May 26, 2013

University a community resource

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

— I am most heartened when I see examples of ways that government can leverage the best resources among us to make our economy stronger. The recent proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Tax-Free NY is one such mechanism — if it can be implemented to its utmost effectiveness.

The governor’s concept is not unfamiliar. Cuomo and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher believe that our universities are community resources. Of course, we have always understood that they educate our children and allow them to be more productive. That benefits the overall economy, too. However, there is also a broader vision.

Our colleges harbor the expertise needed to advance our economies. Some expertise is devoted to imparting knowledge to the next generation. Some is used to govern the college and ensure it remains relevant and useful as our economy’s and society’s needs evolve. But, a good share of that expertise ought to stand ready to be tapped by our community in ways outside the classroom.

Of course, we all devote our energies to help our communities. We help our churches, our community-service groups, our school boards and our town councils. Some of those efforts are part of good citizenship, some are in a professional capacity.

I have CPA friends who lend their expertise to help with the books of non-profit organizations. Dentists and doctors offer their services at free clinics. Those who are skilled with their hands help build schools in Nicaragua, or rebuild our own communities when they are damaged by floods. There are many ways each of us can use our skills.

A college is a storehouse of such skills. The governor’s initiative encourages universities to reach out to our business sector and help them in any way we can. The state will ante up, too, by offering tax advantages to new businesses willing to create jobs here.

There are aspects of this approach that concern me. Too often, we offer tax benefits to create jobs but then find those jobs or profits go elsewhere, sometimes to very large out-of-state entities.

I am also concerned that this initiative may favor new, large businesses but will not help the small businesses or initiatives that are the life blood of our community. 

Still, I believe there are ways to make Cuomo’s concept work, if it is done in a collaborative manner with our local workforce, businesses and university.

If we can figure out how to transform university assets into community resources, we will be richer for it, economically and culturally. There are examples of communities where their colleges are the economic engines that allow businesses to innovate. Research parks, industrial centers located near campuses, elaborate lifelong learning centers, a downtown arts scene fueled by campus talent, and even a cadre of consultants and college staff who volunteer are but some of the ways other college towns have married community and university.

I realize I am proposing, and Cuomo and Zimpher are advocating, a more inclusive view of the university. I have always considered public service to be more of a calling than a job. I prefer to be devoted to public service, not employed as a public servant. If we wanted to attract a priest to a local church, we would explore how that individual can enhance our community beyond the hour-long sermon and ceremony once a week. We want to see them take their wisdom and compassion and touch our community well beyond those who come to worship. Their calling ought to make our community a better place, hour by hour.

Imagine if colleges could serve our communities more broadly than through classroom teaching. I imagine that is what the SUNY had in mind when it spread colleges across our state. In fact, only a minority of our students come from Clinton County. If our colleges were not designed to serve the community in broader ways, we should perhaps just have one big college located in the middle of the state.

People understood the greater potential for our colleges and for SUNY well before Cuomo and Zimpher reminded us of a broader mission. I am glad they are trying to reinvigorate the concept, and I hope we can embrace their efforts for the good of our community.

Colin Read contributes to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.