Boosting university involvement in civic leadership

Robin Hambleton, Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, encourages universities to become high profile place-based leaders.

Could universities be making a bigger contribution to local civic leadership?

The short answer is ‘yes’.  Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that British universities are the sleeping giants of place-based leadership.

Here I draw on my American experience to offer some suggestions that could be of interest to the Civic University Commission as well as those in higher education who want to strengthen the societal relevance of British universities.

Launched in March and chaired by Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, the commission, which is currently gathering written and oral evidence on the local impact, for good or ill, of British universities, should be warmly welcomed.

Over the last ten years the NCCPE has done much to spur and encourage universities to engage with ‘off campus’ actors and voices.  Hopefully the Commission will draw on NCCPE experience as it works to usher in a national step change in the level of university community engagement.

The urban engaged campus in the USA

In my last job I was Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a major public university located in the heart of Chicago.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot about how to develop and support strong university/city collaboration.

UIC, which has over 30,000 students, has been actively involved in engaged scholarship in the city for over 30 years.  Like other public universities in the US, UIC sees itself not just as an important ‘anchor institution’ capable of bringing socio-economic and cultural benefits to the local community, but also as an important civic leader.

UIC values and encourages action/research projects that address pressing challenges facing the city.  Here’s an example.  Last month the Great Cities Institute at UIC published an excellent report throwing new light on the socio-economic dynamics creating rising inequality in Chicago.

The study, Revitalizing Manufacturing and Expanding Opportunities for Chicago’s Black and Latino Communities, shows not just why some neighbourhoods have astonishingly high levels of joblessness among young people, but also offers practical proposals on bolstering manufacturing in these areas to lift economic prosperity and tackle social disadvantage.

Three important lessons for British universities stem from experience in Chicago.  Universities that claim to be ‘civic universities’ should:

  • Embed civic engagement as a core value in the policy and practice of the university.  This means changing academic promotion criteria.  Reward systems need to be altered to reflect civic purpose and achievement.
  • Allocate significant core funding to promote the development of engaged scholarship across all colleges.  There are many ways to design these funding arrangements: city fellowships, urban scholarships, student-led projects, community-led research projects and so on.  Wise funding can provide a route to the delivery of world-class research.
  • Expect their leaders to spend much more time working with other ‘off campus’ actors to ensure that university plans and initiatives tie in well with the strategies of other local agencies.

Developing place-based leadership

Here in Bristol the two local universities – the University of the West of England, Bristol and the University of Bristol – are working closely with Mayor Marvin Rees and other civic leaders on the development of the City Office approach to urban governance. 

The aim of the City Office is to unite public purpose in the city, and Mayor Rees is using ideas set out in my recent book, Leading the Inclusive City, to orchestrate a One City Approach to public policy making for the city.

The universities are now making a useful contribution to these efforts but we know that we could and should be doing much more.

Robin Hambleton, Emeritus Professor of City Leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol; Director, Urban Answers; and Author of Leading the Inclusive City.

The Civic University Commission call for evidence closes on 31st July.

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