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David Sarasohn: A tale of two cities -- and their university destiny
Author: David Sarasohn, The Oregonian
Posted: July 24, 2013

Read the original column here in The Oregonian.

Detroit has more troubles than most cities are zoned for. The city now has just over a third of its peak population, and its long decline -- connected to cars and corruption -- bottomed out this week when it declared bankruptcy, like an outdated appliance company.

The list of what went wrong for Detroit is as long as a list of automotive recalls. But comparing Detroit with Pittsburgh -- another Rust Belt city yoked to a declining industry -- suggests one particular key to urban survival.

That's the point Matthew Yglesias makes in his Slate.com article, "Universities Are the Key Ingredient to 21st Century Urban Success."

Pittsburgh's greater economic resilience, suggests Yglesias, "is largely a consequence of the fact that Pittsburgh is home to two major universities -- Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh -- while Detroit has only Wayne State University, a substantially less prestigious and influential institution. ... Universities both create little neighborhood-level retail clusters around them, and along with medical facilities become the twin pillars of a regional knowledge-based economy."

Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University and chair of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, notes that there's no specific study proving that. But he also offers a couple of more examples of cities clearly benefiting from a substantial higher education investment and presence -- Buffalo with the New York state University at Buffalo, and Indianapolis with the tongue-twisting IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis). Wiewel also cites the big bucks New York is laying out to bring Cornell and Israel's Technion to set up a major technical research university in the city.

"This is clearly something," says Wiewel, "that city governments really believe is a big way of advancing your city."

Pittsburgh, with a metropolitan area just bigger than Portland's, provides a striking example. U.S. News & World Report ranks both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh high among national universities. Pitt, with its medical school, counts more than $800 million in annual research money; Carnegie Mellon calculates that in 15 years, its faculty, alumni and students have created more than 300 companies and 9,000 jobs.

In 2007, after Pittsburgh had lost 40 percent of its population since 1970, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center -- fearing it could one day find itself alone in the city -- gave $100 million to start the Pittsburgh Promise, offering as much as $40,000 in scholarship aid to graduates of city public schools. Since then, the outlook has improved for both the city's population and its schools.

"Leveraging local talent has always been a priority of ours," says Marissa Doyle, spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "That has a lot to do with Google opening an office here, seeing the talent that comes out of our operations."

It's a strategy, she says, of "eds and meds" -- an economy built around universities, technology and health care.

Portland is never going to be Detroit -- unless the microbrew market suddenly craters like the American station wagon market -- and it's also unlikely ever to have two world-class research universities. But the examples of how research firepower, or its absence, can shape a metropolitan area still have something to say to us.

Unless Portland and Oregon bolster our higher education research firepower, says Wiewel, "We'll be bringing up the rear in the kind of jobs we attract here. What we get will not be the kind of the jobs that we can bring with a strong research capacity."

That's why, he points out, places like New York and Ohio and Pennsylvania and North Carolina are putting serious money into research, and why the investments we congratulate ourselves on are by comparison pretty small.

Proceeding as we are, we won't become Detroit. But we won't become what we could be, either.

And while it might take longer, in the 21st century that too will be destructive.