Our City’s New Imperative: Invest In Higher Ed

sexton einstein1v Our City’s New Imperative: Invest In Higher EdNot even a decade into the new millennium, the arc of its first century is becoming increasingly clear, and those who hope to shape it are acting.

By 2050, in a world fluid in every way, there will have emerged a small set of worldwide “idea capitals”—centers of intellectual, cultural and educational activity (what I call the “ICE” economy) that will be both the engines of creativity, entrepreneurship and economic activity and magnets for those who will drive these centers to even higher levels of achievement.

Will New York be one of them? The answer turns on how well our leaders grasp the challenges they face, the assets they possess, and the strategic context in which they are operating.

Idea capitals will be defined by very human elements. Universities see this every day as they seek to attract and retain faculty: The most intellectually energetic scholars want to live in an environment that is as alive as they are; a leading genomicist wants to talk not only to other great genomicists but also to great philosophers, political scientists and artists, and to listen to a great orchestra and attend great plays.

What is true for faculty is true for the core personnel in any “talent enterprise.” From biotech to hedge-fund management, the existence of industry-specific advantages will be necessary but not sufficient to attract businesses and the talented people they need. A workforce with relevant skills and government inducements to businesses are important tactical elements in building tomorrow’s economic centers, but only tactical. Workforces are mobile, and inducements can be trumped by greater inducements elsewhere. Ultimately, the determinative strategic element in building an “idea capital” will be the quality of its ICE sector.

And here is the insight increasingly grasped by leaders around the world: Research universities will be principal incubators and drivers of the ICE sector. Universities attract and retain the innovators and entrepreneurs who undergird the knowledge economy. Great universities produce ideas and attract people who both perform and consume the array of intellectual, cultural and educational activities that will characterize the world’s idea capitals.

Happily, New York enjoys a preeminent position both in higher education and in the other elements of the ICE sector, providing a strong base upon which to build. Our state is home to 14 of our nation’s top 100 colleges and universities, more than any other state except California. Six New York universities are among our nation’s top 50 research medical centers. As a result, New York is the top destination for new undergraduates leaving their home state for college. From science to economics, from law to the arts, New York’s great universities are a vital asset to ensure its place in the world.

But securing a place for New York as an idea capital won’t just happen. It will require a new compact between the state, the city, the private and public universities and the K-12 system.

It will require building a K-12 system that will be one of the reasons talented people are drawn to New York, and not be a reason for them to hesitate.

It will require massive investment to maintain and enhance excellence across our great universities (and not just in science) and the political will and discipline to gear it to solidifying New York as an idea capital.