In a piece published in The Conversation about Amazon’s decision to pull out of plans to establish a headquarters in New York City, IRIS Executive Director Jason Owen-Smith considered the risk that universities face when they rush to serve the needs of a particular business. “If corporate deals come at the cost of broader research and teaching portfolios, universities put their stability, credibility and the expertise they need in other fields on the line,” Owen-Smith wrote. This op ed was later picked up by other outlets including Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Times Higher Education, and in March, Professor Owen-Smith was featured in a ten-minute spot on Michigan Radio’s Stateside program. (The full conversation can be heard here.) Owen-Smith says in the radio interview that the Amazon case and other similar instances point to some of the dangers of linking university research and teaching portfolios “too closely in too small a number of fields based on the needs of a particular business or industry,” but is also careful to point out that he is not arguing that there shouldn’t be such partnerships with businesses, which can be an important part of a university’s mission. Rather, “universities benefit from stability, and when they wed themselves to the business cycle very tightly that makes things harder,” especially in a climate of already stretched budgets, distrust in higher education, and disinvestment in public universities.

Universities as anchors

Professor Owen-Smith’s recent book, “Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future,” offers the metaphor of universities as important “anchors” in their regional economies, arguing that as “anchor tenants,” universities act as a stable central point in their regions and their environments around which economic and other social activity happens. However, as he points out in relation to the Amazon pull out and similar cases, “those things are endangered when campuses yoke themselves to the current needs of particular companies and industries whose situations and needs can change quickly.” The real power of the university, Owen-Smith argues, “lies in creating opportunities we don’t currently know exist and in addressing challenges we do not yet know we face.” When considering why we invest in universities, it is important to not only consider short term goals, such as helping every student get the job they want, but also to think about the public value of the unique social infrastructure that universities create, from “the diversity of the types of knowledge work a university does, to its stability, to its ability to connect to lots of different parts of society.”

Join the conversation

Jason Owen-Smith will be hosting additional webinars and events to continue discussion of the role of universities in society, and we invite you to contact IRIS to learn more about how IRIS data and reporting provide a unique view on a university’s role as an anchor, source, and hub for local and national economies.