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Karen Hitchcock: Universities as Economic Drivers - The Need For Cross-Sector Collaboration

 As part of the celebrations surrounding the recent inauguration of Dr. Robert J. Jones as the 19th President of the University at Albany, a program was presented on the topic: “Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers.” Universities and colleges have long been acknowledged as institutions which add to the economy of their regions, particularly in terms of their ongoing recruitment of new people to the area (faculty, staff and students), with a resulting boost to the local economy – restaurants, entertainment venues, retail, real estate, and on and on.  While important, this kind of economic impact is passive, deriving from the very nature of the higher education enterprise. However, universities can and, in my mind should, play a much more active and purposeful role in advancing the economic vitality of their communities.

A major report was issued in 1999 by the (then) National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges entitled, “The Engaged Institution.” The major premise of this Report was that public institutions needed to be truly “engaged” with their communities, working in partnership with them  to bring the power of their programs of research and education to bear on mutually-identified areas of need and opportunity – areas as diverse as K-12 education, health care, poverty, security, energy and, of course, economic development.  It is not, the Report emphasized, about a university deciding in isolation where its community’s needs are. Key to the concept of “engagement” is partnership - the importance of working together with other sectors of the community to identify issues of common concern and the most effective strategies to address them.

In the area of economic development, a university needs to determine which of its areas of research strength align with the particular interests and needs of its private sector partners.  At the University at Albany, we identified nanotechnology as such an area, focusing particularly on chip design, biomedicine and alternative energies, all areas of much interest to our community partners.  Critical to the success of these initiatives was the alignment of these university strengths with not only local, but also state and federal priorities. Indeed, the partnerships we developed were, by design and necessity, three-way: university, private sector and government; and, the goals of the cross-sector collaborations which were developed were responsive to the core mission and goals of each of the partners. The University at Albany’s success over the last decade in building a world-class research, development and technology deployment  initiative in nanoscale sciences owes much to the paradigm of “engagement.” We first selected for investment an area of institutional research strength which aligned well with the needs and interests of our region and state.  We then partnered with the private sector and government, ensuring that the goals of each collaborating entity were addressed and fulfilled, thus helping us to fulfill our mission of advancing the economic well-being of our region and state.  While unique in its size and scope, the concept of “engagement” at the heart of our nanoscale sciences initiative works in other program areas as well – from applying education-based research to new approaches in K-12 education, to focusing social sciences research around such urban issues as transportation, city planning, crime prevention, poverty, and on and on.

In short, universities need to be willing to listen – and learn from – their community partners if they are to be truly responsive to the problems facing their regions…. if they are to be fully “engaged” with them in addressing persistent problems and enhancing the overall quality of life for all.  We are truly fortunate here in the Capital Region that so many of our fine colleges and universities are such “engaged” institutions.  Each of us benefits from their vision and national leadership.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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