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To survive, colleges must evolve into ‘knowledge enterprises’ that serve communities

Ohio State professor shares research about changing college, town relationships

Founded in 1818, Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio, was one of the first colleges in the state. Sadly, it closed just over a century later, in 1919. Why? A failure to adapt, said David J. Staley. Unlike other colleges founded at the time and after, Franklin did not respond to the needs of its students and community.

“The colleges [that survived] changed because they had to, because of the nature of the marketplace of higher education,” said Staley, an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University. “Those institutions are alive today because they changed, they transformed from their original founding.”

That lesson is one that higher education institutions should heed today, Staley argues in his book “Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets,” which he co-wrote with venture capitalist Dominic D.J. Endicott.

David Staley

In a Zoom presentation, Staley shared the work he and Endicott debuted last year, in which they argue that colleges and universities can serve as talent magnets if they expand their mission to be more community engaged.

In considering, for example, a list of ways a place can attract workers, Staley said, “What is it that a town can do? Solve environmental challenges, make the most of the surrounding natural environment, create solutions for affordability, encourage community building, supporting ongoing skill formation, incubating novel ideas and enterprise and … [having] a location of academic enterprise,” he said.

Being a hub for these activities transforms a college into what Staley calls “a knowledge enterprise,” that is, “the innovation or creativity cluster for a region implementing a full range of novel ideas.”

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is a prime example of this, Staley said.

When the college was founded, Savannah, Georgia, suffered from a crumbling economy. The college enmeshed itself in the city.

“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that SCAD has revitalized Savannah and that the Savannah we understand today wouldn’t be what it is without SCAD,” Staley said.

There are several ways colleges and universities can follow SCAD’s path. As a starting point, the institution should serve as a “third place,” a term that defines communal spaces that are not a person’s home or place of business.

“The term I’ve given it is ‘social capital incubator,’” he said. “Part of what a college or university should be doing is growing and developing social capital, not just financial capital, for a region.”

Mentorship is another, Staley said, but not in the traditional sense.

“The mentorship of students is a key part of what our college does,” he said. “Extend that mentorship outward to everyone in the community. It becomes a vital service offered by the knowledge enterprise. … [We need to expand] the audience of who the consumers of higher education are.”

A third way forward is making the institution physically expansive. The goal is a 15-minute campus, Staley said. Services should be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride: “The way is which SCAD’s campus is spread, not throughout the city, but through a significant [narrow] part of downtown … is not unlike Oxford University or Cambridge University.”

The last suggestion is to turn colleges and universities into venture capital firms themselves.

“The knowledge enterprise [should] serve as a venture capitalist fund, both for faculty ideas and for entrepreneurs in the larger region,” Staley said. “We’re talking about an incubation cluster or an idea cluster for a region that requires venture capital, which is concentrated in too few large cities.”

This is his most controversial suggestion, Staley said. But the idea may just take time to develop.

“Viewers might say, ‘Colleges and universities have no business being venture capitalists,’” he said. “I remember 25 years ago when colleges and universities were starting to become interested in developing their neighborhoods and were becoming real estate developers, that, too, was viewed as a bizarre thing. … And yet now it’s taken as commonplace.”

With the amount of flux higher education is currently experiencing, Staley believes something has to change. Instead of joining Franklin College, he said, today’s colleges and universities should seize the opportunity to evolve.

“I talked about how a campus tends to be isolated in one part of town,” he said. “If [institutions] are not connected to the surrounding areas, they’re connected in a network to other colleges and universities. They pay scant attention to the area in which they reside. [We need to] change that relationship or get a college or university to rethink their mission.”

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