009; Birch, 2013; Birch, Perry, & Taylor, 2013; Howard, 2012).

Our findings demonstrate the utility of the framework offered by Stachowiak and colleagues (2013). The participants in our case study agreed with researchers (Harris & Holley, 2016) who confirm the economic advantages of having a strong research university in a major urban area.

However, our data show that the university, which is focused on a research mission generally and federal grants specifically, may hold service and social missions as a lower priority.

In turn, this focus impacts the ability and interest to engage. Indeed, the findings illustrate how the relationship between city stakeholders and the research university is unequal with different missions and areas of priority beyond those described in the spaces of interaction framework.

Our research suggests that these relationships are quite complicated and that the resulting tension is an underlying presence across interactions.

To lessen or relieve this tension local policymakers, community leaders, and the business community should seek opportunities to work with universities in developing internal support systems to encourage faculty and staff members to engage in work that benefits the community.

As illustrated in this study, internal faculty reward structures may limit researchers’ ability to engage in community work.

Faculty policies such as tenure and promotion as well as annual salary reviews are potential avenues that a university can use to support community work.

University leaders should also consider opportunities to share the results of research projects with community members in order to avoid the feelings expressed by many community participants in this study related to the lack of applicability of research outputs to their lives.

Finally, research universities should engage in systematic conversations on campus between faculty members and administrators as to the university’s role and responsibility in their local communities (Anchor Institutions Task Force, 2009).

Clarifying the institution’s strategic priorities related to civic development (Harkavy & Zuckerman, 1999) could benefit both internal and external stakeholders.

Additional research related to the university’s role in and relationship with its surrounding city might consider other variables, such as the role of multiple two and four year academic institutions in the city, the rate of economic development, or the perception of the research university as either an aspiring or established elite institution.


With the growing importance of and population transition to urban areas, further understanding of the nature of university-city interactions represents a needed area of work within the higher education community.

While the research literature demonstrates the economic advantage of research universities and presents a theoretical argument for broader impacts by research universities (Harris & Holley, 2016), the findings of this case study demonstrate that the interactions between university and city stakeholders can be quite complicated, and even contradictory.

As large anchor institutions (Goddard, Coombes, Kempton, & Vallance, 2014), research universities have the potential to be a powerful influence on the future direction of their cities (Desrochers & Leppala, 2011; Feldman & Audretsch, 1999; Power et al., 2010).

Local governments, nonprofit organizations, and the business community will continue looking to research universities for support and solutions to vexing urban problems.

In light of the challenges facing research universities related to declining federal research funding, increased student consumerism, and greater calls for accountability, university leaders and faculty members will need to continue to interrogate the mission and purpose of research universities.

The challenges facing cities and research universities will undoubtedly continue to grow in the years ahead.

Further empirical evidence related to how these two important entities in American society interact with each other can offer a significant window into understanding the role of research universities in the 21st century.

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