Save cities, unlock ivory towers

America's cities are facing challenges on a scale not experienced in 25 years. The weak economy and lingering effects of Sept. 11 have placed an inordinate strain on budgets. Cities have had to narrow economic and social agendas, focusing on the most immediate needs of their citizens.

As a result, decisions are sometimes made without long-term planning or exploring partnerships that may have the potential to bridge some of the gaps.

That's why we now need to reexamine relations between cities and one of their greatest resources - universities.

History shows that universities and cities can create dynamic partnerships ideally suited for posing questions, creating new knowledge, and developing solutions that have long-term social and economic benefits - and global impact.

One such solution can be found in the Cleveland public-school system today, where every pupil receives dental sealant treatments from first-year dental students at Case Western Reserve University.

Everyone in this partnership wins: school children receive long-term oral health benefits, the city lowers its overall health costs, dental students get early clinical experience, mentoring relationships get formed to promote a more diverse healthcare work force, and population-based outcomes research will ultimately inform oral-health policy and practice worldwide.

Groundbreaking research at Johns Hopkins University led to a systematic approach to urban public-school reform that has consistently demonstrated that all children are learners, regardless of economic background.

The program that evolved from that research - Success for All - is today used by 1 million schoolchildren in 1,500 schools nationwide, helping to turn failing schools into exciting, thriving learning environments.

A good part of the responsibility for replicating these models lies with universities, which have often been monastic and introspective.

To be an effective contributor to society, the 21st-century university needs to merge its intellectual capital with the human, political, and economic capital of our cities to help address our nation's most pressing problems.

Cities and universities need to stop looking past each other for more familiar faces in business or state and federal government. We need to initiate a national dialogue, beginning with the first "Great Universities and Their Cities" colloquium that recently took place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. This event brought together mayors of leading cities, university presidents and chancellors, and other distinguished leaders to discuss problems, share best practices, unite leadership and scholarship, and set an agenda and timetable for change.

The city and the university cannot thrive without each other. Both must work together to build real solutions to the problems we confront in these extraordinary times.

Edward M. Hundert is president of Case Western Reserve University, William R. Brody is president of Johns Hopkins University.

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