When Regionalism is not Provincialism

Inspired by a recent visit to Seoul National University and Yonsei University in South Korea.

In order for a university to create positive economic and social value it must serve the community and region where it is located.  However, when a university only works to serve the local community, without a vision to expand influence, little university or social  value is accrued. Patrick Geddes gave birth to this idea a century ago in his classic text, “Cities in Evolution.”  Marshal McLuhan’s concept of the “global village”  is often misunderstood and causes a university to overstep regional needs as a means to increase reputation.  This thinking is especially detrimental to universities in rural regions, where the positive impact of increased employment, cultural and recreational opportunity, and general economic development may be most powerful like a company town. The impact of a single university in a major metropolitan area, while consequential, almost disappears in comparison.

U.S. land-grant institutions; Texas A&M University, the University of Illinois, Penn State University for example, are located in rural regions. These universities continually transform local economies while having global impact.  All are internationally known, in part because they addressed local needs in becoming stalwart economic work horses.

Other examples have value.  Emily Dickenson, writing in her upstairs bedroom with only the fortification of family and familiarity, touched the world mightily for generations.  She understood deeply rooted cause and effect human emotions common to all souls and was able to express those relationships through the prism of her outwardly small world.  An international audience that crosses every geographic and cultural divide harmonizes with her sensibilities of the human condition.  She was a contributing citizen of the world community from a second floor bedroom.

On the other hand, the worldly, sophisticated, well traveled Henry James’ “In the Cage” fails for his being out of touch with the working people about whom he vicariously writes.  Ellen Douglas’ reflection, “Provincialism in Literature” provides these working perspectives.  A well-grounded understanding of problems and circumstances clarify rather than confuse provincialism and regionalism.   Provincialism breeds narrowness of mind, but effective regionalism draws ideas from multiple sources and coupled with focus benefits individuals, communities, and the world.

Moreover, while a region is seemingly distinct they are frequently replicated in many places around the world.  The soybean and corn production farming of central and southern Illinois is one example.  The Illinois Soybean Center, housed at SIU Carbondale is a team effort of government/industry/university collaboration for powerful regional benefit. Furthermore, if the College of Agriculture at Southern Illinois University has a positive economic impact on the region through increased crop yields, and the same principles will be of value in other delta locations where similar geographic, social and commercial regional forces are at work.

Ramon Lim, M.D., Ph.D., who is Professor Emeritus of Neurology in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, makes a strong case for the combination of regional distinctiveness and international excellence regarding the University of Iowa and its powerful contribution to the “land locked” state of Iowa.  

Regionally and globally 4,000 MIT related companies employ 1.1 million people and have annual world sales of $232 billion according to Jonathan Cole (Research Universities and the Future of America) in concert with the civic leadership of the Boston Metropolitan Area. MIT has a long history of scholarly productivity.  The University of Alabama, Birmingham creates a $4.6 billion economic impact on Birmingham adding 61,205 jobs according to the National Science Foundation report.  It is only 75 years old — young by comparison to MIT.  A recent decision to eliminate football was regionally based, creates significant consternation, and would make little sense in many rural university towns.   Birmingham doesn’t need a football program evidently.   Given the impact of Alabama and Auburn for talent, fans, or brand why bother?   The University of Alabama Birmingham will be known for research prowess in medicine and related fields, and economic impact that creates more “wins” in the long run.  Birmingham and UAB will be pleased with where it goes, and with better odds than a 60 yard downfield “Hail Mary” pass.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s “What MIT Can Teach Colleges About Becoming an Economic Powerhouse” cites one of the ways that MIT has provided such economic power beyond the adherence to academic excellence —  they helped Build regional ecosystems. To increase the likelihood of spinoffs, encourage close ties with industry and government.”  MIT’s model mirrors the marriage powerhouse of Stanford and local government in Silicon Valley.

Adam Smith’s observation in the “Wealth of Nations” is correct:  “The policy of some nations has given extraordinary encouragement to the industry of the country; that of others to the industry of towns. Scarce any nation has dealt equally and impartially with every sort of industry.”  This perspective, when regionally focused, holds true for universities.   There is seamlessness and healthiness in interactive regional and national economies:  Thinking and acting locally generates value globally.

Rural and urban universities help regions become economically stronger and simultaneously increase reach because they address real issues they know something about.  Ms. Dickenson demonstrated the power of reach from her bedroom.  Vicarious experience and copy-cat approaches are superficial: Henry James found that out.   Regional responsiveness is not provincialism and leads to healthy creative economies.