What is the future of universities in cities?
A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation
1. COVID-19 has accelerated existing trends
Dr. Mohamed Lachemi, President of Ryerson University, opened the conversation by acknowledging that COVID-19 has accelerated trends already in motion, drastically affecting the way we work and study. Ryerson University faculty are fostering immersive learning experiences by utilizing virtual and augmented reality technology. Dr. Annette Trimbee, President of MacEwan University, says that hybrid learning, a mix of online and in-person attendance and work experience, is a way to improve access. Her university now offers stackable credentials that allow students to pause and exit formal education to enter the workforce.
2. Mental health concerns for students and staff have been amplified
Lachemi says there is now a bigger emphasis on resilience and mental health. Social isolation and the blurring lines between home and work are impacting quality of life. These impacts need to be thoroughly considered. Ryerson University has increased student supports and engagement. There have also been changes for staff: no weekend emails and limiting meetings to twenty minutes. The panelists agree that universities must be flexible and responsive to the needs of their students and employees as they move forward in their responses to the pandemic.
3. Universities remain vital anchors within downtowns
Universities serve a purpose beyond strictly providing education. They are communities, organizations, employers, and homes. According to Lachemi, the campus experience is fundamental. Trimbee reiterates that the physical campus connects students to the greater community in many ways. Dr. Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto, says that downtown universities are the city’s ‘anchor tenants’. The student traffic that universities generate will always attract businesses, increasing the economic vitality of downtown cores. University campuses serve as hubs of activity and will continue to do so once public health measures are lifted.
4. Universities have a role to play in equitable city building and economic change
Access to online learning is often uneven. There is a pressing need to consider access to education through an equity lens. Students may not have access to reliable wi-fi, the necessary hardware, or a quiet space to study. According to Gertler, urban universities are ‘ladders for social mobility’ and should remain accessible to as diverse a student population as possible. Universities also have a role to play in the reinvention of urban economies.
5. Cities are not dead
Universities are revitalizing forces. According to Trimbee, people still want to come downtown for learning and cultural opportunities. Gertler calls universities ‘pillars’ of the local economy that are here to stay. Lachemi frames universities as places of optimism, as they are tremendous sources of talent and innovation. MacEwan University has taken part in the tech enabled diversification of Alberta’s economy. Cities will continue to be the main drivers of the national economy, and universities will remain impactful in the continuing life of these cities. Universities fuel surrounding commerce. But no actor alone can save the city, necessitating the need for collaboration across sectors and throughout all levels of government.