the locavore university

carrotsA few different trends feel like they affect economies of place.

I’ve commented here before about the rising premium on face-to-face communication.  As cheaper alternatives multiply, real-time physical presence is less typical, and so we’re inclined to squeeze more out of it.

I think that parallels a shift in eating, as we tire of the ubiquitous.  A recent article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel highlights the boost that small farms are getting from – of all things – swanky restaurants.  The story was mostly a profile of entrepreneur Cynthia Sandberg, who offers farming workshops with this reasoning:

More and more, chefs are understanding how critical it is for them to partner with a farmer to make their restaurant stand out.

That quote stuck with me, because I think we in higher education are in the same boat.  As college gets commodified and virtualized, the survivors will be the institutions that stand out.

In one sense, our colleges and universities don’t have to try to be unique – they are by definition distinctive hubs of social and intellectual activity, each one a recognizable community unlike the others.  But until recently, that uniqueness wasn’t critical to their survival.  Compelling or boring, vivid or bland, it made less difference when students in a certain radius were your captive audience.

These days there’s a different case to make.  Adult learners in particular are often happy to get their degrees online.  For others it’s a rising number of the courses they take, and now everyone on the providing side – even among the low-cost publics of the CSU – has to think harder about standing out.

So a university might say “we’re the ones about hands-on learning,” or “we’re the ones where it’s personalized” or “we make the leaders of the future.”  But really, there is a finite set of such identities.  Google any of those phrases and see how many colleges and universities you get.

But the possibilities multiply when you emphasize place.  Towns, cities, and physical environs are as distinctive as fingerprints, and the smart campuses, like the high-end restaurants, are going locavore.

Farmers Market Wide ShotI see it around the CSU, in particular at our campuses in Chico, Sacramento, San Marcos, and at Channel Islands – and those are just the ones I happen to know.

This shift has surfaced a couple of new tensions.

First, although presidents and provosts have some new business reasons to put a local focus on the academy, they have to be careful not to confuse those with older ones.  There’s a big and beneficial gap between cultivating the local for learning and civic engagement on the one hand, and cultivating it to raise money on the other.  It’s a little like the firewall in journalism:  you can participate in city life by investigating and reporting on it, or by hitting it up for ad revenue, but you’ll lose on both sides if you mingle your motives.

Only unlike our peers in journalism, most of us in higher ed are new to this principle.  Historically, too many of our relationships with surrounding communities have been what Daron Acemoglu calls (in another context) “extractive.”  We’re happy to tap the natives for staffing, research subjects, philanthropy, and parking, but have been less willing to involve them in teaching, learning, and scholarship.  As we overcome that reluctance we need to stay vigilant, and keep our intentions clear.

The second strain introduced by a locavore approach was pointed out to me last week by Stanley Clark, a political scientist at CSU Bakersfield.  He reminded me of the value that many of us place on learning that transcends place.  For us, it’s just less inspiring to be reminded we’re a vital resource to Kern County – or Arcata, or Temecula, or Rohnert Park.  On the contrary, we came to academia precisely to escape the provincial.

So if locavore is where we’re all going – as I think it is – then how do we reconcile these?  How do we exploit the local but not the locals?  And celebrate the specific without sacrificing the transcendent?

It sounds harder than it is.  I think as individuals, most academics respect the local resources that feed our bottomless curiosity, if only so we don’t get bored.  Our personal links to the community usually value the sustainable and mutual, emulating the locavore ethic over, say, strip mining.  And we recognize that embracing our specific circumstances is our only authentic way to participate in the universal.

The trick, at this moment of transition, will be for our institutions to do the same.

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