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Trends in Town-Gown Collaboration

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By Tim Hindes, Fourth Economy Consulting

Today’s economy elevates the value of higher education institutions to the highest degree of public awareness ever demonstrated. Higher education institutions impact their community in a host of very obvious ways, such as:

  • Supporting the development of 21st century talent armed with skills to drive modern business;
  • Employing a range of professionals in a sector often recognized as the largest in many small communities;
  • and Initiating research and development initiatives supporting the advancement of technology and improved economic performance.

These examples speak to the common ways nearly every institution engages. Yet, what does it mean for a campus to be truly connected to its community?

Several critical elements help define an institution’s integration with its region. At the epicenter of developing such successful town/gown initiatives are the criteria used by the University Economic Development Association (UEDA) to evaluate their annual Awards of Excellence program. The Awards of Excellence recognize cutting-edge initiatives that are transforming campuses into engines of economic prosperity. UEDA recognizes successful initiatives as scalable, sustainable, and original in order to drive the greatest impact on regional economies. Each year, UEDA selects three to four finalists in its “Community Connected Campus” category of the Awards of Excellence. In analyzing these finalists, additional common themes emerge about how higher education institutions can drive economic success for their regions.

Here are several important take-a-ways in understanding prosperous relationships between communities and higher education:

Solve Community Challenges

Understand where your region lags behind the curve and develop a plan to fix it. Every region has a challenge to be solved and the best projects solve a problem for the region. Develop a vision that is attainable, achieve regional buy-in, and provide the leadership to attain the collaborative regional vision.

Collaborate Often

Collaboration may be cliché, however we are not just talking public-private partnerships. Involve residents, other institutions of higher education, external partners, and others who may even remotely have a stake in the opportunity. You cannot merely break down imaginary physical boundaries, but you must also overcome organizational boundaries, keeping in mind the strongest collaboratives take time to properly cultivate.

Leverage Existing Resources

What are your assets? An honest assessment of your region’s assets in higher education, private business, nonprofit organizations, and government is a common first step. Follow this up by developing a plan to leverage these assets and, where appropriate, add capacity to enhance the outcomes.

Be Iconic

Whether in physical structure or in initiative branding, distinguish the project from other elements of the regional economy. Innovation is key. Be unique while considering the history and identity of the community.

Embrace Mixed-Use

Mixed-use development is efficient and convenient. It can address problems associated with various community weak points within the overall visionary plan, and can result in diversified funding opportunities with a sustainable investment structure.

Emphasize the Access

Town/gown developments allow for direct access points (physical and nonphysical) to higher education and community resources. This access provides transparency, ease-of-use, and a knowledge-sharing environment supporting growth and vibrancy.

De-emphasize the Physical

Too often, town/gown collaborative initiatives focus on the physical structure of connecting a campus to a community. While this is important, the programmatic aspects of an initiative are often more important, if a project is going to thrive.

Measure the Metrics

Determine, upfront, the data that should be tracked to measure success. This data should relate to the overall regional gaps identified in the vision planning process. The scalability of the initiative should allow for flexible adjustments to the program(s) as needed. While institutions of higher education are, without a doubt, the engines of economic prosperity in today’s world, community connected initiatives rely on many more factors to drive success. It begins with a community-supported, need-based vision and plan.

With the proper partners working to create an environment for success, tomorrow’s community connected campuses will lead us all into the next economic wave of opportunity.

For town/gown initiative examples, visit UEDA’s Awards of Excellence program.

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