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Daily Astorian: Talent, technology and tolerance factor into economic development
Author: Deeda Schroeder, The Daily Astorian
Posted: February 1, 2011

Talent, technology and tolerance factor into economic development

PSU President Wim Wiewel talks about higher education at the Columbia Forum

Posted: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 11:30 am | Updated: 9:05 am, Tue Feb 1, 2011.

By Deeda Schroeder | The Daily Astorian

What makes cities succeed today?

In urban areas, encouraging economic development requires just the right blend and Portland State University President Wim Wiewel likes the way he’s come to look at it.

“Talent, technology and tolerance” is the formula, he said.

Portland and Seattle have it – and Astoria can too.

Wiewel shared his perspectives on economic development, education in Oregon and rationale behind the possible reform of the state’s university system Tuesday night at the Columbia Forum.

The sociologist and urban planner, who is originally from the Netherlands, took the president’s job at PSU in 2008.

Weiwel (pronounced “VEE-Vell”) explained the important role of higher education in economic development in smaller cities like Astoria. Rather than having a dearth of natural resources, customers or suppliers, success stories have a clustering of people with skills.

It’s an idea Wiewel borrowed from Richard Florida, professor and author of “The Rising of the Creative Class.”

“A key factor is a common labor pool of talented workers,” he said.

They tend to be driven to innovate and create, and have access to the capitol needed to make those ideas real, Wiewel added.

“It’s new stuff that’s going to be worth the most,” he said.

Developing or tapping into a stream of people with these characteristics – and retaining them – is where higher education comes in. College campuses breed an environment where the unfamiliar is cultivated into an idea that’s been tested and is ready to use.

“It’s not enough to have talent, or technology, you have to have tolerance,” Wiewel said.

Getting a college degree gives people grow as individuals as well, adding significantly to their earning capacity in later life, he said.

“In Oregon, we are really going the wrong way.”

Here, older adults are increasingly more educated than the younger ones, Wiewel explained. About 33 percent of those aged 55 to 64 have a bachelor’s degree or higher while 27 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds fall in that category.

“It’s unprecedented to have the younger generation less educated,” he added.

That’s why it’s a goal of the Oregon University System to see a “40-40-20” blend in the state, where 40 percent have a bachelor’s degree, another 40 have had some college and the remainder have graduated from high school, Wiewel said.

In Astoria, it’s closer to 20-20-30 – not adding up to a 100 percent total – because the graduation rate shifts between 75 and 80 percent.

He encouraged locals to strengthen technology and focus on developing more high value jobs.

“The challenges you face are the same as many places in Oregon,” he said.

The Oregon University System is looking to restructure itself to be able to help the state and its students overcome those hurdles, Wiewel said.

Now, compared to other states around the country, Oregon is close to the bottom in subsidies for higher education but near the top in how it “micromanages” the institutions’ spending, he explained. Restructuring would give the schools more stability and give them a greater ability to control costs and revenues, Wiewel said.

Before Portland State, Wiewel was the provost and senior vice president of Academic Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Between 1979 and 2004, Wiewel was with the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he served as dean of the College of Business Administration. While there, he also served as dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. He holds degrees in sociology and urban planning from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University.

Weiwel fielded audience questions about how to inspire people to study the subjects that are losing popularity in this country.

“As a sociologist, how do you inspire people to go into science and engineering?” asked Astoria resident Larry Jordan.

Weiwel shared a story about a professor that made a lasting impression on him, and said people look for moments like those that “set you on fire.”

Knappa school board member Ed Johnson asked, “What can be done to turn people on to the importance of education?”

Weiwel answered that the connection between education and jobs must be stressed.

“You will get a job if you go to school,” he said. College doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive, either, Wiewel added.