Saturday, October 10, 2009

Colleges: Cash Cows?

Marc Levine (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history and urban studies professor) has released a report, The False Promise of the Entrepreneurial University, questioning the validity, efficacy, and opportunity cost of UWM's 'university as economic engine' development strategy.

He is not stipulating that universities do not have any affect on economic development outcomes for their surrounding areas. As some have wrongfully, stunningly, and incoherently ranted. He merely shows the data which - when measured by a variety of socioeconomic indicators - exposes few of those whom have attempted such a strategy have reaped benefits to justify the cost.

John Torinus - Serigraph Inc. chairman and tax-avoider, and Journal Sentinel business-class mouth-piece - belittles the research. He sites Madison's University Research Park as one such 'entrepreneurial university' project that has worked, and therefore, forget the numerous examples and statistics that Levine has gathered, we should continue blindly moving forward, pumping money into ill-conceived, poorly planned, and empirically unsubstantiated ventures. Facts and well-reasoned discussion be damned!

John Wiley, chancellor emeritus University of Wisconsin-Madison, takes swipes at the research. Using much of the same anecdotal, status quo-clinging, vested-interest, economic development talking-points that have been mistakenly used over and over again in city after city.

I also see many commenters, whom I have to assume only bothered to read Levine's Journal Sentinel piece and not his full report, complaining that Professor Levine doesn't acknowledge UW-Madison's successes. Although, he mentions Madison numerous times in his report.

Simply wishing and hoping to be like another university (in this case, Madison) that has achieved entrepreneurial success, or throwing money at a "good bet," does not automatically make it happen. Taking risks can pay off. There are always risks in investing. But most want to minimize their risk and not just do something for the sake of doing something.

Also, I'm always a bit perplexed by those knocking the research of academics - the "cheap seats" as John Torinus put it. Or as one commenter said about Levine, "...directs a few campus centers and does not appear to have any major leadership experiences." Directing an academic center is not leadership? Who teaches those whom will become managers, executives and CEOs? Isn't it academics and professors? If professors don't know what they're talking about and they're not "leaders," why are we investing in the engineering and Water Institute professors? After all, they come from the "cheap seats," too.

Attack the message, not the messenger. If one can find holes in the methodology and analysis, fine, pick it apart. But to try and demean Professor Levine because he has raised questions regarding UWM's development proposal is childish and does nothing to substantively address the concerns he has documented.

UWM is on the right track in many regards. The University has made great strides in academics and in the community over the last few decades. But that doesn't absolve them from criticism and open discussion of their policies and community investment decisions.

Many detractors have made this into a Levine versus Santiago melodrama. That's too bad. The real point should be a discussion about what is the proper amount to invest, where, and toward what activities. Levine's research indicates we may want to look at other options for our limited investment dollars. We do not have to simply jump at any idea Mr. Santiago, his associated commercial interests, and the cabal of local power brokers pushes forward.

[Disclosure: I was formerly employed by the Center for Economic Development under the directorship of Marc Levine.]

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