Does an urban university owe anything to the city surrounding it? A number of leaders at such institutions say, ``No.''
``Many great research institutions feel their city is the city of man and not necessarily Boston or New York,'' explains Jim Harrison, president of the Washington-based Association of Urban Universities. He estimates that only about 100 of the 400 universities located in United States cities are interested in forging a specific tie.
``There is still a widespread feeling in some universities that their mission is truth-seeking and not problem-solving,'' Mr. Harrison says.
``But I think if our cities slide, the higher education community slides with them.''
The view that cities and their universities are linked, combined with a drying up of traditional revenue, has forced many public universities to give fresh thought to the question of urban ties.
One who sees powerful benefits in such ties is George Russell, chancellor of the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
He and several local business leaders have teamed up on a number of projects at the university which would otherwise have had little or no funding from the state.
Still, he insists that everything undertaken in this public-private partnership has also been specifically selected to help Kansas City as well as the university.
A native of Missouri, this former Navy commander and physics professor moved back to the state in 1977 from a top administrative post at the University of Illinois. He says he noticed early on that Kansas City seemed to lack some of the momentum and zip he had seen here on previous visits.
Dr. Russell says he began to review a number of recommendations for the city's future, made in a 1975 report that had been largely gathering dust.
Dr. Russell says he began to realize that there were several things that the university could do to further the report's goals. And he saw that the business aid that could come the university's way could partly offset some freezes and cuts in state funds and strengthen the case with state legislators for assistance later.
In an effort to help the city become the regional health center its leaders had hoped it would, Dr. Russell is trying to establish (with the support of local business) a school of life sciences offering degrees in everything from genetics to molecular biology.
In addition, troubled Kansas City public schools are gaining both from the expertise of the university's School of Education dean (who last year wrote a critical report on the system's needs) and through daily enrichment classes on campus in math and physics for inner-city students and teachers.
Also, with some state help, the university and several local businesses are launching a for-profit Center for Business Innovation to offer financial and skilled consulting help at competitive fees to small businesses.
``Urban universities are the wave of the future,'' insists Jack McCarthy, president of the new center.
``Most corporations now want a first-class university in the city where they locate so their people can continue their education. And I think most professors, particularly in the science and business disciplines, really appreciate working with business people. It adds a degree of realism to their programs.''
Mr. McCarthy retired as a top official of United Telecommunications Inc. (UTI) last January. With his help that company and the university also launched a major new graduate-degree and research program in telecommunications and computers on campus last fall.
Instead of endowing professorial chairs as businesses often do, UTI is helping to develop and operate the program. Some of its top research scientists serve as adjunct professors as part of their regular 40-hour week.
The company is committed to contributing $500,000 worth of help for each of the first five years of the program. It is aid that few at the university think would have come from the state legislature.
Mr. Harrison of the Association of Urban Universities says the University of Missouri campus at Kansas City has a ``particularly imaginative menu of urban-oriented offerings.''
While conceding that universities must be careful to preserve academic freedom in new joint ventures, Russell says he thinks many universities are much too skittish about talking with business leaders.
``Some feel if you get too close to the real world, industry will contaminate the university,'' he says.``I'm not worried about that. We live in a very political world, and my feeling is that the more universities recognize that, the stronger they will be.''
Russell, who is active in the local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club, is regarded locally as a man who was in the right place at the right time. He took action when there was a virtual vacuum in local business leadership.
``The city was sitting around waiting for the establishment to do something -- not realizing there was then no establishment,'' says Mike Russell (no relation), editor of the Kansas City Business Journal.
The journalist describes Chancellor Russell as more interested in getting things done than in getting credit. ``He's taken the university a long way in a short time -- he's not a guy who just makes noises.''
``He's not a comfortable person if he wants you to do something,'' confirms Jack McCarthy. ``He makes you stretch . . . and there are those who don't like to be prodded as much or challenged as hard as he challenges them.''
The urban stretch is also netting solid gains in increased financial support for the Kansas City campus from private sources.
``We're raising about twice as much annually as we used to raise before George Russell came,'' says Vice-Chancellor for Development William French.
Although alumni giving has not been as strong as it is at many universities, he says, corporate and foundation help now supplies about 30 percent of this campus's budget compared with an 11 percent average for universities nationally.