There was a time and place in American higher education when our urban universities sat at the pinnacle of power, prestige, and influence. Over the past several centuries, the nation has witnessed the emergence of venerable institutions like Harvard in Cambridge, Yale in New Haven, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and The University of Chicago-urban universities that enrolled the cream of the student crop, attracted world-class faculty, pioneered new scholarship, and, importantly, built up the kind of endowment that can sufficiently support major research.
These major research institutions share several common characteristics, like high-end doctoral degree programs, world-renowned research, academic comprehensiveness, significant grant support, considerable endowment, and other mega-metric advantages. These net advantages invariably yield significant cash flow, favorable equity and assets ratios, bond investor confidence, and big-time benefactor support.
More recently, like the banking, insurance, and healthcare markets, traditional American institutions of higher education have witnessed a major marketplace contraction. Why have some IHEs failed, and others thrived? No surprise here that there are some rather startling commonalities among our most fragile institutions-spiraling costs, tuition overdependence, high discounting, lack of liquidity, deferred campus infrastructure improvements, and modest endowment. Added pressures come from the incessant footsteps of aggressive market competition from for-profit predators and tax-subsidized public institutions.
For all its magnificent achievements, public higher education now cannot effectively serve more than half of America's urban population at any given time. This means America still offers a significant market for metropolitan universities that have carved a distinctive niche, manage to leverage unique market strengths, and are able to display an ingenious sense of renewal. A new breed of savvy, future-oriented urban universities is emerging, attracting a new generation of student consumers and respect from peers.
How does one recognize this new breed of working-class, metropolitan university?
The first distinguishing characteristic is all about mission, all of the time-that is, special career-oriented universities that primarily serve working-class students. These nimble institutions share common purposes: They're steeped in social justice, urban engagement, civic leadership, global perspective, and responsible citizenship.
Second, these entrepreneurial institutions are typically co-located in both urban and suburban campuses, serving both inner city and exurban student populations within a defined metropolitan region.
Third, these aspiring universities are decidedly diverse-intentionally committed to diversity at their core. They are universities that mirror fast-shifting demographics within and beyond their metropolitan areas.
Fourth, like Spencer Johnson's micelike creatures in Who Moved My Cheese?, these metropolitan universities constantly have their noses in the air to detect the slightest whiff of new opportunity (read as, new cheese). This remarkable dynamic embraces and, importantly, leads change in the new global higher ed marketplace.
When asked to name metropolitan universities that distinguish themselves based on these several characteristics, a long list of worthy institutions emerges.
What we thought interesting-more than interesting, intriguing-was to ask whether this list might be winnowed. The result: a short list of mission-driven, working-class, metropolitan universities that make a difference in the lives of their students and faculty, as well as in their surrounding communities.
On a (likely) windy day in the city of Chicago, in the year 1945, a new kind of university was born, one that served an increasingly diverse urban population of African American, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Eastern European families-first-generation higher education students who wanted a private-label, university-level, urban higher-learning experience.
Today, 60 years later, Roosevelt University continues to serve a unifying mission and purpose of social justice in a contemporary urban context, with campuses located on Michigan Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan, in the South Loop of downtown Chicago, and in suburban Schaumburg.
Proudly, the Roosevelt moniker now provides global brand-name recognition and plays host to wonderful programs ranging from its esteemed century-old Chicago College of Performing Arts and Auditorium Theater to RU's emerging centers of excellence-including the Center for New Deal Studies, the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice, and the Roosevelt Scholars initiative. Roosevelt hosts new partnering initiatives with City Colleges of Chicago.
Drop in on Roosevelt President Chuck Middleton, and you are likely to hear and see RU faculty and students gathered around in his office sharing a special moment. As Middleton describes it: "I believe social justice is about the individual plus the community, which for me puts the 'social' into social justice. It should also include the humanitarian benefits of being a well-educated person, not just the ability to make money."
Take a walk around the South Loop, in the shops and offices of downtown Chicago, and you will likely meet a Roosevelt graduate-the schoolteacher, the social worker, the musician, the shopkeeper, and the police officer.
In his April 2004 paper on the American college presidency, J. Michael Adams, president of Fairleigh Dickinson University (N.J.) tells the story of how he was once accused of allowing a colleague to build an academic empire: "Apparently, empire building in academia is a mortal sin, and I was equally guilty, as dean of the school, for allowing it to happen. My response was that not only did I allow it to happen, but I also encouraged it."
Throughout most of his career, Adams has been a higher education maverick, relying on his counterintuitive perspective to guide and inform FDU's mission and vision. He recognized the urgent need to distinguish FDU from its public and private university competitors.
mission built around social
justice, civic engagement,
leadership, learning, and
FDU has built up an international following-with real-world partnership connections to major international organizations like the United Nations. As a leader in global education, the FDU community has committed itself to the unified purpose and mission of creating an authentic, global university.
With campuses in both urban and suburban northern New Jersey, a campus in England, and a new campus in Vancouver, British Columbia, FDU faculty, students, and staff share a big-picture global teaching and learning experience.
At about the time John D. Rockefeller helped to found The University of Chicago, designed for the nation's elite scholars, the YMCA in Boston started a modest evening institute for working men and women-especially hard-working immigrants who comprised more than half of the city's population. Out of these humble beginnings Northeastern University grew with little more than an eraser and two sticks of chalk to become the nation's largest private higher ed institution by the late 1980s.
Early on, NU instituted a cooperative learning program in which students alternated between their full-time studies and full-time paid work, at jobs related to their field of study and career preparation. The co-op program emerged as a signature component of a Northeastern education, and it became an effective vehicle to promote civic engagement of NU graduates.
Northeastern President Richard Freeland calls the co-op program one of the most significant parts of the university's overall strategy to improve the quality of the institution. By encouraging students to gain real-world experience through co-op placements, NU gives graduates a competitive edge in a crowded job market.
These modern metropolitan universities transcend geo-political boundaries and parochial ethnocentricity-transforming everyday urban universities into contemporary, global-learning organizations.
At the end of the day, what these institutions have in common is a unifying mission built around social justice, civic engagement, leadership, learning, and entrepreneurial chutzpah-ingredients that enrich the university teaching, learning, and scholarship experience for students and faculty.
This mix of mission, commitment, entrepreneurial spirit, and global perspective positions these institutions to thrive in the new higher education marketplace.
James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).