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Professional Opinion

The university and the city: a model for success

Creating productive partnerships and collaborative innovations
University Business, June 2015
John J. Petillo
John J. Petillo

From the earliest days of the modern university, cities have been important partners for institutions of higher learning—largely because universities can bring scholars and students together for creative thinking, while cities can provide the human capital necessary to share innovative ideas with the public.

Throughout America’s cities, there are examples of universities coordinating urban revitalization through investments in community programs and organizations. Such an intimate relationship between an institution of higher learning and a community pays enormous dividends, as we have personally discovered through, for example, Sacred Heart University’s Horizons programs designed to help urban students from a young age prepare for the university environment and the demands of higher education. At the same time, cities bring a stable and plentiful population of workers and students to universities.

Location, location, location

This university-city relationship is so vital that Bruce Katz, a vice president and co-director of the Metropolitan Policy Program within the Brookings Institution, has urged universities to consider relocating graduate programs and research institutes to the heart of major cities. Both universities and cities, he says, would benefit tremendously from such a bold approach. Physically relocating advanced education to major cities would lead to productive partnerships and collaborative innovations, increased economic opportunity and the development of human capital.

That’s why we at Sacred Heart recently located our new graduate center in the heart of downtown Stamford, and are also moving our College of Health Professions—including all of its graduate programs—to Bridgeport. Being in an urban setting in two of Connecticut’s key cities is beneficial in attracting students from the corporate world and also developing an intimate working relationship with the businesses there, as well as the communities.

Social responsibility

How can a university meet the multifaceted stakeholders within metropolitan communities where they are and be attentive to their needs and perspectives?

Key to our response is to instill in students—and truly all our constituents—a strong sense of social responsibility and a deep sensitivity to the role of context when it comes to urban revitalization.

This is at the center of what we hope to achieve at Sacred Heart, where our Catholic heritage necessitates a strong commitment to service and support in the communities we touch. While such a commitment has yielded important economic results—the creation of over 2,300 jobs for Connecticut residents resulting in more than $50 million in wages, for example—we are equally proud to have donated more than 50,000 volunteer hours to the local community during the 2013-14 academic year.

These volunteer efforts have been diverse, from mentoring and tutoring in the Bridgeport Public Schools to home construction through Habitat for Humanity and outreach programs for the homeless and the home-bound elderly.

Yet in considering the ways in which universities and cities can partner to improve the lives of others, there is enduring value in the social impact of our actions. Universities can bring a vitality to a city with the presence of young people, creative thought, collaboration with the business community and, most importantly, by sharing an intellectual heritage.

In his landmark 1852 work The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman wrote, “A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society.”

And that, at the most fundamental level, should be our goal.

John J. Petillo is president of Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

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