For more innovation at colleges, push faculty to live near campus
Like coral reefs, universities function at their highest capacity when there are many organisms milling about and exchanging information in close proximity. Colleges should build incentives for professors to live on or close to the campus reef.
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Better yet, more US campuses could build on-site housing units, marginally subsidize utility costs, and rent them to professors, just as they do to keep students close by. Pepperdine University provides on-campus housing for professors, and its website argues that “[t]he mission of the university is enhanced when a significant number of its students, faculty, and staff are able to live in proximity to one another.”Skip to next paragraph
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Like cities and coral reefs, universities function at their highest capacity when there are many organisms milling about and exchanging information in close proximity. Steven Johnson wrote in the book “Where Good Ideas Come From” that, “you can create comparable environments [to coral reefs] on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit; in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. The patterns are simple.” Universities function most like generative ecosystems when students and faculty are attracted to the reef.
I taught for two years at The American University in Cairo, which has a magnificent campus in a growing area known as New Cairo. But the facility is a good hour from the heart of the city. Most faculty members and students live at least 45 minutes away. Professors’ hours are truncated, most students come to campus only on days they have class, and the institution is an intellectual ecosystem only in fits and starts.
“Ideas rise in crowds…. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas – whether those environments are in schools or corporations or governments or our own personal lives – we need to keep that history in mind.”
The fact that living near one’s work is a good thing is not revelatory, of course. It’s just common sense. The question is whether universities can identify incentives that keep professors closer to the campus coral and that generate a compelling return. Eduardo Porter wrote in his book “The Price of Everything” that “[m]oving people requires a price.” So does innovation.