Politics and Governance University of Texas at Austin

What Does UT Mean to Austin?

Introducing Community-Anchor Engagement

By Ryan Cramer

Much like the character arc of the T-800 from “Terminator 1” to “Terminator 2”, the mission of universities as anchor institutions has evolved over time for the better. While anchor institutions are traditionally universities and hospitals, that definition has expanded to include non-profit and for-profit institutions, which have a large spatial and market presence in the geographic location to which they are tied. This can also include financial institutions and other private employers who engage with their local community. 

 In The Journal of Higher Education, John E. Scott provides a framework for the evolution in universities, starting with teaching and research missions and developing through stages of service to country, state and the globe. Missing from Scott’s definition is the role that universities can play as anchor institutions on a more local level: the city. The University of Bologna, the oldest continuously operating university in the world, has a prescient motto that captures the evolving mission of universities, from their beginning in monasteries, to where they should seek to go, “St. Peter is everywhere the father of the law, Bologna is its mother.” 

So, what do The University of Texas at Austin and other universities owe to their mothers? This is not to be a critique of UT-Austin individually, but rather the beginning of a dialogue around universities stepping down from the ivory tower of academia and engaging with their homes in more substantive ways.

Austin’s rise to become the “It City” and The University of Texas (as well as Austin Community College and other regional universities) are inextricably linked. David Gibson, George Kozmetsky and Raymond Smilor highlighted in their paper Creating the Technopolis: High-Technology Development in Austin, Texas how the seven institutions on the “technopolis wheel”–the university, large technology companies, small technology companies, federal government, state government, local government and support groups–created institutional relationships that promoted Austin’s growth into the tech hub we know today. Yet this sector remains out of reach for many of its native residents. Rarely do great things come out of dysfunction (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours being a notable exception), but even in this cooperation framework, the University provides founders and labor force through STEM programs and research. What if UT can provide Austin more than a well-educated workforce?

In Engaged Learning Economies, Amanda Wittman and Terah Crews argue university-partnered economic development takes three forms: 1. direct economic support, i.e. employment and purchasing; 2. human capital development, or training people, and; 3. knowledge transfer, or turning academic knowledge into external innovation. The Austin Chamber of Commerce lists UT as the second largest employer in Austin behind the state government, which is like being the second tallest person in a room with Yao Ming. QS World University Rankings (or any other university ranking site) would tell you UT does a great job creating human capital in its students and faculty, and its entrepreneurial ecosystem is truly elite (ranked number nine by U.S. News and World Report). UT Austin is doing a lot of things extremely well, but the university’s Purchasing Department, which is a clearinghouse for roughly $810 million in spending, has no clear policy for local procurement. The power of a well-funded university is vast, even beyond Wittman and Crews’ framework and while UT-Austin deserves credit for its excellence in educating a workforce that helps the region at large, the university can and should do a better job of connecting with the community in more substantive and personalized ways.

In Austin, “re-development” could be one of George Carlin’s seven words, but it does not have to be. In 2006, the University of Chicago teamed up with a non-profit mortgage lender to provide funding to preserve affordable housing in surrounding neighborhoods and already provided loan guarantees to non-profit housing organizations. Meanwhile,  the University of Pennsylvania has taken it a step further and bought nearly 450 apartment units in order to maintain affordability in the University City neighborhood. The University of Pittsburgh has made “Neighborhood Commitments” for at least 15 years to three surrounding neighborhoods in the way of, “investment, infrastructure, programming, and dedicated staff” at their dedicated Community Engagement Centers. 

There is still time for UT to be an innovator in the community-anchor engagement space. Beyond Austin, universities across the country need to turn inward and decide whose interests they serve and whose lives they aim to make better. Is it just those who can pay tuition? Or do universities, as anchor institutions, have a greater duty to serve their city and local communities? What starts here does change the world, but there is more we can do to make sure that change starts at home.

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