Can major research universities use the immense resources at their command – the storehouses of data, the research techniques, the expertise in analyzing problems, mostly their sheer brainpower – to help solve the problems of the great cities where many of them reside? It seems obvious that the answer is yes, but for many universities, this leap from theory to practice remains a step too far.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs held a three-day conference this week to explore what can be done about this. In many ways, the conference – called “Global Urban Challenges: The Role of Research Universities” – was unique. It certainly was useful. Whether it changes the world and the universities’ place in it remains to be seen.
For the first time, more than half of humanity lives in urban areas. By mid-century, two-thirds will. No less than 80 percent of Americans already do.
All these cities are wrestling with many problems endemic to urban life, such as climate change, terrorism and immigration. But most of these cities also are home to great research universities: indeed, it’s hard to be a global city without at least one of these intellectual powerhouses to generate the innovation and human capital that global cities need.
Chicago is particularly rich in these universities – the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, whose Chicago branch is a major research university in its own right. These three universities and the Council sponsored the conference, which attracted 250 scholars representing 35 universities. Sixty-five of the scholars, from 25 universities, came from China, Taiwan, Brazil, Chile, Israel, Turkey and eleven other countries.
The conference singled out three major urban challenges: education, health and urban vitality. The purpose was not to solve these problems but to explore how major research universities can use their resources to help deal with them.
The conference made it clear that there’s a lot going on, from education in slums and prisons to water research and whether “big data” – one of the latest intellectual fads – can replace on-the-ground research in analyzing social ills. Also, it’s no news that most big universities have campuses or programs in other countries or collaborate with universities around the world.
But that’s not the same thing as true sharing of information or expertise, or making use of knowledge generated in one university or city to deal with similar problems in other cities. Too many scholars remain locked in their ivory siloes, unaware that other scholars halfway around the world are seeking and finding solution to problems that plague cities everywhere.
Indeed, the same problem besets universities in the same city – including Chicago. Civic leaders have long complained that Chicago’s Big Three campuses compete for funds, faculty, grants and students and too seldom cooperate with each other or the city on local problems. The fact that Northwestern, Chicago and Illinois joined forces on this conference was a milestone in itself.
The conference’s purpose was to be “a forum to exchange ideas and research expertise and provide opportunities to forge institutional or individual collaboration.” Sessions dealt with the way universities work with city governments, with the use of new research methods to solve old problems and to ask whether technology helps or impedes this process.
Universities are central to cities, as seats of culture, as educational institutions, as intellectual resources and as big institutions anchoring whole towns or neighborhoods. How they fill all these roles isn’t clear. Disputes arose over whether universities’ first obligation is to their cities and communities, or whether they are basically educational institutions in business to teach their students.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opened the conference by saying that “research universities are Chicago’s number one asset.” This shouldn’t interfere with the educational mission but the presidents of the three universities, speaking to the conference, made it clear that, in an era of declining public support for higher education, these multiple obligations get very complicated.
Saskia Sassen, the Columbia University sociologist whose pioneering work still guides scholarship on the global city, urged the gathered academics not only to work with each other but to look outside the university for valuable knowledge and academic insight. This includes not only the work of scholars laboring in obscure colleges, but the knowledge of every-day workers who are experts on their own lives and the work they do.
“What you know is more important than who you are,” Sassen said, while wondering whether university leaders are ready to recognize this fact.
Most academic conferences are organized along strict disciplinary lines – sociologists at one conference, economists at another, physicists at a third. The Chicago conference deliberately mixed scholars from many different fields, in a cross-disciplinary attempt to exchange insights between thinkers who are seldom aware that each other even exist. The individual sessions displayed this diversity, but the networking that went on during breaks and over dinners may have been even more valuable.