The University and The City: Location and Structure

Institutional structure and culture can matter as much as location to the success and survival of urban universities.

July 31, 2014, 5:00 AM PDT

By Dean Saitta


University of Chicago

Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock

Jeff Selingo's latest article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the link via Planetizen is here) provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between cities and universities. Selingo argues that location is becoming increasingly important as a factor that can determine a university’s success or failure. He argues that institutions located in cities enjoy a strategic advantage by providing a higher density of off-campus opportunities for students to apply their learning in real world settings (e.g., through internships and community-engaged research projects). Selingo references a recent Moody’s Investor Service report showing that "market leading institutions" are primarily located in urban areas. He advises institutions in urban areas to strengthen partnerships with local employers, and those in rural areas to develop student exchange programs with institutions located in the city.

I’m struck by Selingo's piece because I work at a university in a city that's very conscious of its status as a destination for Millennials and other so-called "cultural creatives." Denver is also aggressively moving to make itself into a city to be reckoned with on a global scale. The University of Denver shares that global ambition. However, we're a private, tuition-driven institution and very expensive to attend. Thus, despite its favorable location, my university's future is far from guaranteed. Urban institutions like mine may have to do some other things to ensure survival in these challenging times and, given mutual interdependency, to better serve the cities in which they’re located. Specifically, urban universities may have to adopt some of the structural qualities of successful global cities. This means functioning less like a metropolis and more like a cosmopolis.

Downtown Denver viewed from the University of Denver campus (photograph by Dean Saitta)

The distinction between the university as a metropolis and the university as a cosmopolis was made by Susan Frost and Rebecca Chopp in an article in Change magazine back in 2004 (Frost and Chopp used the term "global city" instead of cosmopolis, but I think the alternative term fits). In their view, the university as metropolis runs on fixed bureaucratic structures. It privileges research over teaching. It concentrates resources in formal academic departments. It encourages faculty specialization in narrowly focused academic areas and provokes turf wars over subject matter. It is highly differentiated and compartmentalized in "space, function, and identity." It is susceptible to administrative bloat. These compartmentalized and bureaucratic structures create "distance and distrust" between people in different academic units. This is the stuff of the institutional "silos" that many academics with cross-departmental and cross-disciplinary interests now widely lament. Perhaps most significantly, decision-making in the "metropolitan" university is driven by competitive business models and strategies rather than more collaborative and collegial forms of academic governance.

Most universities, including mine, are still structured as metropolises. Politicians, pundits, and parents love to criticize—with some justification—the metropolitan university, especially its emphasis on research over teaching and its partitioning of knowledge into specialized niches with questionable relevance to the real world. Frost and Chopp characterize the organizational structure of the metropolitan university as "stifling" to creativity and change. While many critiques of the traditional university are overwrought, it certainly can limit educational innovation and a faculty’s ability to contribute to civic life through various forms of publicly engaged scholarship. 

Alternatively, Frost and Chopp call for a university structured along the lines of Saskia Sassen’s "global city." This cosmopolitan model stipulates "fluid, flexible, and open-ended" structures and relationships. It blurs traditional academic boundaries. It generously supports collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching and research—which I take to be today's most relevant and adaptable form of scholarly endeavor and one that's especially well suited to dealing with the challenges of urbanism. The university as cosmopolis liberates teaching and research and integrates the two in novel ways. It deals in Faculties—i.e., people—rather than in traditional DepartmentsSchoolsColleges, and Divisions (the latter is an especially unfortunate term) that organize teaching and research at my institution and many others. Academic leaders in cosmopolitan institutions connect people in "vibrant and flexible ways." They encourage flows of ideas within the institution and between it and the larger society, and actively create contexts and opportunities in which these flows can happen. They support and nurture the evolution of an individual’s passions and interests over the course of their professional career. I take this to be the essence of Frost and Chopp’s notion that institutional growth in the cosmopolitan university "emerges from the inside rather than from the top."

It has been ten years since Frost and Chopp floated their arguments for a cosmopolitan university and what they described as a "new way" of seeing the academy. Some institutions have embraced their arguments, while most others are still stranded in metropolis. The arguments are worth considering by any institution in any place that's challenged by higher education’s current existential realities. Location is important, but so too is structure and culture. Frost and Chopp show how urban theory and history can offer some useful metaphors for analyzing and changing the structure and culture of educational institutions. Their approach has a special resonance for me personally. Rebecca Chopp recently accepted the position of Chancellor at the University of Denver. Here’s hoping that she’ll lead the structural and cultural transformation of my institution into one that will better serve our students, our city, and our own survival. 


Dean Saitta

Dean Saitta is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Denver. He teaches courses in urban anthropology, archaeology, and evolutionary anthropology.

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