The limits of university power

Keyser Quadrangle in Spring at the Johns Hopki...

Keyser Quadrangle in Spring at the Johns Hopkins University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am writing this from a hotel room in Washington DC, but this afternoon was spent in Baltimore, watching the Ravens play their last home game this season.

(The eldest daughter being a big Ravens fan this was a must. It was not a great game, though the atmosphere improved dramatically in the final quarter as the Ravens went ahead.)

One lasting impression is going to be of the depressed nature of Baltimore – this really does seem to be a city that was dying on its feet. For sure, I had faithfully watched every last episode of The Wire but it was still a surprise to see a city that only appeared run-down (one daylight rail journey, one taxi journey and one light rail trip are hardly comprehensive, but it is still remarkable that nowhere seemed to shine with prosperity).

But one thing struck me more than anything else – and that was that Baltimore appears to be the living rebuttal of the idea that high quality higher education could and should be at the core of urban economic growth and renewal.

Baltimore houses what is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest scientific universities – Johns Hopkins – and travelling from Penn Station to the Ravens’ stadium also took us past buildings of Baltimore University and the University of Maryland. What there was not was the sense that Baltimore was a city thriving on the scientific and medical spin-offs and the thriving cultural and knowledge economies that we should expect.


3 thoughts on “The limits of university power

  1. Curious. While I do not dispute your central thesis (presence of one or more institutions of higher education is no panacea), my reaction to Baltimore was considerably different. I spent several days there last year for a conference. The part of the city I was in seemed to be in good shape and fairly busy, the port seemed to be doing solid business, and local restaurants were fairly busy. Within my somewhat limited range of travel, I don’t recall anything looking run-down.

    • You probably saw a lot more of it than I did so I am sure your views are a better guide than mine, but I did think I was sticking to central districts. My surprise was partly because I spent quite a bit of 2014 working in and for a university that is making a very big economic impact and I thought I would see more signs of the sort of economic spinoffs universities generate. Happy New Year!

      • Happy New Year to you as well! The economic impact question is interesting, and I suspect it depends on several factors. One would be the size of the city. (Being originally from New York, I don’t regard Baltimore as particularly large, but perhaps large enough to dilute the impact of a few universities.) Another, I think, would be whether any of the universities were “destinations” for something (as Hopkins might be for medical researchers and perhaps patients), and another would be whether they spawn spin-offs ala Stanford and Silicon Valley (again, Hopkins might attract a few medicine-related startups).

        I saw a statistic recently (which I no longer recall) predicting a fairly outsized economic impact for Michigan State University, my home these last few decades, in the greater Lansing area. Partly this is due to the Lansing area being a fair bit less populous than Baltimore, partly it’s due to our drawing crowds for sports activities (not a problem at Hopkins — lacrosse does not draw large crowds), and to a large extent it’s based on an expected influx of visiting physicists (we’re building the FRIB, which I understand is an acronym for “Freaking Rare Isotopes Beam”). Apparently physicists are big spenders (once you get them tipsy?).

        If my theory about Hopkins drawing medical tech firms is correct, the effect might be localized to areas near the med school campus.

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