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Universities and Downtowns: Phoenix’s Big Breakthrough

John Stuart Hall / Nov 28 2008

For Release Sunday, November 30, 2008
Citiwire.net

John Hall

A lasting principle of urbanism: great universities are enriched, and cities advanced, when academic centers are located in city centers.

Sadly, many university governing boards took a different view in the last half of the 20th century, locating or moving campuses to auto-only-accessible outlying locations.

But a counter trend is now gaining strength. Arizona, one of the most spread-out of all states, offers a top example. Arizona State University (ASU), originally founded as the Tempe Normal School for the Arizona Territory in 1885, has decided it’s imperative to have a major presence in the heart of newly-vibrant downtown Phoenix, one of America’s newest big cities.

Big moves aren’t easy for universities–as one former university president once quipped: “universities are burning, seething caldrons of inertia.” But ASU is different. Its move of major facilities to downtown Phoenix is rooted in the twinned epiphanies of two visionary and ambitious leaders, ASU President Michael Crow and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon. At a breakfast meeting just five years ago, President Crow and Mayor Gordon sketched the outline of what is now the ASU downtown campus…on a napkin.

As a part of his bold plan to reinvent the university, Crow proposed populating the new downtown campus with entire colleges and departments of high relevance to downtown area constituencies. The center city list now includes Nursing, Public Programs, Public Affairs, Journalism and Mass Communications, Social Work, Community Resources and Development, Criminology and Criminal Justice–with the promise of more to come. All operational expenses will come from the ASU budget. Meanwhile, Mayor Gordon committed to developing capital funding to build the new campus. He’s expressed the view that “only the university can provide the mass–be the catalyst for a 24-7 downtown.”

For both leaders, shared values have driven the partnership. With Crow’s leadership, Arizona State is undergoing an intensive makeover to become a model for the “New American University,” one designed to develop an “unprecedented combination of academic excellence, broad access and impact.”

What does that mean? For one thing, what’s called “social embeddedness”–university wide, interactive, and mutually supportive partnerships with the city, the university and the broader community sharing responsibility for outcomes and benefits (total antithesis of the “ivory tower” idea). And secondarily, “use-inspired research”–to measure the value of research by the impact it has on society. The idea is that a campus should become a vital part of the city and its downtown, sharing its challenges and helping it build a sustainable future through useful research and teaching.

Important pragmatic rewards were also central to the deal. ASU Tempe Campus was landlocked with little room to grow. Downtown Phoenix offered ample land and was planning a new light rail that could be used by students, faculty and staff to commute between the Tempe and downtown campuses. The rail lines goes operational this December, with an estimated 18-minute trip between the Tempe and downtown campuses.

With strong agreement on the value of merging educational goals with downtown development, the partnership proceeded at warp speed. The mayor and city council developed a $223 million general obligation bond issue to build the first phase of the new “ASU Downtown Phoenix Campus.” Token opposition to the size of the investment did surface, and within the university there were naysayers. Yet in March 2006, Phoenix voters decisively approved the bond program. And in August 2006, just five months after the election, the first set of buildings were ready and classes opened downtown for three colleges previously housed at the Tempe campus.

Asked about the rapid move from vision to reality, Mayor Gordon and President Crow both underscore the importance of setting and meeting stringent deadlines. “Just do it!” became their motto. Frequent meetings between city and university staff became the rule.

After just two years, the new downtown campus is now serving over 6,000 students on its way to a build-out enrollment of 15,000. At completion, it will comprise nine buildings, covering 20 acres, with 1,800 faculty and staff.

Stemming from the scale and design of the new campus, plus the sheer synergy generated by proximity, hundreds of downtown-related public, private, and nonprofit sector organizations are now engaged as community partners with the downtown campus, in a wide range of highly relevant community projects.

Harvard Professor Mark Moore contends that the public sector should aggressively seek to create greater “public value.” Although easier said than done, Phoenix’s collaboration among a major university, a big city government, and numerous community groups, illuminates one path toward greater and lasting public value.

As communities across the United States think of economic stimulus, they should also consider the case for creating greater public value with new and robust collaborations. With many universities in downtowns, where the synergies work best, the opportunities the most exciting.


John Hall’s e-mail address is john.hall@asu.edu.

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