It’s back-to-school time; you don’t need to have a school-age child to know that. All you need to do is walk or click through almost any type of retailer to know that you’re supposed to be buying backpacks, clothes, crayons, pencils, and lunch boxes. Those of us with older kids are writing large tuition checks and furnishing dorm rooms.
All of the economic activity caused by back-to-school preparation reminded me of one of my most fervent wishes for South County: That it would become home to a full-fledged college or university. This item was on my “holiday wish list” for South County last December.
I’m envisioning the main campus of a university — not an extension of an existing institution, and not a community college — located in South County. We have the land that a college or university needs and a fabulous climate. Soon, Morgan Hill will be home to the American Institute of Mathematics, a prestigious think tank focused on math research. The presence of AIM will create the opportunity for a unique synergy that, combined with South County’s other attributes, could help this region attract a full-fledged university.
A public university is unlikely, given the state’s dreadful budget situation, so our best bet is probably a private university. As I wrote last year, a private university is fine as long as it “doesn’t come with philosophical strings that would limit its scope, especially in the arts and sciences.”
While the benefits of a universities are numerous — they bring sports, intellectual, entrepreneurial and arts facilities, opportunities and events that benefit the entire community — the benefit that has the most appeal in these uncertain economic times is the university as an economic engine:
- Return on investment: Mike Hughes of the News & Observer recently reported that “East Carolina University is the economic engine that drives the eastern half of the state” and that it “represents a return of $13.64 for each dollar invested by the state of North Carolina.” That’s not atypical. The University of Iowa reports that “for every $1 in state funding, the university returns almost $16 in economic impact.” South County ought to find that kind of ROI irresistible.
- Industry magnet: The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the presence of a university – especially a research university – in a community “is as important, if not more so, than the sweetheart tax breaks and real-estate deals conventionally used to attract and retain corporate headquarters and new factories.” This is attributed to the “knowledge infrastructure” that a university brings. What’s more, the mere existence of a university is an important signal to the world about what a community values, according to Mario Polèse, a professor at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal. “In an era that values the knowledge economy, universities bestow a certain prestige on a region, much like the church once did. Without a university, a region feels a bit like an orphan without a true sense of identity,” Polèse told University Affairs.
- Jobs, jobs, jobs: Washington, D.C. is thought of as a company town, and most people think that “company” is the federal government. You might be surprised to learn, then, that the federal government is not on D.C.’s top employer list. Instead, that list is regularly dominated by universities. A university would improve and stabilize South County’s high unemployment rates.
- Spillover effect: As a report entitled Communities of Opportunity: Smart Growth Strategies for Colleges and Universities noted, “… Colleges and universities bring vitality and economic stability through their support of cultural, commercial, and residential uses adjacent to campus.” All those students, professors, support employees and visitors need to live and shop somewhere, and that’s generally in neighboring communities.
Attracting a new university to South County is a big goal, a long shot, I admit. But if we don’t dare to dream, if we won’t even think about it, if we’re not willing to get creative to accomplish it, then it’s a sure bet that a South County-based university will never happen.
It’s something that will take a long time to accomplish, and many of the benefits won’t be fully felt for generations. A wise proverb notes that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is now. Now is the second-best time to establish a university in South County, and the only time that is available to us. Let’s think about the community we’ll bestow upon children and grandchildren and work together on accomplishing this big goal.