Universities Play Critical Role in City's Life

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/14/2012, 11:31 a.m.

Presidents Cite Policy, Economy and Quality of Life in D.C.

In the District of Columbia, there have been some legendary town-gown disputes that on the surface might suggest a deep and impassable chasm between universities and the communities where they're located.

But almost 250 guests at a D.C. Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Policy Forum learned during a lively and detailed discussion that the relationship - though sometimes troubled - is much more nuanced, positive and mutually beneficial than it often appears.

Acting as the perfect foil and devil's advocate while moderating the wide-ranging discussion, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) acknowledged the vital role universities play.

"Our universities provide 16,000 jobs for District residents and a $609 million payroll. Every dollar spent by universities equals $1.40 for the city," Gray said. "An additional 5,000 jobs are supported by these universities. The impact is demonstrable. It's seen and felt."

The panelists for the discussion titled, "How Washington, DC Universities Shape Our Economy," included: Trinity University President Patricia A. McGuire, Esq.; George Washington University President Steven Knapp; Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau; University of the District of Columbia President Allan Lee Sessoms, and Jerry Ice, president and CEO of Graduate School USA. The event took place at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in downtown D.C.

Gray, 69, seemed to delight in drolly firing queries that tended to question the value and efficacy of these institutions of higher learning, but the questions served as an effective springboard that the presidents used to defend the institutions they serve. The consensus among the group was that universities provided significant added value and that rather than being 'in but not of' the city, they were an integral part of the tapestry of the District.

Gray referred to the sometimes ferocious debates that take place between residents and administrators.

Sessoms agreed, saying some residents were concerned with "creeping progress", changing demographics and having young people in their midst.

"We talked, talked, talked and met people," he said. "The community bought into the planning process at every stage of the process. We took their input and made it a part of the plan." The result, he said will be the transformation from buildings he called "Stalinesque" to buildings of beauty.

McGuire, a Trinity graduate, credited the relationship with area residents with aiding the school's resurrection.

"I hate to be the contrarian, but we have a great relationship with residents," she said. "Trinity was the old, grey lady on Michigan Avenue with a fence, imposing great hall and no men allowed by nuns. Then when the traditional enrollment of women discovered Georgetown and other Catholic universities in the 1980s, we almost closed. Twenty-eight acres might have been vacant."

"We faced the crisis and challenge of what if an institution disappeared. I think instinctively the community understood that. They helped us see how we could be of value."

Ribeau, who since taking office in 2008 has championed a greater emphasis on the university's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines, touted Howard's deep ties to the community.